The Face of Farming
Kathleen Buckalew spent parts of the past six years canvassing the state interviewing and photographing local farmers. Some of these folks still make their living off the land while others have passed on. But one fact is evident as we enjoy these portraits: The disappearing faces of Delaware farming will always be with us thanks to Buckalew’s dedication and talent.
Edited by Drew Ostroski
Wilmington native Kathleen Buckalew is the staff photographer for Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington. She exhibits throughout the Mid-Atlantic, and also in other parts of the United States. Buckalew was named the McKinstry Scholar by the Delaware Heritage Commission in 2005, for her continuing work on her project of documenting farmers in Delaware. The project is now in its sixth year, and she is in the process of making it into a book. For more information on Buckalew and her work, visit buckalewphotography.com.
Viola and Carolyn Palo
Newark, emus and shiitake mushrooms
Viola: “I wanted to keep this as a farm because this is my home. This is my way of life and it keeps me moving. Otherwise, I’d shrivel up in the rocking chair.”
Carolyn: “I’d like to continue to farm as long as it’s something I can still enjoy doing, and am physically able to do. After that, I don’t want to fix anything ever again! What keeps me going is the satisfaction of seeing something completed. I love living on the land and I love the animals.”
Frankford, peach orchardist
“I grew up here, on land that my great-grandparents live on and worked. I loved the freedom of it, that there was always something to do. I can go anywhere in the country and say that I’m in agriculture and they trust me. Here in Delaware, there is no good land ethic. There is only the ethic of greed and ignorance: greed to get as much money as possible from the land, and ignorance about not being aware of what a piece of land could be, what it could produce.”
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Slaughter Beach, grain
Wells, who passed away recently, didn’t let a wheelchair get in the way of his work. Buckalew says Wells’ son would boost him into his tractor, which he would operate by using a 2-by-4 to push the throttle and brake. Said Wells: “I’m just an ordinary farmer. I grew up on a farm and I liked it. It’s a good life. It’s a hard life, you either like it and enjoy it, or you hate it and quit. There is nothing in-between. Right now, I do what I call “window farming.” My grandson’s car seat is in the passenger seat in my pickup, and when I need to go look at something, I call his mother and take him out for a few hours and check things out. You’d be surprised how much you can get done window farming. You ride around and check everything out and if something’s wrong, I call my son or somebody and they come fix it.
“I keep doing this because I truly love it. I like the challenge of farming. It is a gamble every year to see how your crops do. I feel close to nature out here. You’re really happy all year long, as long as it rains and everything looks real good. If you have a drought, then you don’t even want to leave the house and look at it. It’s hard getting through years like that, but you keep going because you have so much invested in it.”
Woodside, beef cattle
Caulk is a former state representative. “We are not doing enough for preservation of farmland. My fellow legislators just don’t get it that this is a serious problem. We are getting more and more food from other countries, where they use chemicals that we have outlawed here, and we have no protection with what is coming over our borders. We have the best aquifer in the whole country and we are putting houses on top of it. When they talk about a growth zone, they don’t mean growing food. We take our best land and turn it into housing.”
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Georgetown, organic chickens and eggs
Carolyn, along with her two sisters and her husband, George, owns 40 acres near Georgetown. “We’re brought here (onto this earth) with an inner voice. But we are taught to ignore it, and it is difficult to hear it because of all the noise of our society. But here, where it’s quiet, I have much more opportunity to hear it and to allow instinct to penetrate.”
“The way I look at it, we need the farmers. There’s a lot of hungry people out here. We raise the corn and the soybeans. Without that, you can’t feed chickens. Without chickens, you can’t feed people. What farmers do for the people of the world, we really keep everything going. We don’t get paid much, so you gotta love it. I keep going by praying to God, and I give all the glory to Him.”
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Woodside, Christmas trees
“There’s something I like about every season here. I never get tired of Christmas, I never get bored, there’s always something different. Lots of people come here for the trees, and the Christmas shop, so I am always trying to think of something new that I can offer them. I never really thought of myself as a farmer until after my mother died. That’s when I took more of an active role here. Before that, I would just help her out when she needed it. Whenever I drive the tractor through the fields, I can still hear her saying, ‘I feel closest to God when I am in a Christmas tree field.’”
Milford, miniature horses
“I think farming and raising animals is a passion and a love of the land and animals. It’s kind of a respect for the land and the living. I think the American Indian had a lot of the right ideas: they respected the land, they respected the animals, they only took what they needed, there was no greed. I’m very close to my animals and feel that is why I was put here: to take care of them. I get really emotional when I talk about it. I think you’re born with this, it’s just a passion for what you do. I feel like I have a psychic connection with some of my horses.”
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Hockessin, dairy farmer/ice cream maker
“Agriculture is still a viable industry in Delaware. But it depends on how the government wants to work with the farmers as to how long and how well it will last. We’ve found something that draws people in and we put out a good product. It would be nice to keep this as open land, and most folks talk about how we should be preserving our land. But they don’t take into account the value of the land, and the fact that we can’t afford to just donate this farm to keep it open. For now, we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.”
“As a farmer, you have to know about a lot of different things. You have to learn how to fix things, how to be a mechanic, an electrician, a record-keeper. You learn to respect your land and respect your elders. Farmers know that if you don’t take care of the land, there will not be any land left to farm. So you practice conservation and whatever else you need to take care of it.
“In another 10 years, I don’t think there will be any farming in this area. Where we are planting crops, they’ll be building houses. I wish people knew where their food came from. They think they just go to Food Lion to get their food. The farmer needs a little more respect—and needs more say in what he gets for his crops. That’s about the only thing I don’t like about farming, that I don’t have a say in what I get for my products.
“When I get in a big back field, where no traffic or houses can be seen, I believe this is God’s country. It gives me a stronger connection to God.”