• April 30, 2014

Finding the Faces of Farming: Grains and Groundnuts

Photographing the farmers of the world might seem like a simple assignment. But then there is the matter of finding them. In several continents. And catching them all at the right time, when their fields are verdant and lush. In this second post, Jim Richardson leaves the potato farmers of the Andes and heads to Asia, Africa, Europe, and then back to North America, meeting those who just might make it possible to feed the nine billion people projected to inhabit the planet by 2050.

For rice I went to Bangladesh, slogging through flooded fields with mud that will suck your shoes off, where the humidity in the vast watery lowlands left me drenched.
Tim Russell with IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) took me to Jahati where village farmers were threshing rice with a foot-powered contraption, beating the rice off the stalks. Three men pumped in unison, whacking bundles of rice against the spinning drum. American farmers seeing this would feel smug until learning that acre for acre, farmers in Bangladesh grow more food than farmers in Illinois.

It was not always so.

Muhammed Dobibar Rahman (foreground) and Jinnat  thresh rice in the fields of the village of Jogahat, Chunamonhathi, Jessore, Bangladesh.
Muhammed Dobibar Rahman (foreground) and Jinnat carry rice in the fields of the village of Jogahat, Chunamonhathi, Jessore, Bangladesh.

Back in the 50’s and 60’s famine stalked the planet. Bangladesh along with China and India were familiar to every American child, as places where starving millions would be glad for any scrap of food left on our dinner plate. As a boy on the farm, I knew our Kansas wheat was feeding the planet.

Out of that fear came the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research) centers (which includes IRRI and 14 others) to improve world food production. And out of that ferment came Norman Borlaug, an Iowa farm boy and biologist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for saving a billion people from starvation, to put it bluntly. His great insight was that world rice production could be increased by skillful cross-breeding, to put it far too simply.

Borlaug prevailed where others in the era saw doom. Paul Ehrlich wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” He foresaw hundreds of millions of people starving.

They didn’t starve.

Dadong Angga threshes rice in Bali during a second harvest.
Dadong Angga threshes rice in Bali during a second harvest.

Thanks to Borlaug’s work grain production soared. Among the miracle stories was that by 1974 India was self-sufficient in grain production. Around the world the story was repeated as the legendary Green Revolution spread. The world dodged the dreaded “population bomb.”

Tim pointed out that right there in that rice field I was standing in the middle of Borlaug’s Green Revolution. That work is carried on today by the Tim Russells of the world, suchlike career agronomists and researchers who toil in relative obscurity on the knotty problems of agriculture. Like most of them Tim’s resume is clogged with farm program acronyms. But behind all those tedious acronyms are real people who toil in the fields and live serial lives in third world countries.

Finishing up, Muhammed Rahman hoisted an incredibly heavy bag of wet rice onto his head and headed back to the village where it could be dried. I stopped him for a moment to take a picture (feeling guilty while he struggled under the weight.)

It occurred to me that I could take his picture because his parents didn’t die in a great famine. They were some of the billion saved by the Green Revolution. Can we do it again?

(And the rice in the bag? A new variety developed by IRRI which can lie wet for 40 days without sprouting. It can be harvested in the rain, which was good because I could see more coming across the field just now.)

Soumja Traore and other farm women cluster in the shade of a tree in the Wakoro Region of Mali to harvest and pick groundnuts (peanuts) after they have been collected from the surrounding field and piled high in the shade. The activity is a big social occasion with much talk and gossip, much laughter amid the dusty work of picking the peanut pods off the roots.
Soumja Traore and other farm women cluster in the shade of a tree in the Wakoro Region of Mali to harvest and pick groundnuts.

Such moments were repeated for me around the world. Under a tree in Mali I sat with women picking groundnuts (peanuts) out of dusty roots. They sang, they gossiped, and had great fun with the American photographer. Soumja Traore set a bowl of nuts on her head, I took her picture, she smiled, they laughed. I could have stayed there all day. But Agathe Diama with ICRISAT (International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics) was urging me on. Seriba Dembele was waiting for us down the road, proud of his great sorghum crop. (An ICRISAT variety developed to help dryland farmers.)

In Ukraine Olexandra Salo boasted of her huge cabbages and flashed her jolly smile. In Ethiopia I met Shewakena Wube winnowing wheat, straw drifting in the breeze on the high hill where I could see thousands of tiny farms in the valley below. How different than when I met Scott Dowling in South Dakota, who has one farm of 50,000 acres. (That one monster American farm might make 8,000 farms in Ethiopia.)

Olexandra Salo with her cabbage near Lviv, Ukraine.
Olexandra Salo with her cabbage near Lviv, Ukraine.

Little by little as I traveled the globe, collecting portraits of the world’s farmers, a picture emerged for me, of the incredibly diverse family of farmers who grow our food—a picture that defied generalization. For every time that I met a Scott Dowling (who grew 1.3 million bushels of wheat recently), I also met someone like Dadong Angga, who I found out in a rice field in Bali, gleaning rice, eking out a few grains of rice after the threshers had finished their work. If she was lucky that day she might take home one bowl of rice.

Scott Dowling on his 50,000-acre farm in South Dakota during the wheat harvest.
Scott Dowling on his 50,000-acre farm in South Dakota during the wheat harvest.

There was a time when I might have thought there was a magic bullet answer to feeding our planet; one technology or way of farming that would solve everything. No longer. I’m over that particular sort of agricultural myopia. We’ll need all of the farmers and every last bit of knowledge they’ve got.

Perhaps if there is an answer it lies with those folks I traveled with on this journey, those unsung agricultural agents I called on over and over, the people who actually got me into the fields in front of farmers. I say this not because they were so kind to me (which they were) but because they so obviously know farmers and have the knowledge that just may save us.

You will not see their pictures here, and that’s a pity. They were behind the camera, with me, everywhere.

With the help of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) and many other agencies and agricultural experts, Jim Richardson was able to locate farmers around the globe for "The Faces of Farming", a series of portraits appearing in the May 2014 issue. This story is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month "Future of Food" series.

There are 33 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. waseem sadiq butt
    March 18, 2015

    Best in the world rice in pakiatan.

  2. Sean R. Harrison
    May 23, 2014


  3. Bernardo Salce
    May 18, 2014

    Thanks for this post, Jim! And the photos are brilliant, as usual. Beautiful and sensitive portraits! Your work is inspiring! Cheers from Cambodia

  4. Pam McKinnon-Coco
    May 13, 2014

    you capture fantastic pics. The Peruvian farmers ( and so many others) are the birds in the coal mine. Last night we went to our local film fest and saw http://seedsoftimemovie.com/
    Carey Fowler and his amazing vision/work stresses the link between climate change and food/seed diversity. We have lost SO many varieties of rice, potatoes….I recommend this film.

  5. dr sandip salokhe
    May 11, 2014

    awesome and exciting running commentary and photos, yes you are right population bomb has been deactivated with prof borlag’s technology and in india prodigal sons of soil like m s swaminathan and kurien has used this weapon to solve the country’s problem

  6. Tess holgate
    May 11, 2014

    It was Instagram and the lovely photo of Olexandra that prompted me to hunt out this story. I am so pleased I took the time to do so. The words and pictures are beautiful.

  7. leonard lister
    May 9, 2014

    Really nice photos,what camera have you used or use.

  8. Antonia Barna
    May 6, 2014

    Hi Jim! So nice to see that someone from a developed country approaches this extremely important topic with such insight and sensitivity. It’s clearly expressed in your pictures. Thank you for them!

  9. Selcuk Goksu
    May 4, 2014

    The world will be like a village in this century with internet.

  10. Jim Richardson
    May 3, 2014

    Ideogram Tianya. 谢谢你这么多。工人是美丽的,像你说的。

  11. Jim Richardson
    May 3, 2014

    Rania, there were many places in the world I couldn’t get to, and Palestine was one of them. Farmers there have an extra hard job, and I admire them.

  12. Jim Richardson
    May 3, 2014

    Suresh, thanks for your kind comment. And thanks for reading this.

  13. Jim Richardson
    May 3, 2014

    Cindy, so good to hear from you and please say hello to your infamous husband, Jerry, with whom I had the pleasure of photographing farmers in Malawi. Your kind comments are noted but really, it’s tough to take a bad picture of a good farmer.

  14. Jim Richardson
    May 3, 2014

    Bala, you are so right. Our lives depend everyday on those people. It wouldn’t hurt us to notice their contribution once in a while.

  15. Cindy Cox
    May 3, 2014

    Hi Jim, it’s Cindy formally from KS and wife to the infamous Jerry Glover. Your pics are devastatingly gorgeous! I feel privileged to have stood by while taking shots by our house long ago…

  16. suresh
    May 3, 2014

    HI real i enjoy on this and thanks

  17. waragoda
    May 2, 2014

    It is very interesting to read this .

  18. rania
    May 1, 2014

    And what about the Palestinian Farmers??

  19. V. Balasubramanian
    May 1, 2014

    Food is critical for our life, but I am concerned about the value we place on those farmers toiling in the hot sun and pouring rains to produce this food. They deserve more respect and reward from us. Let us remember and pray for their wellbeing when dine on the table. Thank you. Bala.

  20. Lito Galang
    May 1, 2014

    Thanks. Great article on what people do to have food on their table. Love the photos, great composition and bokeh where it is appropriate. Their even more meaningful because of the planning and timing involved. BTW, cross-breading should be spelled cross-breeding

    • Becky Harlan
      May 2, 2014

      Thank you for catching that, Lito! We appreciate your attention to detail and have corrected the post.

  21. Linda Branch
    May 1, 2014

    Meaningful topic and discussion.

  22. ideogram tianya
    May 1, 2014


  23. Jim Richardson
    May 1, 2014

    Tim, so good to hear from you. Your comments about the farmers are exactly the kinds of stories I heard around the world, of the value of agricultural research and education reaching the farmers who need it, and their hard work to put it to use, and profit from their labors. Thanks for your insight, and thanks for slogging the fields with me. Good luck with cyclone season, too.

  24. Jim Richardson
    May 1, 2014

    Ashok, take a look at our story in this month’s issue (May). Take a look here: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/feeding-9-billion/
    And for a broader look at what we are doing to cover the future of food, take a look here: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/feeding-9-billion/
    Thanks for your interest and I hope you find this useful.

  25. Ashok Manvati
    May 1, 2014

    Can N G do a write up on future of food products, farming and rising demands, and possible way to meet the nutritional demands without damaging eco system.

  26. Tim Russell
    April 30, 2014

    Thanks Jim for slogging through the mud to take some great photos and for crediting the CGIAR. The farmers you met were able to grow an oil seed mustard crop after the rice was harvested, something they could not do before because the rice variety they were using matured earlier than the old varieties allowing them time to fit this winter crop in between monsoon and winter rice crops. They get an extra $100 from this crop on their 1,000m2 land holding. Now they are busy harvesting the winter rice crop but this April has been the hottest on record, I expect a clycone is just round the corner and so we hope they get their crops in before it hits.

  27. Jim Richardson
    April 30, 2014

    Jenny, you know the other thing about good pictures is that, at their best, they are transparent. They let you see directly into the people and place being pictured, without getting in the way, without calling so much attention to the craft and technique, that you can’s see who or what is in the frame. Photographer ego wants to be stroked, but if the picture really works, then the viewer just sees straight into the world. Pure vision. (But thanks for the kind words. I have an ego like everyone else.)

  28. Jim Richardson
    April 30, 2014

    Marv, you are kind to say this, but we are glad to live in this town, among these many good people. We all have to call someplace home. This is a good one. (Hint to everyone else: we live in a little town in Kansas.) Thanks.

  29. Jim Richardson
    April 30, 2014

    Jenny, you are so right about food. That is plays such a central role in our lives and in our history is beyond question. The interesting thing to me is that we somehow are so connected to our food, while at the same time being so divorced from its production, and the people who make it happen. The accepted story, today, is that our food comes from anonymous producers, but there are still people behind it and we just wanted to point that out. Thanks for being here at PROOF.

    April 30, 2014

    gracias por fomentar la ayuda al combate del hambre en el mundo.

  31. Marv
    April 30, 2014

    It is humbling and an honor to have you and your wife among us. Thank you for all that you are to the world and being so graciously among us.

  32. jenny estrella
    April 30, 2014

    Loved the pictures of Peruvian farmers and love this assortment as well. Food is happiness, and being part of the process gives a lot of satisfaction. You can see it in these faces.

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