38. Ag as Art


Vincent van Gogh: The Harvest, 1888

For over a decade, I made my living in art and media jobs: I exhibited blockbusters, produced video, snapped pictures and sold fine ethnic art. After making such a distinct pivot into a completely different line of work as an urban vegetable farmer, I often hear echoes of my artistic past as I gaze into the gardens. The backyard farm is so photogenic, with apartment buildings and schoolhouses peeking into the background. It has me thinking about all the ways that these two worlds, art and farms, intersect. The depiction of agriculture by art is so very common: think of the bucolic essence of van Gogh’s The Harvest, or the pitchfork in the center of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Wood didn’t stop there, of course, with later idyllic works like Young Corn, Fall Plowing, and Spring Turning. These portrayals of pastoral life create the lens through which the masses view this vocation we call farming.

There’s something so very attractive about a perfectly groomed garden. The symmetry, the robust color palette, and the random surprises nature tends to sprinkle in. Mother Earth does not do her work in straight lines or perfect circles. So humans, the pattern-recognizing machines that we are, find ourselves drawn to the manipulation that a well planned landscape applies to the out-of-doors.

There are entire institutions devoted to the depiction of farming in art. At Oregon State University, the Art About Agriculture program has been collecting and displaying works of art that illustrate horticulture for over 35 years. Their permanent collection includes the work of more than 150 artists and over 300 pieces! Most recently, the gallery features screen prints of eccentric chickens in an effort to examine the relationship between humans and poultry. Artist Kristie Potwora writes, “My hope is that the affectionate nature of these remarkable beings is as evident to the viewer as it is to me.”

Dave Nichols: Morning Chores, 1976

Across the country in Philadelphia, a cultivation-centric exhibit opened last month at the Studio B Fine Art Gallery under the title “Farm to Table”. A recurring annual show, the Farm, as it’s affectionately called by studio regulars, is in its 11th year and is open to submissions from the general public. And the appropriately located Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City, Nebraska has also been displaying art that connects people to the land for over a decade. Largely revolving around the permanent collection of Regionalist painter Dale Nichols, a David City native, the museum is a thriving beacon of creativity in a town of 3000 residents. Amanda Mobley Guenther is the curator at Bone Creek, and she’s pleased to be able to bring a bona-fide art museum to what many regard as flyover country. “This agrarian focus that we have, it’s perfect that we are in a small town. It immediately resonates with this community that we have art about the land,” she says. “And the majority of the people that live around here make their living from the land. So it’s not a foreign concept...”

If we all dig deep enough, it’s not a terribly foreign concept to any of us. All modern humans have an intrinsic connection to the fields and pastures from which their food comes. Most of us don’t have to trace our lineage back more than a generation or two to find ancestors who spent a lot of time with their hands in the dirt. In such a context, as creators and collectors of art, our fascination with works that highlight the beauty of gardens and landscapes is not a surprise.

radicchio planted in near-perfect rows

And the beauty works both ways, of course. Home-growers flock to arboretums and botanic gardens and annual garden shows every spring searching for inspiration that can make their own yards works of scenic art. We all have different tastes when it comes to landscaping. Whether you’re a mowed-and-manicured fescue kind of fella, or you prefer herbaceous flowering perennials, many of us find ways to express our tastes in our personal patches of dirt. I, for one, think a productive front yard that generates food crops is the most handsome statement a property can make. But as I meet with clients and customers regularly to talk about these topics, I find that not everybody sees their yard through that prism.

I think that viewing the world around you as a work of art represents a unique perspective, and can offer a real uplift to your spirit. It’s a consistent goal of mine to make things as exquisite as possible in my work. I love finishing transplanting a bed of lettuce, looking up and seeing perfectly spaced, linear lines of green in the black dirt. I want as many colors on my market stand as possible: yellow pear tomatoes, crimson radishes, purple and orange carrots, dazzling white spirals in my romanesco heads. Often I find myself thinking, as I take my phone out to snap a pic, “this is gonna be great for the ‘gram”.




our backyard: form and function

37. Hola Harvest

A guest-blog written by Cameron Terry for AfricaDirect.com.

As a small-scale vegetable farmer, I have developed a case of high-tunnel vision when it comes to my local market. At least 90% of my products in 2018 graced the plates of end-consumers within 5 miles of where those morsels were grown. Working in that paradigm, it’s easy to become hyper focused on all things local: who’s buying vegetables, who’s experimenting with cool new tastes in town, what new farmers markets are popping up, and what growers are planning to produce in the coming season. But it’s also necessary, especially during the winter off-season, when I can afford the time, to take a look at how other communities are addressing the same issues of food insecurity and sustainability that compelled me to start this business in the first place.


It’s going to take ingenuity and initiative to bring the world’s food system into a 21st century model which treats the Earth in a more equitable way. The Urban Agriculture Project’s Hola Harvest is a program gaining steam in Johannesburg that deserves our attention as we seek ways to fill gaps and reduce waste in our food system. Funded in large part by beverage giants Anheuser-Busch InBev and South African Breweries, Hola Harvest encourages and incubates young agriprenuers using rooftop farms sprinkled throughout the Johannesburg metro area.

Johannesburg is dubbed the foodie capital of South Africa, and the same interests that propel innovative cuisine can also be used to drive the localization of our greater food networks. Gastronomes at home take their cues from the local chefs they know and admire. If your favorite restaurants are putting an emphasis on regional sourcing, your taste buds will often lead you to the same principles. When considering the taste and the nutritional content of any meal, freshness is the most important factor to scrutinize. So local always beats global. Add to that the potential fossil fuel savings and the local economic boost, and we’re on the right track.


Indoor farming techniques are not my specialty; the vast majority of my products this year were grown in ground under the rays of the good ol’ sun. And I’m quite skeptical of the financial barriers to entry that indoor agriculture can introduce to young and new farmers. But I’m growing my plants and my business in a region of the world with fertile soil, sunny days, mild winters and ample rainfall. Having a profitable farming business that sells to nearby customers in a place where any one of those four elements is lacking is difficult; those are the situations where I’d look to the more innovative techniques that Hola Harvest employs. Johannesburg is constrained by water shortages; Cape Town is more famous for their “Day Zero” hydro-crisis limbo, but Jo-Burg’s water situation is not appreciably better. The hydroponic strategies that the rooftop farms employ reduce the water use for vegetable farming by up to 95% by recycling the water for months at time before it is changed. And growing on a rooftop is an excellent use of space in concrete jungles where fertile soils are rare.


The business side of Hola Harvest is propelled by an NGO called “Wouldn’t It Be Cool,” based in Pretoria. WIBC provides training, certifications, and resources to young entrepreneurs across the spectrum of local businesses. They estimate that the Hola Harvest program can create upwards of 400 jobs in 60 businesses. Candidates for the rooftop farming programs are 18-35 years old, and with the help of program mentors, they complete a business plan before ever planting their seeds. WIBC provides loans for startup capital, as well as connecting the new businesses to prospective customers for the products they grow. While the impact WIBC can make may be limited in scale, it’s programs like this that can start to push back massive numbers of youth unemployment in Johannesburg and throughout South Africa.

Hola Harvest’s rooftop farm sites are open to public tours with the hope of shedding light on the opportunities offered by urban agriculture. “We are helping to demystify some of the perceptions of farming especially that of a traditional sector only accessible to those with high capital, land, and infrastructure, years of experience and knowledge. And what better way to address this than rooftop farming,” says Phumzile Chifunysie, Enterprise Develop Manager for InBev Africa. The growing of plants for food can feel magical, but it doesn’t have to be mysterious. And the more city-dwellers who become interested in and learn the techniques of growing food, the stronger our local food webs can become.

Agripreneurs showing off their grown products at Hola Harvest

Agripreneurs showing off their grown products at Hola Harvest