Inside a high tunnel at Berry Patch farm near Nevada, Iowa, strawberry baskets hang overhead and tomato plants stand tall already laden with fruit. Farm manager Lee Matteson picks several zucchini. Then, he stands there, holding the fresh squash while Will Weber, a sophomore environmental science student from Ames High School, takes a series of photographs. Beside Weber, and holding another impressive-looking camera, Douglas Gayeton also takes pictures—and issues advice and suggestions to Weber.
Gayeton and his wife, Laura Howard-Gayeton, are the founders of the Lexicon of Sustainability, a California-based non-profit organization that creates what they call information art—large collage images of farmers and their farms overlain with text. Each collage is meant to explain some aspect of sustainability that the farmer practices. They have a multimedia website, but the images also get printed poster-size and can be sent around the country for impromptu “pop-up” art shows.
Gayeton says the inspiration to create the Lexicon of Sustainability came from the frustrating process of trying to sell the goat’s milk ice cream produced by the creamery he and Howard-Gayeton founded after two decades in media production.
“There are so many tremendous health benefits related to goat milk but we had this challenge of how do you explain those things?” Gayeton said. “And so we’ve always been very sensitive of how hard it is for people to convey important information.”
Beyond promoting their ice cream, the couple recognized a need to help consumers better understand the vocabulary surrounding food and food production. And they chose to do that by finding farmers who were willing to talk about how they work.
“We went around the United States and asked people who were really the foremost practitioners in their communities in food and farming to explain to us the principles that define what it is that they do,” Gayeton said, “because if people could understand what they do and why they do it, it might make them, as consumers, better able to make more informed choices when they go to buy things at the store.”
Ames High School environmental science teacher Mike Todd heard about the Lexicon of Sustainability via Twitter and checked out their website.
“I started seeing all these images and I was like, oh my God, this stuff is so engaging and so neat to look at,” he said, “but it’s informational artwork so it educates people about these concepts.”
He and his students arranged to bring 24 poster-size Lexicon images to Iowa and installed them as “pop-up” art shows—displaying the posters on wooden A-frames the students built with help from the school’s wood shop teacher—in several Ames locations. The students chose the sites, including an Iowa State tailgate party and the farmers’ market.
Todd says the students were just beginning to study the concept of sustainability and the posters helped. But they didn’t have any images from Iowa. In fact, the project has been heavy on the east and west coasts. So Todd emailed Gayeton to say his students felt inspired to create Iowa images and to invite Gayeton to the corn belt. Gayeton’s response surprised Todd.
“He emailed back and said, `this sounds great,’” Todd said, “and I was like, what? All right! And he decided to come out and help my students create these images for Iowa.”
When the high tunnel shoot is complete, Gayeton helps the students set up other ones. Two boys kneel in tall rye grass, photographing Matteson walking through the cover crop, which he has explained to them is used to help keep soil nutrients in place after a cash crop is removed. Matteson is wearing work boots today, which means he balks a little when Gayeton suggests wading through ankle-deep water for a shoot about irrigation. But the teacher, Todd, is wearing rubber boots and gamely offers to trade shoes with Matteson. Gayeton plunges in first, then positions Matteson—now holding a chunk of black corrugated irritation tubing—and guides junior Erin Cochran through the image-making process.
Cochran and her classmate Elena Ingram have been clutching clipboards for much of the morning, documenting what images are being made and which conservation practices they illustrate. The two girls are Lexicon of Sustainability Fellows and will be working on the Iowa images all summer. Todd says he hopes to get farmer-participants from across the spectrum of Iowa agriculture, but how things play out is up to the students.
“These students will decide on how they promote this and how they get the word out and how they educate our community about these people that are doing these great things where we live,” Todd said.
For Gayeton, the Iowa trip—one of his first to the heartland for this project—will be a model. He plans to build what he’s calling a “Localizer Toolkit” so that classes or other groups anywhere in the country can similarly document sustainability in their own communities. He recognizes that like the Iowans, residents of other places will want to see their own neighbors and not just people in far-off places.
“You want to see things that are relevant to your own community,” he said. “And so we had the idea to take our approach to information artwork and democratize it—to give people access to the same knowledge that we have about how to create these works and allow them to create their own artwork, their own information works, that explain agriculture with the people from their own communities.”
Todd and his students have visited several farms during the school year, and he says he can see how much the students have learned, for example in their comments about more conscientious buying habits. This class has even influenced Elena Ingram’s career ambitions—she says she’d like to be an organic farmer, though she doesn’t come from a farming family.
“I didn’t really know what sustainability was, I hadn’t really heard about it before this class,” she said. “And now I know a lot more than I did. I’m still learning and there’s always going to be more to learn, but I understand it more and I’m just trying to do what I can to keep being more sustainable.”
If Gayeton’s toolkit catches on, there could be other students throughout farm country talking with farmers and learning more about the ways they’re striving to be land stewards for the future.