Douglas Gayeton spent five years working on his new book LOCAL: The New Face of Food and Farming in America, a collection of beautiful information artworks accompanied by short essays chronicling the constituents of our country’s sustainable food system. The writer and photographer traveled all over the country, and he says he always knew almost immediately when a photo shoot wasn’t going to work out. If he was approaching a group of animals with a rancher, for instance, and they all began to walk away from them, he knew the gig was a bust.
“There are certain principles of animal husbandry, and if the animals demonstrate with their behavior they believe they have something to fear, it tells you a lot about the relationship,” Gayeton said.
Similarly, if he couldn’t spot a single weed in a field of produce, Gayeton would move on to the next project. “Everything is about the practice,” he said. “The farmer has been using pesticides. It’s not humanly possible to get rid of every weed.”
LOCAL features the men, women, and sometimes the children, around the country who are responsible stewards of the land, animals and the sea. Gayeton describes them as “thought leaders” and says they represent the most promising solution for creating a vital and sustainable food system in America. They include farmers, ranchers, beekeepers, fishmongers, and artisanal food producers. Some, like Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard are well-known; most are not. Several, including urban farmer Novella Carpenter and Russell Moore, owner of Camino restaurant in Oakland, are based in the East Bay.
LOCAL grew out of Gayeton’s wish to pin down and explain the language around food and sustainability. By truly understanding terms like “terroir,” “identity-preserved grains,””food security,” and “pasture-raised,” he believes we will all be better equipped to advocate for better ways to produce food. Or, as he puts it in the book: “Seduce people with quirky collages and folksy handwritten notes that quietly introduce the tools to fix our crappy food system.”
The book is part of a larger project that Gayeton founded five years ago with his wife, Laura Howard-Gayeton, a former commercials producer and entrepreneur. The Lexicon of Sustainability embraces short films, popup shows, and high-school curricula to foster food literacy — much of which has been lost in the age of industrialized food production. A related social network is set to launch in November.
The process of creating LOCAL was labor-intensive. Gayeton roamed the country relying on word of mouth within the sustainable food network to determine whom to visit. “I would ask people, where should I go next?” he said. He also switched course early on in how he approached the interviews. “The temptation is to start like a journalist might with a series of assumptions and then go out and interview people to validate those assumptions. I stopped doing that. Instead I let people explain things to me. I put myself in their hands.”
Each information artwork involves creating a collage of a multitude of photographs. Then comes the text that is overlaid on the final image in white script. That and the writing for the body of the book is a collaborative effort. The subjects of the photographs are involved, as are other thought leaders.
“It’s super methodical,” said Gayeton. “Both crowd-sourced and peer reviewed. Our thought leaders continue to play a vital role — it’s constant checks and balances.”
Gayeton said that in five years he never had a case when someone didn’t want to have their photograph taken. “They saw it as an opportunity to explain what they did in their own words,” he said. When they see their images at the shows, the people in the book see themselves as collaborators, not subjects, he added.
LOCAL follows on from Gayeton’s first book, SLOW: Life in a Tuscan Town, a photographic documentation of the principles that define the Slow Food movement, created while Gayeton lived in Italy. He says that book almost came about by accident, while LOCAL is a much more conscious attempt to tell a story.
“When doing SLOW I was looking at the principles of food. This is different. Food is mainly industrialized now. We have lost the geographical identity. It’s not tied to place. It’s more about price. Everyone knows about Happy Meals and Happy Hours,” he said.
One of the key messages Gayeton hopes will be absorbed as Lexicon events and teaching opportunities pop up around the country is that cheap food comes at a high price. ” We explain that the real cost of cheap food is very high healthcare costs and lower life expectancy,” he said. “The ripple effect of cheap food is that that cheap food is not cheap.”
Far from being a static repository of knowledge, the Lexicon and its message is being disseminated by all the curators who apply to do popup shows (there have been 750 shows so far — so many that somebody suggest they would merit a Guinness Book of World Records inclusion for “most photo exhibits of a single show”); and by all the teachers who fold the artworks and their messages into their classroom teaching, including in rural and urban communities across Mexico where Proyecto Localiza is being used a Spanish-language based curriculum for schools.
The Gayetons spend a lot of time on the ground helping spread the word, working to integrate the project within schools, for example. “With high-school kids, we are arming them with the knowledge and skill-sets to turn them into advocates,” Gayeton said.
Gayeton is gratified when he sees instances of consumers taking action. “They are no longer waiting for the FDA or the USDA to rule on GMOs or fisheries. All they need is information. Our work gives them the tools to do that.”
The new book features multimedia content accessible through a free app. It also includes, on page 7, an odd request: “I need to ask you a favor,” Gayeton writes. “After reading this book, please give it away.” He goes on to ask the reader, once they have finished the book, to tear out page 7 and “let future readers remain oblivious to our silent pact.”
Not surprisingly the book’s publisher, Harper Design, wasn’t thrilled with this solicitation. “I didn’t have any pushback from my publisher except over this,” Gayeton said. “They wanted to know, how can we tell them to deface the book that they bought and how can we tell them that they are not the person for the book?”
But Gayeton stood firm. “The person who buys the book will know who will never buy the book. And we want to get it in front of person who will never buy the book,” he said.
Douglas Gayeton and Laura Howard-Gayeton will be speaking at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas on Saturday Oct. 25. Uncharted is a two-day festival that takes place in downtown Berkeley on Oct. 24-25. Visit www.berkeleyideas.com for information and to buy tickets.