Framing the Picture

Happy birthday to us! It’s been ten years now since I started the Ladybug Letter. Writing about food, farming, and life on the land has been therapeutic, and the discipline of research and self-editing prompts me to think about why I farm. Writing has also been valuable for the insight it’s given me into how the news business works. A few years ago I got written up in the Wall Street Journal as one of three of America ’s “celebrity farmers.” I kid you not! That brush with notoriety didn’t get me a stretch limo or the conga line of dancing girls I’d always imagined that celebrity grants to those it blesses, but my mom was impressed. At least I didn’t catch the Journal’s attention for securities fraud.

Last year the New York Times did a story on “farmers that write,” and they sent out a photographer. His editors wanted a picture of me astride a huge tractor or combine. As a small-scale vegetable grower I don’t have a huge tractor or a combine, but even if I did, it would have been dishonest of me to climb on for a photo. It’s been six years since I’ve been the tractor driver, so the photographer had to settle for a heroic head shot of me looking into the future. Actually, I couldn’t even find the keys to the tractor that day to lip sync being a tractor driver. I’d told the tractor driver to hide the keys so that my landlord’s adventurous eight year old son didn’t come across them accidentally on purpose and try to start the motor. Natanael Espana drives the tractor on Mariquita Farm. He’s worked with me since 1994 and he’s grown to be a far better tractorista than I could ever be. As a modern farmer I’m hardly alone in delegating farm tasks to employees, and it’s not my problem if the way I run my business runs counter to the image of agriculture that the New York Times wishes to project.

Or maybe it is my problem! The fact that farm workers are almost invisible to the people looking down from high atop the food chain is a political problem that affects us all. This country is a democracy, but our politicians can hardly be expected to craft intelligent agricultural policies if the public views farming through a warped rear view mirror. It’s a good sign that the New York Times wants to do stories about farmers, but it would be a public service if they didn’t compose and frame the scenes they photograph from inside their cubicles. Sophisticated New Yorker image makers have a lot to learn about what actually happens down on the ground in “flyover” America . One of the reasons I put my stories out for free on the internet is that it’s the best way I can think of to connect with the people in the jet planes overhead and start a conversation about where we’re all heading in the United States with our agriculture.

One of the most “revealing” experiences I’ve had dealing with the media happened because a major national food and lifestyle magazine did an article on Mariquita Farm for their annual summertime “Produce Issue.” Actually, they intended to write about an organic vegetable farmer down in San Diego County who also grew tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Unfortunately, at the last minute the other farmer was arrested because his organic vegetable farm was a front for his hallucinogenic mushroom farm. Whoops! The major national food and lifestyle magazine didn’t want to feature a felon. The editrix was familiar with our farm through my writing. The only problem was that by the time the problem made itself manifest and she called it was already October and summer was drawing to a close.

Production deadlines are necessarily far out ahead of magazine release dates, so photos need to be taken months in advance. I told her that I was happy to be interviewed, but if they wanted photos they’d better come quickly before it rained or frosted and our growing season ended. The court photographer for the major national food and lifestyle magazine was off taking pictures of food and farmers in India , (we’ll call her Chloé) so she was unavailable. New York photo editors don’t like to count on unknowns from the sticks for pictures of tomatoes and eggplants, but given the gravity of the situation and the looming deadline, the major national food and lifestyle magazine took the risk and contracted out the photo shoot to a professional from San Francisco . (We’ll call her Alessandra.)

Alessandra showed up at the farm early in the morning under a black sky as the first storm of the season threatened the late hanging tomatoes and the last of the red and gold peppers. She brought her friend, Pia, with her to serve as an assistant. Alessandra was slender and stylish with cool glasses and loose, baggy paratrooper pants. The sun poked through the clouds and the two women went at the work hard, Alessandra snapping pictures of the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants while Pia adjusted the mirrors and screens and umbrellas they used to manage the glare and filter the light. Both women were happy to be outside in the fresh air on the farm because they’d just spent five weeks on top of a grill shooting for a barbeque cookbook and they were tired of wiping a film of smoke and atomized grease off their camera lenses every evening after work.

By noon, when the sun was high in the sky and there wasn’t much contrast, Alessandra and Pia retreated into the shade of the cottonwoods at the edge of the field to take some “cornucopia” shots the vegetables we’d gathered for them. We have a sorting table out there where Alessandra and Pia were working, and next to the table there’s a steep sided levee that rises up by the riverbank, all covered in tall weeds. Alessandra wanted to take some shots from above, looking down on the table at her tableaux of mixed summer veggies, so she scrambled up the bank. I was in the middle of the field with the guys from our harvesting crew when we heard Alessandra scream in terror. “Oh $#!%!,” I thought. “She’s stepped on a rattlesnake!” I ran to help.

“There’s a rat in my pants!” she squealed. She’d pinched off a big wad of her parachute pants in her fist about mid-thigh and I could see the captured critter wiggling through the fabric. Pia wasn’t helping her because she was hopping around down by the cameras and the tomatoes, swatting at herself, trying to make sure she didn’t get a filthy rodent up her own pants.

The only way for Alessandra to get rid of the animal was to take her pants off and shake them out. She sure didn’t want to let go of the tuft in her britches and have the rat run down her leg, so the crew watched with great interest as I got down on my knees, fumbled with Alessandra’s belt buckle, and finally slipped her pants off. Alessandra was too absorbed in the unfolding drama up to focus on being embarrassed in front of fourteen grubby farm hands, but at least her underwear were revealed to be fashionable. I shook the pants hard and out fell a little blue bellied fence lizard. Even Alessandra laughed. Then she shrieked again, but this time in rage, because she realized that in the tumult, Pia had grabbed one of the cameras and shot a sequence of images that captured the entire spectacle, from Alessandra doing a jitterbug in the weeds to the delicate removal of the pants, all the way to the discovery of the unfortunate reptile and the expressions of delight on the faces of the harvesters.

Alessandra was a good sport, and finished up her work. That night the skies opened up and it rained like the last days. Then, on a raw, cold day in February, three and a half months after Alessandra’s encounter with the unhappy lizard, Chloé showed up from New York to do the official photo shoot. She stepped gingerly out of her rented car, carefully avoiding the puddles, pulled her coat tightly around her against the wind, and asked, “Where are the eggplants?” We had a crop of fava beans growing three feet high where the eggplant had once been. Then Chloé needed to pee. She was dubious about the porta-potty, so we had to ask our landlord if the New Yorker could use the bathroom in her house. How Chloé survived rural India is a mystery to me. Maybe she never left the hotel. I’ve seen her photos, though, and she paints a lovely picture of the country life.

Copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

Note: names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Note #2: all photos linked are taken by Andy Griffin except the lizard photo.

5 Responses to “Framing the Picture”

  1. 1 Gary Boyd

    Hi Andy and Julia,

    Just wanted to a minute to say I love your stories and look forward to each “Ladybug Letter”. I stumbled upon y’all back during the spinach crisis a few years back and have been stopping in regularly ever since. Wish I lived within your localvore range so I could grab a share of the harvest.

    Keep writing Andy, I for one will keep reading…

  2. 2 Anna Maria Stone

    I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your piece in the current issue of Edible San Francisco. Great reading - funny and scary.

  3. 3 Kate Malsbury

    I have to stop reading these posts at work; I’m going to get into trouble trying to stifle my giggles. As always, an entertaining, informative, and thought provoking post; makes me wish that I’d started reading from the beginning!

  4. 4 Podchef

    What a riot! The image of photographers exposed to nature in the raw under such bizarre–yet quite everyday–circumstances. As a chef and farmer who also takes photos used around the world I can’t believe they wouldn’t use your excellent photos. It’s just another example of the disconnect between society and agriculture on all levels. Keep up the great stories!

  5. 5 chris link

    Hi Guys,

    i’ve started going back through the archives. lots of great stories here! the New Yorker article mentions that Andy was working on a book with an editor at WW Norton. Did that ever happen?


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