Down on the farm.com

Of all the professions unfairly taken for granted by those of us on the outside, farming must be at or near the top of the list - we absolutely depend on farming for our survival, but rarely give it a second thought. In fact for most of us, the closest we get to a farm is that bit of scenery along the highway as we drive from one city to another, and our concept of harvesting crops consists of reaching to a grocery store shelf and selecting a can of corn, already removed from the cob, and gathered for us - so we're told - by a Jolly Green Giant. (Personally, I have serious doubts about that last bit, but I'm a naturally suspicious person.)

It all makes for an impressive proof of the phrase, "out of sight, out of mind," but this week's website exists to remind us of the real world behind the pre-packaged produce. With These Hands will introduce you to a few of the people who really put the food on your table.

Created for Michigan's Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (dedicated to the preservation of select farmlands, watersheds, wildlife habitats, and sand dunes unique to the state), With These Hands communicates the "culture of agriculture" through Shockwave and QuickTime presentations that paint four portraits of the family farm. And while the institution is under threat from urban sprawl, large-scale agribusiness, and the basic economics of diminishing returns, the owners of these four farms would clearly like to keep things just the way they are.

Situated on and around the Old Mission Peninsula on Lake Michigan (a map is provided), the subjects of these mini-documentaries come from a wide variety of personal backgrounds. Leo Ocanas began his farming career as a seven year-old migrant cotton harvester, and now owns 350 acres. Lew Seibold was raised on a farm, left to become an architect, and returned to agriculture and his own orchard. Rex Dobson tills the soil that his great-grandfather received as a land grant for Civil War service, and Mary and Whitney Lyon tend to their community as carefully as they tend to their fields.

The 'feature presentation' for each family is a roughly 6-minute Shockwave slide show - which minimizes a potentially hefty file size by using dynamic stills, rather than movies, to accompany narration and commentary by the farmers themselves. (Additional bandwidth-shaving is manifested in the pixellation visible in some images, though much of the photography is exceptional.) The Shockwave presentations are fully resizable, even during playback, so these mini-docs can be made to accommodate any screen size.

Accompanying each family's video portrait are two or three QuickTime audio files, which open - very unobtrusively but still accessibly - in a small bar along the bottom of the browser window. Audio files cover much of the same ground as the Shockwave presentations, but there are some additional observations as well, and they're a friendlier format for slow connections.

If, on the other hand, you have an excess of free time, a farmer's patience, or broadband, all four features are brought together, along with a (pixellated) full-motion introduction, in a single 35-minute QuickTime video file. That 35 minutes translates to a 23MB download, so if you're interested in having the features on your hard drive for later viewing, but don't have broadband, you'll be well advised to start the download during a low-traffic period and leave the computer by itself for an hour or two.

With so many formats, the only remaining question becomes the quality of the content, and With These Hands definitely provides engaging glimpses into life on the farm. Things that may never have crossed the consumer's mind (like the fact that a career farmer might only ever see 30 or 40 'paydays' in a lifetime), are presented beside such universally identifiable sentiments as one farmer's hopes that a daughter will follow in his footsteps. And while Rex Dobson shares his connection to almost 150 years of family history through his land, Leo Ocanas expresses the simple pleasure of knowing that someone, somewhere, is enjoying his apples.

The very first paragraph of this site refers to farmers as "stewards of the land," and watching this presentation, one can't help but be impressed (and perhaps envious) of the extraordinary continuity in the lives of these people - not only season to season, but generation to generation. Like most portraits, these features concentrate on the positive aspects of their subjects and their lifestyles (the endangered status of the family farm is mentioned, but not dwelt upon, and such high-profile issues as pesticides and genetically modified crops aren't mentioned at all), but if the family farms of America ever decided to launch a recruiting drive, the films are already done. And there wasn't a single reference to a cartoon Giant.

With These Hands can be found at http://www.with-these-hands.com/.

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