Organic Passion Portraits

In Author Michael Ableman’s Fields of Plenty, Farming Is a Labor of Love

Writer and photographer Michael Ableman knows a thing or two about farmers. He’s been one for some 30 years. For his latest book, Fields of Plenty (Chronicle Books, 2005), he took a summer off from farm chores and circled the United States in a beat-up VW with his son, Aaron. The two of them visited dozensof farms and discovered an abundance of local farmers growing sustainable crops with an astounding variety of methods. If American agriculture is sick — from poisonous inputs, monoculture methods, and overproduction — these folks have the remedy: local production by men and women who know and love the land. You can meet some of them on the following pages, and more of them in Ableman’s book ( — The Editors

Mary and David Falk

Like many of the farmers we visit, Mary Falk has already apologized in advance, telling me over the phone that they’ve run out of time to do any mowing around the buildings and that we should have seen the place in June. In a note sent prior to our journey, she had written, somewhat officially, “In order for you to feel comfortable here, you will need to be able to tolerate: lots of testosterone (I am the only female besides the dogs and the sheep), dogs and sheep, llama, the smell of mold in a cheese cave, the smell of mold in a wet basement, the smell of a farm, popcorn, cheese, eating late at night, puppies, a cat, a few birds.”

When we finally pull up to the farm, all the warnings seem to be accurate, but the sum total is pleasant and welcoming, and we’re immediately charmed by Mary’s openness about the life she and David have built here over the last eight years.

Ask anyone around here what to farm and they’re likely to tell you corn or milk cows. No one would ever suggest sheep, and if they did, it certainly would not be for milk or cheese. So, when Mary and David launched their sheep-dairy operation, their families and neighbors thought they’d lost their minds.

In the beginning, Mary used the fireplace in the 1897 farmhouse to do the aging and experimented on the back porch with cheeses in bamboo baskets. Eventually, she and David built their own caves in a wild section of their property. “I wanted the caves in the wildlife refuge because I wanted to capture every piece of mold and pollen and all of the representations of the flora that are down there,” Mary explains. “I wanted the tule fog coming off of the pond and the wetlands to enter the caves. Things attach to moisture. When you go out there, you can smell them. Everything has to be real for the ingredients to have real flavor.”

The cheese is truly adventurous, wrapped in vodka-soaked nettles and aged on cedar boughs. If you’ve been raised in white-bread America, eating individually wrapped sliced Swiss or orange-cheddar singles, you’d probably think twice if you saw the Falks’ cheese. Brown and crusty with ruts and holes, blue and white with brown streaks covered in leaves, the cheeses look like bad experiments gone awry. Mary’s own mother told her they look like moldy horse turds. But their customers at the St. Paul farmers’ market across the border in Minnesota seek out their classic homely and ugly look, and the cheeses have won numerous national awards with their unabashed local flavor. “We wanted to place a concentrated piece of Wisconsin into every bite,” Mary says. “I had this flavor stuck in my head like some song, and I needed to find it.”

Ken Dunn

In a Chicago Starbucks at 9:00 a.m., women wearing pink and lavender spandex line up with men in white shirts and ties and a crew of firefighters from the 30 East division to order their macciattos and lattes and Americanos. They all have cell phones attached to the sides of their heads, chattering away as if their whole lives existed somewhere else.

Outside the large glass windows that keep us cool and clean and safe, the Cabrini-Green housing project looms like a 16-story prison complex, its buildings entirely enmeshed in wire, walls blackened by smoke and windows broken and boarded up. Built in the 1950s to warehouse poor, unemployed, and primarily black residents, it has worked no better than similar experiments across the country and has gained a national reputation for poverty, violence, and desperation.

In the shadow of Cabrini-Green, two one-acre plots of land are protected with 10-foot-high chain-link-and-concertina fences. A closer look reveals that one of the plots boasts 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Striped German, Green Zebra, Black Russian, and the rest of Ken Dunn’s tomato plants grow in the composted remains of apple- and cherry-pie filling and the uneaten arugula salads and filet mignon from local high-end restaurants. On this site, Dunn has laid 1,000 tons of compost, just a fraction of the 15,000 tons of urban waste disposed of in this city each day, over a sealer layer of clay and wood chips. As I walk between the sweet, pungent rows, the ground springs back like a sponge, and if I closed my eyes and plugged my ears, it would feel like I was walking on the floor of a virgin forest.

The tomatoes don’t seem to mind the constant noise or bad air or the poverty that surrounds their little island. The plants are tall and robust and absolutely loaded. Their world is rich in nutrients and reflected warmth and light from the pavement and surrounding buildings. They thrive on the attention of local chefs who are thrilled to tell their clientele that the tomatoes on the menu were harvested down the street, that they picked them up on the way to work.

Hilario Alvarez

Hilario Alvarez slipped over the border into the United States 20 years ago to work in America’s fields. He had nothing. Now he owns a farm and employs over a hundred people.

In a neighborhood where many speak only Spanish, the funky plywood sign in front of the farm says, in English, “We Grow a Hundred Types of Vegetables.” This diversity is a source of pride for Hilario and his family. It’s also his calling card in the marketplace.

While Hilario expounds on the remarkable scope of his operation, I am thinking how amazing it is that he is even standing here in his own fields, planted with his personal vision. In this country, almost all the hoeing and harvesting and milking and pruning are done by Hispanic people, many of whom risk their lives to travel illegally across the border, like Hilario did, to grow nourishment for a nation that will no longer work in the fields. I consider the absurdity of a policy that guards the borders to keep out the very people whose hands produce our food.

The pepper field is like an out-of-control block party. Eighty-five varieties, most hot and many from Hilario’s own selections, collide in an eight-acre burlesque of color and shape. Every few feet, the variety changes; leaves shift from large green to small gray or purple, fruit from long and hornlike to round and multicolored, like lights on a Christmas tree. The fall weeds waving in the furrows add a wild dimension to an already-wild display.

There is humor in this field, a former migrant farmworker’s subconscious commentary on the ultralinear, monocultural, totally predictable fields of America’s industrial agriculture.

I tell Hilario he is crazy, that I’ve never seen anything like this before, that he should quit harvesting peppers and open up the field as a seasonal museum. I imagine docents giving tours, stopping to discuss the history and culture and use of certain varieties, the arrangement of color and shape, what the farmer was going through in his life when he planted this section or that, as if they were standing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, analyzing a Matisse or a van Gogh.

John and Ida Thurman

Farmer John Thurman chuckles as he tells me, “We’re sure not keeping up with the Joneses,” nodding toward the three rusting 20-foot trailers that house him and his wife, Ida, and their youngest seven children.

Considering the poverty that exists here, I am amazed to discover how much of John and Ida’s time and energy go into community projects: teaching youth how to grow food, providing fresh vegetables to seniors, organizing a black farmers’ cooperative.

The hand-folded, photocopied brochure for their Youth Training Program includes a list of requirements for taking part: (1) Participate four days or more per week. (2) Follow work/safety rules. (3) Join a credit union. (4) Practice regular savings. (5) Attend meetings. (6) Respect other enrollees. (7) Provide community service. (8) Take vegetables home. (9) Share what you learn with others.

The back cover closes with these words: “We have looked into the past and accepted the future. Agriculture is art, our heritage, and our future. It is our duty to preserve this small piece of Mother Earth. Our future depends on it.”

John describes his co-op as “nothing special, just a group of hardworking people trying to make something beautiful.” Each week John and Ida and their kids trek into Chicago to sell collards and sweet potatoes and beans and melons and pasture-raised chicken to the Austin farmers’ market in an all-black neighborhood that does not have a single grocery store.

At the market, John lets his kids do all of the setup and sales. He stands in the background, chatting with old friends and watching with obvious pride. “We love the way the kids get such positive reinforcement for what they do,” he says.

The crowds descend on the Thurmans’ stand, and piles of food rapidly diminish. It’s here that I see John’s real satisfaction, a sense that all the struggle is well worth it. He tells me it’s like “putting real life into somebody.”

I overhear John responding to a woman who has just heard the story of his flooded fields. She wants to know what keeps him going against such odds. I expect to hear him express some discouragement, maybe even seek out sympathy. Instead, he expresses pride and, loud enough for me and his young sons to hear, says, “If you’ve farmed for five or ten years, you can run the world. It ought to be a law that you have to farm before you can do anything else.”

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