A Farm Trip by Brian Surguine

A sugar beet field. Michigan's Thumb is one of the few areas in the world that grows this significant crop.

A sugar beet field. Michigan's Thumb is one of the few areas in the world that grows this significant crop.

Ever since I read Dan Barber's "The Third Plate," I have been obsessed with food. Where does my food come from? How is it grown? Is it feasible to grow the majority of my food intake in a modest garden plot, or does that require more land? These are just a few of the questions floating around my mind. While I have taken small steps with planting my own vegetables and milling my own grain, I realize I still have so much to learn about sustaining myself from the land while remaining ecologically sensitive.

Jess (left) and Rita, sitting in a combine harvester (a machine that combines reaping, threshing, and winnowing into one process). These vehicles are BIG - you have to climb a ladder to get to the driver's seat.

Jess (left) and Rita, sitting in a combine harvester (a machine that combines reaping, threshing, and winnowing into one process). These vehicles are BIG - you have to climb a ladder to get to the driver's seat.

Recently, my friend Jess Letaw became connected with Rita Herford, a farmer at Gentner-Bischer Farms in Michigan's Thumb. Rita invited us to visit her farm; Jess and I were curious about what large-scale farming looked like, and we wanted to know how some of the most important parts of our food economy are grown. It was also a great opportunity to learn directly from a farmer. We eagerly accepted Rita's offer.

Sweet corn in the foreground, with taller field corn in the background.

Sweet corn in the foreground, with taller field corn in the background.

Gentner-Bischer Farms primarily grows four crops: wheat, dry beans, sugar beets, and corn. We had arrived just after the wheat harvest, but we could see the well-established corn, beans, and sugar beets in sprawling, verdant fields.

A brief tour of some of the farm equipment. Left: Combines. Right: A German-made Maus, designed for sugar beet harvesting.

A brief tour of some of the farm equipment. Left: Combines. Right: A German-made Maus, designed for sugar beet harvesting.

Rita is passionate about educating others about farming, and was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to teach us how a modern, large-scale farm operates. I was taken aback by how sophisticated some of the equipment was. One relatively new purchase was the Maus, a German-made vehicle specially designed for harvesting sugar beets very efficiently.

Left: the front end of the Maus. Right: A sugar beet, which will eventually face some serious German efficiency.

Left: the front end of the Maus. Right: A sugar beet, which will eventually face some serious German efficiency.

The front of the Maus featured a plow and no less than seven rotating conveyors to clean and channel the beets through the machine and into a waiting truck. Because sugar beets increase in value the longer they stay in the ground, but need to be harvested at the first sign of frost, the Maus allows Rita to delay the sugar beet harvest until the last possible moment, maximizing the farm's return.

Michigan grows some of the best dry beans in the world. Apparently, Michigan beans are highly desirable in Mexico.

Michigan grows some of the best dry beans in the world. Apparently, Michigan beans are highly desirable in Mexico.

Another surprising revelation was how technology was being integrated into the farming process. Gentner-Bischer tracks fuel use per acre to save money and cut down on emissions, and carefully calculates the amount of fertilizer needed for each crop. The farm has also installed programmable drain tile caps to limit the amount of waterborne fertilizer runoff. The drain tile caps improve both groundwater maintenance and the effectiveness of applied fertilizer.

An ear of sweet corn, exposed.

An ear of sweet corn, exposed.

As fascinating as the machinery and technology was, I was most impressed with Rita's deep knowledge of the land and her crops. It wasn't just how she talked about her work, but also in the way she did her work: the quick but caring flick of a wrist as a weed was pulled away from a bean bush; the skilled tear of a corn husk to reveal the kernels underneath.

Left: Rita in a sugar beet field. Right: Clover planted as a cover crop.

Left: Rita in a sugar beet field. Right: Clover planted as a cover crop.

Sometimes, farmers get a bad reputation for things like contributing to algae blooms and neglecting to care for soil. From what I could see, Rita not only actively tries to improve her farm's processes where she can, but also cares deeply about the land she farms.

The conservationist Aldo Leopold once cautioned against becoming so disconnected from the land that we might assume obtaining food comes at little effort or cost. After meeting Rita and seeing the kind of work she puts into her farm, I have a much better appreciation of what it takes to grow food for our heavily populated world, while caring for the land at the same time. The entire system is more complicated than I anticipated: Farming is a complex operation, involving deep local knowledge and advanced logistical skills. Balancing large-scale production while being sensitive to the effects farming has on the land is a challenging undertaking for any farmer.

A wet March by Brian Surguine

Our humble apartment, with a college architecture project still serving as a trusty lamp.

Our humble apartment, with a college architecture project still serving as a trusty lamp.

March was cold and damp, and, as a result, I took a lot of pictures indoors. Instead of the beautiful summer pictures from my last post, you'll get gloomy shots with an expired roll of Kodak Tri-X!

Soft hands, hard light.

Soft hands, hard light.

The film experiments continue, this time with a Kowa Six I recently acquired. The Kowa is a Japanese copy of a Hasselblad - it's a bruiser of a camera, with a big mirror and a big 80mm f/2.8 lens for its big 2 1/4" square negative. Big, big, big.

About to brave the rain. By the way, "Wild Ones" is a great read.

About to brave the rain. By the way, "Wild Ones" is a great read.

I'm not sure how I feel about shooting in square format. It feels weird when you're composing, but I really like how the pictures look. There's just so much detail and subtlety in medium format images, and the square frame introduces a different geometric bias than a rectangular frame.

A birthday coffee at Zingerman's.

A birthday coffee at Zingerman's.

To be honest, I'm not sure how much I'll use the Kowa, or how far I'll be able to pursue shooting film. I bought the Kowa because I wanted to see how far I would take the film experiment in medium format, or if it shooting film was even worth pursuing. After just one roll, I was hooked on shooting film, but undecided on the camera - it's just not that practical for my regular work, but it's a nice change for personal projects. It might make a nice portrait camera, especially with the softer optics on the 80mm f/2.8 lens.

Interruptions.

Interruptions.

I am really beginning to enjoy how film forces me to slow down and think about what I'm shooting. The different film stocks are also fun to experiment with, and Tri-X is a just wonderful. "Luscious" is the word that comes to mind: beautiful, subtle gray tones, with just the right amount of contrast. Love it, love it, love it.

Scenes from a Beach by Brian Surguine

Silver Beach, Saint Joseph MI

Silver Beach, Saint Joseph MI

Last summer, my friend Blaine Siesser lent me his Mamiya RB67 and said: "go forth and shoot film." (Not really, but the gesture essentially boiled down to that.) With a roll of Ektar 100 in hand, I set off - and had no idea what to do.

By the time I got around to taking pictures, the digital revolution was firmly underway. My exposure to film (ha) was limited to a few disposable cameras, my dad's old Olympus OM-1, and some prints my dad had made sitting around the house. Film was scary, because it was unfamiliar. Each exposure with a 6x7 format camera costs about $1, and that doesn't include developing, scanning, and the camera itself. And now I had to take a picture without the security of checking it on a screen after, or working on it in Lightroom.

St. Joseph Pier, south side. I go for a walk here whenever I get a chance.

St. Joseph Pier, south side. I go for a walk here whenever I get a chance.

Today, I got my scans back after finally sending in a couple of rolls for developing. I have to say: I don't know why I was so worried. Even with Ektar, which is more finicky with exposure than other color negatives like 400H and Portra, the scans look wonderful.

Marsie in summer garb. That focus fall-off... *unintelligible noises*

Marsie in summer garb. That focus fall-off... *unintelligible noises*

I plan to shoot a lot more film this year. Most of it will probably be 6x6 or 645 format, but I really hope to shoot 6x7 again soon. There's something about 6x7 that speaks to me - the detail, the way focus falls off, the beautiful rendering on a large negative - it's very alluring.

Anyone know this guy? I'd love to send him this picture.

Anyone know this guy? I'd love to send him this picture.

All of these pictures were taken last summer, on Silver Beach in Saint Joseph Michigan.

Behind the Image: Group Hug by Brian Surguine

Weddings are an opportunity to celebrate a momentous life event, surrounded - in this case, quite literally - by friends and family. After the morning rehearsal, Callie, her bridesmaids, and both moms gathered to pray together before getting ready for the ceremony. This was taken right after, as Callie was enveloped in an outpouring of love and support. (I can't figure out how many people are hugging her.)

Technical stuff: Shot on my X100T at f/2.2, 1/60s. The silent leaf shutter lets me get right in the mix, so it feels like you're in the huddle.