Photography exhibit lends faces and voices to vanishing lifestyle of the local farmer

On the Farm

March 18, 2007|By Ted Shelsby

Farming has been a way of life in Maryland since the first European settlers set foot on St. Clements Island in 1634. But it is a tradition and a lifestyle that has been disappearing from the landscape at an alarming rate in recent decades.

Since 1970, Maryland has lost more than 36 percent of its farms and nearly 34 percent of its farmland. The state's farms and farmland have been vanishing at a rate that is nearly four times the national average. The same is true in neighboring states, especially Delaware, which has lost more than 40 percent of its farms over the past 36 years.

Though farms are disappearing, one artist is endeavoring to see that the images of farming life are preserved.

Photographer Kathleen Buckalew's work is the subject of an exhibit called The Face of Farming at Milburn Stone Memorial Theater and Gallery of Cecil Community College. In the 65 photographs that make up the exhibit, Buckalew captures scenes of a labor-intensive way of life that is less prevalent.

"What I have tried to do is document what is happening on our farms from the personal viewpoints of farmers," she said.

While the photos primarily depict farms in Delaware, the images mirror the state of farm life in Maryland, as well, said Cheryl Kraus, an administrative assistant at the college's Community Cultural Center.

"The pictures are symbolic of what's happening in Maryland, which is losing farms at an alarming rate," Kraus said.

Buckalew, 51, is the staff photographer in the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del. Despite her interest in capturing scenes of agricultural life, she was not raised on a farm.

"I'm not even a gardener," she said recently as she walked through her exhibit at the college. "But I love farms. I love the farm views."

Many of the photographs are portraits of farmers. Each image is accompanied by a text block reflecting the farmer's perspective on a vanishing lifestyle.

In an excerpt from the text that accompanies a portrait of Hap Cook, the dairy farmer from Newark, Del., reflects on his years of work:

"I've been lucky in my lifetime to live here on this farm and raise my kids here. I'll be here until the day I die. It feels good to walk on land that I own, I don't have to sell it.

"I like farming because I like to see the crops grow. I like seeing calves being born and I like playing in the dirt. You couldn't chase me away from here with a stick."

Ernie Vogl, a dairy farmer in Harrington, Del., celebrates a similar feeling of independence:

"I like being my own boss, watching crops grow, seeing new life coming onto the farm when a calf is born. This is what I love to do."

Ruth Linton, who operates a 7-acre fruit and vegetable farm in North Wilmington, Del., is philosophical about the farming life:

"Every time you plant a seed, it's a measure of faith. You're trusting that this little seed that you're putting into the ground, which you then cover up with dirt, so you can't see it, is going to do something.

"That's part of the whole mystery of faith - this magical stuff happens. It is like watching creation all over again. Farming is very meditative for me. I like working with plants and being respectful of them."

And Richard Swartzentruber, who runs a 117-acre organic livestock farm with chickens and beef cattle in Greenwood, Del., asserts the role of the small farmer:

"I really feel that this kind of farming could revive the rural American economy. Doing an organic farm makes the small family farm feasible once again.

"I like this way of farming so much more than I did before. I feel that God has endowed us with His creation, and it's up to me to be a good steward of what we have."

Buckalew's hope is to someday have her work published as a book.

Her photographs, most of them black and white, will be on display in the theater's hallway and gallery room until April 27.

The exhibit is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., or by appointment.

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