From Pumpkin Seed to Piehole Urban students photograph the journey of food they helped grow
By Anne Hamersky
Student photographer Gabriel Oxhorn, 15, got up early on his last day at Pie Ranch, milked the farm's goats, and then snapped a picture of the eggs his classmates had gathered (and later boiled and ate).
THE CITY KIDS SCATTER INTO THE ORGANIC APPLE ORCHARDS and strawberry fields, bringing back a harvest of images that reveal as much about them as the rural landscape.
"Piesters" is what these students call themselves, a reference to the odd name this 14-acre slice of coastal California picked up several years ago. Husband-and-wife agriculture educators Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail, along with collaborator Karen Heisler, cooked up the idea of a teaching farm as a way to help urbanites of every income level understand the origins of their sandwiches and souffles. They named it Pie Ranch in part because they figured that the evolution of an all-American dessert from berry blossom to baked good offers a clear snapshot of food's path from field to table. And because pie is irresistible.
Clockwise from top left: Alex Grasteit, 17, captured the sign at Mission Pie, a San Francisco cafe that employs some of the students who participated in the Pie Ranch program; a to-do list; the farm's roosters fascinated Scott Chow, 18; these gloves, Chow says, represent the hard work that goes into growing crops; Marzett Lee, 17, with camera, got a kick out of the farm's tractor.
A professional photographer, I arrive at the ranch, about an hour south of San Francisco, with a handful of digital memory cards and an assignment from the Sierra Club's Building Bridges to the Outdoors project: Help one cluster of inner-city high schoolers capture their impressions of a realm that, until recently, most found as foreign as the Mongolian steppes.
Clockwise from top left: Pie Ranch strawberries; after photographer Anne Hamersky discussed light and color, Oxhorn shot this early-morning picture of an awakening friend; students and teachers in a wheat field.
The students, one of many classes Pie Ranch welcomes each year, have studied renewable energy, built solar-powered cars, and learned about immigrants' role in food production. And once a month for two semesters, and in some cases longer, they've carpooled with teachers to the farm from a high school that draws from some of San Francisco's tougher neighborhoods.
On this final field trip of the year, the students shuck corn they helped plant, take turns cooking, and spend a night in tents. Back in the city, some also snap pictures at the coffee and pie shop Heisler opened earlier this year, in part to provide piesters with paying jobs.
Clockwise from top left: Grasteit followed Hamersky's advice about perspective when composing this shot at Mission Pie; Melissa Oseguera, 18, serves pastries at the cafe; students are entitled to eat the desserts they bake at Pie Ranch; student Jazmine Beeler-Joplin, 18, strolls with a teacher at the ranch.
During the week the students were editing the photos you're looking at, a classmate was shot and killed. Many have seen things that aren't pretty. Glimpsing how a pumpkin seed becomes a pumpkin pie--and then selling that pie by the slice--has, the students say, broadened their focus.
Anne Hamersky is a freelance writer and photographer based in San Francisco. Her last feature for Sierra was "Produce to the People" (November/December 2006).
Top photo (of eggs): Gabriel Oxhorn
Clockwise from top left (pie sign and others): Alex Grasteit, Anne Hamersky, Scott Chow (2), Anne Hamersky
Clockwise from top left (strawberries and others): Alex Grasteit, Gabriel Oxhorn, Anne Hamersky
Clockwise from top left (pies and flowers and others): Alex Grasteit (2), Anne Hamersky, Melissa Oseguera