Eyes Searching for a More Sustainable Agriculture
By Jerry DeWitt
Every week they were dead, on the lawn, and it was my Saturday task to pick them up and bury them. They were robins and not just one, but several and sometimes a half dozen or more. It was the mid 1950s and as a boy I lived on a small farm in Iroquois County, Illinois, the heart of massive governmental aerial spraying of pesticides to control Japanese Beetles. The sprays were effective and killed millions of beetles but also forced their deadly impact on other insects, the robins, quail, pheasants, and sheep. And some even suspect the farm families and citizens too. Rachel Carson, the late great environmental writer, was one of those who was outraged and questioned these tactics. She brought Iroquois County to the attention of the world in her classic work, Silent Spring. Her immediate outrage was my later beginning. I read her work and made the connections, which soon began to shape my life’s work. 

I am an educator. I teach adults about agriculture. I work for Iowa State University Extension and am a Professor of Entomology. My farm roots led me through formal education in zoology, entomology, and ecology at Eastern Illinois University and graduate degrees at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign through the turbulent 60s and early 70s. Armed with a camera during those years, I focused on campus life for the local campus newspaper and yearbook, all the while visioning a career of wildlife photography. 

I never took the steps down the path to be a wildlife photographer. Instead, I found myself in the 80s working in the Midwest in the midst of a devastating farm crisis as an educator trying to bring answers and hope to a bewildered farm population. Men and women on the land and from generations of solid farm families extending some more than 100 years on the farmstead were being forcefully removed from their farms. Suddenly farms were not “big enough”, profit was not there, what worked in the past was not today’s answer, markets were not as accessible, and greed seeped into the landscape. And as Kansan Wes Jackson said, “some farmers were more interested in having their neighbors land rather than having neighbors”.  I sensed that the “culture” seemed to have oozed from the word of agriculture.  

But as I looked across the land, I found a refreshing set of individuals with core values seeking to make choices that truly moved them towards sustainability. Farm families that had a sense of balance between profit and environmental stewardship. Those that looked for needed, but appropriate profit, but balanced that need with the possible impacts on their family, neighbors, and community. These individuals cared for their land for today and the future and had a sense of community spirit and sharing. They had a vision of the future and were innovators and sharers. I found these demonstrated attributes as an approach, which held hope to bring “culture” back to agriculture. This needed to be captured.  

I have turned to photography to enhance the impacts of my educational work with farm families. Research show that little of the spoken word is retained after only several weeks in formal educational settings, but words enhanced by images dramatically improves the retention and understanding of the message. Further research show that one of the more trusted and reliable sources of information in agricultural education is the neighbor or other farmer. My interest in photography is capturing those on-farm images which covey a sense of hope and optimism for a more sustainable agriculture for our farm families. I have turned to the farms and farm families for the answers.  I find myself moving to a new plateau of needed skills to better serve my audience in agriculture which includes the integration of traditional observation and research methodologies, coupled with the technologies of the still image, video, and audio. I sense it is a move towards integration, rather than replacement. In a sense, my toolbox now is filled with more than a computer, calculator, and notebook.  

The camera now allows me to capture more than I could ever see before. It causes me to slow down and actively search and study the rural landscape for the answers. I am taught patience. I walk the fields and look for the patterns and shapes across the land. I seek the evidence of the hand of the farmer who has connected to the land in some manner as he has moved toward sustainability. I capture that change and I attempt to bring the image to fellow farmers for their connection, recognition, and adoption. Farmers learn from farmers. I learn from farmers. But in reality, I bring something more powerful than simply an image to the screen or page for the farm families struggling toward a more sustainable agriculture. I bring options and choices. And I bring hope. My eyes are always searching for a more sustainable agriculture.

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