Photos for Thought - The Dutchess Farm to Table Project

September 22, 2017

What are your thoughts on farm-to-table? If I could turn back the clock and ask someone living in Pawling a hundred years ago, I would be met with a puzzled look. “As opposed to what?” they may have thought. What is now a social movement was simply the way everything worked in our great grandparent’s day. There was no choice but to “eat local.”

With the rise of factory farming and monocultures (vast fields of a single crop like corn or soy), smaller farms are under an ever-increasing threat of annihilation. However, thanks to the rise in popularity of farmer’s markets, Community Supported Agriculture (known as CSAs), and restaurants dedicated to using local produce, there may yet be some hope. Many farmers, ranchers, chefs, writers, and environmentalists, laud the rise of farm-to-table movement and its beneficial effect on our food system – promoting more sustainable agricultural practices and getting fresher and therefore more nutrient-rich food on our tables. The movement has grown to encompass the creation of artisanal food products, elevating “made from scratch” to a quasi art form. That said, are you a bit skeptical when you hear the words farm-to-table? Do you think it’s elitist? Something only tattooed hipsters with man-buns enjoy in gastropubs? Well if so, you are not exactly alone. The farm-to-table movement does have its critics.

Enter Steven Steele Cawman and “Dutchess: Farm to Table.”
 
Who Makes It All Happen?
Cawman is a travel photographer who has captured spectacular scenery all over the world, from the rice fields of Bali to the waterfalls of Iceland. About a year ago he decided to train his lens on subjects closer to home: local participants of the farm-to-table movement. We’ve all seen Crown Maple Syrup in stores or picked up a loaf of Pawling Bread Co. sour dough at the farmer’s market, but Cawman wanted to know how do they get there and who makes it happen? And do these makers really breathe a more rarified, pre-industrial air? What he found might just surprise you. (Spoiler alert: they’re not hipsters, just regular folks from all walks of life who are really passionate about what they do).

“Dutchess Farm to Table” began as a personal project to photograph farms in our area. When Cawman moved to the area from Connecticut in 2012, he immediately noticed the wealth of farm goods grown and produced in our area. He joined the CSA at Fishkill Farms. “There I met some members of the farm crew who are from Jamaica and working here as part of the H1-B visa program,” Cawman says. “They told me how their work supports their families back home. It got me thinking about all the people behind the scenes involved in bringing locally grown and made products to market.”
With a background in literature, film, and marketing, Cawman sensed that there was a compelling story to be told. Cawman wanted to learn about not just the final result, but all the people and the steps involved in the journey from farm to table.

He began by reaching out to locals he knew were involved in the movement. “People were so gracious with introductions,” he says. “Things really snowballed in a great way, I quickly went from having a just few connections and participants to having more than enough.”
 
Telling Stories
In March of this year, Cawman learned he was the recipient of a grant he had applied for in the fall of 2016. An essential requirement of The Decentralized Grant program grant funded by Arts Mid-Hudson was that the work reflect some aspect of a particular community’s life or culture in the mid-Hudson region. Cawman’s idea of shooting Dutchess County locals involved in farm-to-table production was a perfect fit:  “I was going to move forward even if I didn’t receive outside funds, so getting the notification was great news.”

For this project, typically Cawman starts the process with an informal session – no camera, just a chat to get to know his subject and a chance to find out what they do, and also scope out their workspace. Cawman wanted to do more than just capture the places and the people; he wanted to tell their stories.  

So far he has visited more than a dozen distilleries, restaurants, farms, and markets, and photographed portraits of bakers, brewers, beekeepers, and the makers of many more local goods. The experience really opened his eyes to the extent of work that goes into bringing a product to market. “I was surprised to find the complex and fascinating production of maple syrup at Crown Maple just a few miles from my house,” he says. “I hadn’t fully grasped the scale of the operation.” Among the subjects Cawman met with are Pawling residents Cynthia Kinahan of Pawling Bread Co. (featured in the May 19, 2017 issue of The Pawling Record) and Theresa Ryan, shepherd and weaver. Theresa and her husband live on a property they call Oblong Station and raise a breed of sheep known as Finnsheep.

“Occasionally I would look out to catch Steve in the barn doorway or sitting in the pasture, and all of the sheep would be crowding around him,” says Theresa Ryan. “Their curiosity had them nibbling his camera lens and tugging at his camera strap.”
 
Lens of Plenty
The arc of the project has been to follow each subject over the course of this year’s growing season. Cawman is wrapping up a selection of photographs to display this fall (see below). Of the people he has followed through this project, Cawman has this to say: “They were all incredibly humble, but they take a lot of pride in their work and are really great at what they do.” He hopes that by viewing his photographs and getting to know the process and people behind the products, residents of Hudson Valley and beyond will gain a better appreciation for the amazing bounty we are blessed with in our area. “It is much easier than many think to support local producers.”

Cawman believes people will go out of their way to patronize these local creators once they realize the high quality they’re getting when they do.
Browsing through a selection of the photographs, I was impressed not only with their visual beauty but also with their variety and breadth. They capture a field of sunflowers with their golden-fringed heads bent in solemn contemplation, dew-covered purple heirloom tomatoes, frothy rows of blooming cherry trees, as well as the hands that pick cherries, that spin wool, and knead dough. And the faces – of a bee-keeper behind her screened head gear, of a chef glowing from the heat of his flaming pan. The animals – a regal turkey as yet unaware of its destiny, the docile gaze of a dairy cow, the tagged ear of a sheep. And finally to market – bottles of ale, caps dipped in wax; crusty loaves of sourdough cooling on a floury rack; a dish of pasta sauced with tomatoes and topped with fresh basil. It’s all there, from soil to table setting.

Over 200 of the images will be exhibited as part of the Fishkill Farms Fall Harvest Festival the weekend of October 7 – 8. For a sneak peak, visit Cawman’s website at www.sscphoto.com. Cawman will also be giving an interview on WPWL (Pawling Public Radio) and you’ll be able to view a selection of his work at the station later this fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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