Saturday, May 17, 2008

Pictures on the Land: Dutchess County "Farm Again" crop art, Steven Durland

(This story appeared in High Performance #68, Winter 1994.)

"Green Apple with Worm," an 18-acre crop art work by Barton Orchards. Photograph by Ward Miller.

Farmers are in trouble in Dutchess County, a rural area about 100 miles north of New York City. "Dutchess County is rated as one of the dozen most threatened farming areas in the country," notes Norman Greig, a fruit and dairy farmer from Red Hook. "We've gone from hundreds of dairy farms to less than 50 in a span of [30] years."

Dismayed by the fact that so many of his neighbors were selling their farms and moving on, Greig decided that something needed to be done. So in 1993, inspired by an article he'd clipped out of the NY Times in 1987 about Kansas crop artist Stan Herd (see HP #40, Winter 1987), Greig approached the local Farm Bureau, Dutchess County Tourism, the Cooperative Extension Service and the Dutchess County Planning Commission with a bold plan. He proposed to try to interest as many area farmers as possible in creating their own crop art pieces. The goal would be to draw attention to farmers' issues, and let people know that farming is still a viable concern.

The response was gratifying. "There was really no money available," says Greig, "but the Farm Bureau got behind the program and helped us connect with the farmers. Tourism produced the brochure and acted as a clearinghouse for press and the public. Cooperative Extension acted as a technical consultant for the individual projects and Planning helped coordinate all the groups." Twenty farmers responded to the plan in the Spring and 14 actually got all the way through to completion on their individual crop art projects by Fall 1994. About three-quarters of them created their own designs, the rest worked with artists.

Some of the works were best viewed from the air. Others could be seen from nearby roads. Greig himself created a two-acre maze carved into his field (pictured opposite) that could be walked through on the ground or viewed as a graphic image from the air. Barton Orchards produced a petroglyphic image of a green apple with a worm in it over 18 acres (above). Most designs were thematic to the farms that participated. Stony Kill Farm, a beef and crop farm, did a 1/4-acre "Stony Kill Grazing Cow" while Moody Hill Farm Market created a 1/4-acre "Floral Field" and the five-acre "Mixed Vegetables." F.W Battenfeld and Son, a Christmas tree and wholesale florist farm, produced a two-acre "Battenfeld's Christmas Tree."

The works were on view at various times from June through October, depending on the growing season of the field. Dutchess County Tourism provided directions and tours to the various artworks and even arranged for viewings in airplanes, open cockpit bi-planes and hot-air balloons.

I raised the question of why they chose art rather than more traditional lobbying vehicles. Greig considered it a natural response. "I think farmers are artists, whether they realize it or not," he said. "It's a similar commitment and a similar aesthetic and that's what keeps farmers coming back." And why landscape-scale crop art? Greig pointed out that all you have to do is look at an aerial view of farmland to see that it's already a work of art, so crop art just calls attention to the fact.

Once the project had started, Greig contacted Herd to see if he would be willing to act as a resource. It turned out that Herd was about to begin working on a one-acre piece in Manhattan. "He was used to working in farm country where neighbors come and help," said Greig, "but there was no help in New York City. So I ended up bringing topsoil and equipment down from my farm 100 miles north and helping him complete the piece." In return Herd became a valuable consultant for the Dutchess County farmers.

The crop art project actually accomplished more than just calling attention to Dutchess County farmers, it brought tourists to view the work as well. "Agri-tourism is an important new concept," said Gina Benjamin of Dutchess County Tourism. She explained that in addition to the art visitors can enjoy the County's fresh produce stands, pick-your-own farms and award-winning wineries.

Greig also talked about the shift from wholesale farming to retail farming. "In 1985 I was approximately 90% wholesale, but I knew that if I wanted to stay I had to become retail. Now we're 80% retail."

One of the primary causes driving this change is the state's property taxes. "Property taxes are assessed on what's called 'highest and best use'," notes Greig, "and the State of New York views farmland as just vacant land waiting to someday have a house on it." This means the taxes farmers pay are exorbitant compared to their income. Greig pointed to a recent study that compared similar farms in Massachusetts and New York. The Massachusetts farm paid $1800 annually in property taxes, the New York farm $25,000. "That's a living for somebody," he noted ruefully.

Was the project a success? "It was daunting at first, but we got a lot of publicity about it," said Greig, "and we got the word out that Dutchess County is still a farm county." But he also noted that it is not a one-year project. "The goal is to create a sustainable agriculture in the future. Anything we can do to connect farmers to the public is an ongoing project that will take years. Then we will be able to continue to farm here."

The project seems to have generated its own momentum. The formal unveiling of Crop Art last fall also launched a comprehensive eight-step economic development initiative called Farm Again, that aims to strengthen the relationship between Dutchess County farms and tourism.

Will they do it again next year? "Crop art is like any other crop," said Greig. "When you've done it once you discover how it happens and you overcome some of the problems. I think some of the farmers will continue to do these whether or not we formally continue the program." Benjamin was even more optimistic: "It will just get bigger and better for next year."

From an art standpoint, one can't help but note the precedents, especially the Minimal and Conceptual Earth Artists of the late '60s and '70s—Smithson, Oppenheim, Holt, Morris and others, many of whom did at least some of their creating in New York State. But these farmers don't seem to share the art "self-conciousness" of this recent avant-garde. Herd is a contemporary influence, but perhaps what they all share is a mytho-poetic respond to land — the process of birth, growth, harvest and hybernation — that has inspired artists and farmers since the beginning of time to celebration and expression. They are creating art as part of the process of creating sustenance. "There's nothing new about crop art," notes Greig. "It goes back hundreds and even thousands of years."

Steven Durland is the editor of High Performance magazine.

This story originally appeared in High Performance #68, Winter 1994

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