Picture Imperfect: The Side of Farming You Won’t See on Facebook

(Stephanie Fisher is a goat farmer and photographer working in Vermont. She wrote to Modern Farmer in response to a post she saw on our Tumblr, and we asked her to write us an op-ed. Also, warning: there’s a pretty graphic picture of a goat giving birth about halfway down the page. So, you know, heads up. –ModFarm Editors)

In pictures, my life is one of fantastical bucolic bliss and yeoman righteousness — green fields, cute animals, amazing sunsets, the works. I work on a goat dairy in Vermont, and the photographic opportunities are limitless.

But they are also illusory. And as farming becomes ever trendier, the discrepancy between the reality and the aesthetics of agriculture grows greater.

This winter I happened across a post on Modern Farmer’s Tumblr blog entitled “Behind the Scenes at a Photo Shoot for Modern Farmer,” showing images of a handsome model cradling an Oberhasli kid. Coincidentally, we were in the middle of kidding with the farm’s herd of primarily Oberhasli milkers; our kidding barn contained upwards of 100 kids at the time. In clicking through the pictures, I admired the model’s finesse and reflected on my own, exhausted condition: my hands were raw and cracking, my hair split and rough from kids’ mouthing, my worn pants and old sweater were covered in musky birthing fluid, bits of hay, and tar-like meconium. I thought, here is a perfect misrepresentation of my work and, by extension, me.

Pretty: A well stocked laying box in our mobile chicken coop. The eggs are sold at a premium at farmer’s markets in our rustic cartons.
Real: Chickens can be gross; this hen inexplicably tore her wattle, covering her and the nearby hens in blood.

Modern Farmer isn’t the only outlet preserving this simulacrum of the farmer’s life, and it doesn’t require Sherlock’s sense to find others: a recent story on NPR highlighted a journalist’s surprise at her time on a dairy farm, where “cows do not amble home of their own accord;” there was Dodge’s now infamous Super Bowl commercial that incited a heated dialogue in the food community because of its misguided assumptions about farmers and farm life; on the subtler side, the popular indie publication Kinfolk Magazine often features misty images of farms and their animals, like these sweet-faced calves.

But the irony lies in who is most guilty of promoting this precious image of farm life. It’s often the farmers. Myself included.

Pretty: Nothing says spring like baby goats. Here, a first-time mom cleans off her newborn doeling.
Real: In a normal birth, kids are born in the 'diving' position, covered in birthing fluid. Screaming is not uncommon during labor, and tearing often occurs when they have a big kid. There is little about birthing that is beautiful or picturesque.

The images on my Facebook and on my personal blog feature wide-eyed, fuzzy newborn kids, curious milkers, vast expanses of pastures. My dad used to call my job “going to play with the goats,” which is what I fear my peers think I do for a living, a conclusion easily gleaned from the pictures I post online. Other young farmers equipped with a camera and an internet connection are snapping and posting similar photos, like the stunning blog Farm Weather maintained by Big Picture Farm. A typical picture shows elegant goats summiting rock ledges or gregarious kids romping through woods.

Essential facets of our lives as farmers remain invisible. We don’t often capture the precise planning, the hours spent creating and updating health records or fine-tuning nutrition plans or the endless cleaning or sore muscles and countless cuts and bruises, body aches, heartaches, frustration, compost, sweat and shit, so much shit.

Pretty: Samara enjoys a sunny day on pasture with her herd. Nothing compares to the rewarding sight of goats on fresh pasture.
Real: With animals comes shit. Bunk silos are immense, concrete bays that hold and ferment compost. They’re unsightly, but an essential part of a farm’s ecosystem.

So why do we take these pictures? Because it expresses what we take away from our day to day, it’s what motivates us through the not-so-pretty, the repetitive and the painful. It expresses why we’re farmers and not anything else.

What about the less photogenic stuff? Should we ignore days when things don’t flow as they should? Like when you drop that milk can off the bed of the truck and spill 10 gallons of fresh liquid all over the ground, or when you are impossibly tangled in an endless reel of flex netting. And there are other times when nothing horrible happens, just the mundane. No one takes pictures after four hours pitchforking a huge, heavy hay pack, or handling baby goats smeared with stinky diarrhea. But we should! We farmers are doing ourselves a disservice in gliding over the bad and the boring in favor of the pretty and cute.

Pretty: Baby goats are incredibly fun and cuddly, and often hilarious. There’s good reason why they’re so popular.
Real: Kidding season is the most hectic time on a farm, with intermittent sleep and no days off for months at a time. Feeding alone can take over 6 hours a day, and there is constant cleaning, weighing, and of course, dealing with sick and occasionally dying kids.

There have to be limits, of course, in the interest of good taste and respect for our animals, which is one of the most fascinating and difficult components of a job so close to nature. For instance, in an attempt to capture the less-adorable side of kidding season, I considered photographing a disbudding. Disbudding is a common, welfare-sanctioned practice on goat dairy farms, where an electric iron is used to prevent the growth of horns. But it is still a fragile subject: holding a hot iron to a 1-week-old kid’s head is traumatic, for the kid and me both.

These issues are worth grappling with because farmers are no longer solely relegated to the outdoors; we are sometime-bloggers and often-photographers, curating our own public image. This is a great thing. It offers us an incredible capacity for outreach, communication, and creativity, and we should embrace it as many young farmers are doing. But with this additional chore comes an added necessity for accountability: we must show not only the beautiful, but also the ugly and the boring. We need to demolish the romantic farmer caricature, and provide a truer, more complex portrait of the farmer and the farm. It is up to our own creativity to find the best lens.

After all, if we can’t bear to show the difficult in our lives, how can we expect others to truly understand what it means to be a farmer?

Picture Imperfect: The Side of Farming You Won’t See on Facebook