What We Eat and Why It Matters

Prose by Robert J. Cabin + Photography by Ashley Sterling Lowe

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Voices and Images from North Carolina Small Farmers

On the first day of my agroecology class at Brevard College, a small liberal arts school in the mountains of Western North Carolina, I ask my students to write about what they think we should eat and why they think what we eat might matter. Most cobble together a few rote paragraphs sprinkled with words such as “healthy,” “natural,” “organic,” and “sustainable.”

Farmers. Photo by Ashley Sterling Lowe.

They seem to have an innate sense that they probably shouldn’t be eating all that fast food and highly processed food-like substances. Some have nostalgic memories of the produce from their grandparents’ garden or the pickled beans in their great aunt’s cupboard. But it soon becomes readily apparent that they don’t really know what this healthy, natural, organic, sustainable food might actually be, where they might find some, what they would do with it, or whether or not they would even like it.

After collecting their essays, I explain that we will be exploring different facets of this question through readings, labs, movies, and numerous field trips to local small farms. On each of these trips, after their initial show-and-tell, I ask the farmers if at all possible to put us to work. Many students have never done farm work before; some do not know how to handle a shovel or maneuver a wheelbarrow, let alone weed, plant a seed, or harvest a carrot.

We discover that farm work can be hard, highly skilled, tedious, and immensely gratifying, often all at the same time. We experience the joy of picking and eating a warm tomato; sticking our hands in deep, rich soil; and working together in beautiful places with inspiring people. We notice that some of these farmers are quite old, and that their kids are not following in their footsteps. Few of them are making any real money (many have regular off-farm jobs to make ends meet), and in some cases developers are circling their farms like buzzards.

This year, at the end of our first field trip, on a whim I asked the farmer to give us his 30-second answer to the “what should we eat and why does it matter” question. Without hesitation, he delivered an eloquent and pithy response. This inspired me to continue asking this question to the rest of the farmers we met.

At the end of the semester, after a meal in which we cook and eat food from the farms we visited, the students present synopses of their independent projects. They typically do things like build cold frames and worm bins, grow herbs and vegetables, make jams and cheeses, and perform agricultural experiments. But this year Ashley Lowe, a student who happens to be an art major, discreetly took pictures of all the farmers, wrote down their answers to “the question,” and then turned this disparate collection of images and words into a cohesive work of art.

Farmer. Photo by Ashley Sterling Lowe.

Ashley’s portraits provide a poignant glimpse of both the diversity and commonality of the farmers of our region. Despite their often considerable physical, socioeconomic, and operational differences, all of them know and love their soil and water, plants and animals, and farms as a whole. They are all also passionate about what they do, take great pride in providing people food they believe in, and respect and support the work of their fellow farmers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these farmers tend to have a disproportionate influence on my students (and me). By the end of the semester, most of them are far less proscriptive, judgmental, and dogmatic about food and agriculture. They put less stock in words like “organic” and “sustainable.” Instead, they focus more on the importance of knowing the people that produce our food and supporting those who share our values and passions. They emphasize the importance of cooking and eating together, and taste and pleasure and community in general.

Many conclude that what we choose to eat and how we choose to eat it are in fact some of the most important decisions we ever make. As one farmer put it, all of us who are lucky enough to eat three meals a day are also voting three times a day with our wallets and our stomachs. As we come to understand, these votes have major health, environmental, economic, social, political, and even spiritual dimensions and consequences.

Gallery | What We Eat and Why It Matters
By Ashley Sterling Lowe

All images and text in this gallery copyright Ashley Sterling Lowe; images may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:


Robert J. Cabin is Associate Professor of Ecology and Environmental Science at Brevard College. He is the author of Intelligent Tinkering: Bridging the Gap Between Science and Practice and Restoring Paradise: Rethinking and Rebuilding Nature in Hawaii, and editor of An Ecosystem Approach to Sustainable Agriculture.

Ashley Sterling Lowe is an artist concentrating in photography and painting. She works as a photographer for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.