American farmer

book review

American Farmer
Pictures by Paul Mobley
Text by Katrina Fried
Welcome Books, October 2008

A farmer wrote our Declaration of Independence, and farmers fought for that independence. It was even a farmer (George Washington) who became Revolutionary General and then first president, to be followed in the presidency by yet another accomplished and learned farmer, John Adams.

Farmers are just as important to America now as they were in 1776.

When Paul Mobley set out to photograph the farmers who are the heart and soul of our nation he eventually covered thirty states. The result was a 275 page book with more than 150 full color and black and white photographs.

Being a farmer myself, I can read between the lines of each picture. I can smell the burlap and feel the humid summer heat. I feel the tickle in my nose from hay dust, and I know about the burn one gets from the hot vinyl seat cover in the cab of an ancient pickup truck. I understand the threadbare clothes and labor stained ball caps, shy smiles, sweaty t-shirts, and the bent brim of a straw hat. Those of us who live and work on the farm know that style consciousness is not at the fore of farm work. Some of us dress better than others. But we spend our days with nature, and nature doesn’t care if we have a hole in our overalls or a spot on our shirt.

Nature only cares about how we do our job.

If I have a criticism of Paul Mobley, it is that there is a sameness about his pictures that doesn’t always show how the farmers do their jobs. The color photos seem too bright, almost pretty, the poses sometimes too rigid. But I’ve been photographed myself a few times, and the toughest thing for a farmer to do is look natural while someone nearby holds a camera. Mr. Mobley had his work cut out for him. It’s not that his final product is unnatural”¦. far from it. The people in his scenes are as real as a perfect sunset or a field of ripened wheat. If there is an uncommon sense to Mr. Mobley’s photography, it is that so many of these farmers are standing in one spot, silent, still, motionless.

DAvid McDaniel and his sons

David McDaniel and family, of Tennessee
Photo: Paul Mobley

Farmers are a restless people, with hands always at the ready. Seldom do you see those work-hardened hands in a pocket. Empty handed farmers look more comfortable holding a lead rope, a hammer, or a handful of grain. And sometimes those hands hold our most cherished product: the next generation. You’ll see pictures of that too.

If there is one print in the entire book that could be labeled as stereotypical, it is at the very front showing the hands of Robert Hammond gently cradling a handful of Maine blueberries. Clearly Robert’s hands are hard as nails, but they hold those berries soft as velvet. Roberts hands are typical.

La Dene Rutt

La Dene Rutt
Photo: Paul Mobley

Farmers joke and laugh. We talk about the weather and shake our heads at the government. We deliver breech birthed calves, chase errant pigs, and drive to town to visit the banker. We each harvest different living things, but all of us work with life, nature, and hardship.

It isn’t just an aging process that creates craggy, wrinkled faces. If I could add a picture or two, I would show a blizzard, a thunderstorm, a drought or maybe a flood. I would show dust storms, plagues of insects, ruined fields, fallen markets, and debt. But perhaps those pictures are unnecessary, because if the reader looks close enough he can see them all on the visage of people like La Dene Rutt or Larry Gabel.

If you look again you can see pride, pride not in produce or monetary wealth, but in family: David McDaniel of Tennessee with his sons, or the three generations of the Bell family and Tide Mill Farms.

As Paul Mobley shows the story, Katrina Fried tries to tell it in the words of the subjects themselves. Each lifetime spent on the farm is a compilation of experience and knowledge that can be matched by no text book or college course. There is no substitute for living and doing. Most of all there is no replacement for the multi-generational American Farmer.

Bell family American farmer
Three generations of the Bell family
Photo: Paul Mobley

You can buy the book and study the pictures. You can read the stories of who they are and what they believe, you can learn the secrets of their success. But to really understand America’s farmers, you just have to be one.

“America’s Farmers, the Heart of Our Country” is the next best thing to that.

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