Farming Awareness

Visionary Farms

In 1969, House & Garden magazine commissioned Patricia Johanson (b. 1940) to design estate gardens. In the letter inviting her to design gardens, landscape architect James Fanning clearly anticipated her using gravel, water, concrete blocks, wood or metal, rather than the natural materials her gardens deploy. When one examines the nearly 150 drawings she produced that year, one discovers functional farms integrated into twelve of her proposed gardens. These days, we routinely read about urban farmers harvesting vegetables from New York City rooftops, converting tiny apartments into hydroponic oases, imagining skyscrapers becoming vertical farms and transforming museums into apiaries, but only a handful of visionaries seriously considered the possibility of urban farming several decades ago. When Alan Sonfist (b. 1946) proposed pre-colonial plants for his Time Landscape (1965/1978–present), New York City’s Parks Department rebuffed his plan, since they doubted such plants could survive growing in New York City. To enhance biodiversity, Sonfist has since planted ancient edible varieties.

In the seventies, urban planners designed cities so that particular functional attributes were totally compartmentalized rather than integrated as they are today. Cities offered entirely different environments back then, so the view that food could be sourced locally, whether on roofs or in abandoned lots, was unthinkable. With Urban Agriculture: Honeybees, we sense Johanson imagining ordinary city dwellers becoming apiarists, gleaning honey from “urban bees” pollinating their environment, a possibility that until recently was either doubtful or illegal. In 2010, a New York City law prohibiting people from keeping wild animals, including honeybees, in apartments was changed to exempt bees. For those who worry that cities offer bees insufficient pollinating opportunities, it turns out that New York City bees feed on honey locusts and Callery pears. In fact, “City bees tend to do better than bees in heavily agricultural areas, because there aren’t so many pesticides.” Garden Cities: Food Park, another of Johanson’s urban renewal proposals, calls for integrating edible foods into an ordinary city park, a project Nils Norman eventually realized when he created Den Hague’s Edible Park (2009–2010) some forty years later.

Although urban composting is suddenly all the rage, Johanson’s proposal for a Garbage Garden, sculpted from organic waste, must have seemed a horrifying prospect forty years ago, when city wastes were processed far away from city dwellers. Even today, people seem reluctant to properly separate ordinary wastes and food scraps into usable categories such as comestible, compostable, recyclable, reusable and repurposable. Her Food Park: Oysters prefigures landscape architect Kate Orff and SCAPE’s 2010 design to transform the waters surrounding Brooklyn’s highly polluted Gowanus Canal into a massive oyster nursery. Underwater Sculpture/Reed/Marine Habitat saw the value in integrating food production and wastewater management, a strategy Johanson eventually implemented in such built works as Endangered Garden (1987–1997) and Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility (2000–2009).

Patricia Johanson’s Regional Highway Garden: Pig Society must have seemed a wild idea during the antiseptic sixties…

Twenty-six years before Farmlab founder Lauren Bon grew Not a Cornfield (2005–2006), Johanson drew Illusory Garden: Cornfield, which suggests that she had already imagined the possibilities of an aestheticized, functional cornfield doubling as an estate garden, aka “not a cornfield.” Johanson’s design for Field of Worms precedes Newton and Helen Harrison’s actual Worm Farm, which they exhibited in Houston as part of Survival Series: Full Farm (1972). In retrospect, her Regional Highway Garden: Pig Society must have seemed a wild idea during the antiseptic sixties, when communities were designed to optimize each zone’s primary function. As such, city planners favored accommodating commuters’ cars over parks, while highway planners designed reststops that privileged expedient amenities, not families out for a stroll. Her interest in mixing pigs and people anticipates Carsten Höller and Rosemarie Trockel’s Ein Haus fur Schweine und Menschen (A House for Pigs and People) (1997), presented at Documenta 10. Johanson’s Animal Garden: Sheep foreshadows Agnes Denes’ Sheep (1998), a rambling herd milling about the gardens of the American Academy of Rome, and Dan Devine’s Sheep Farm (2007–present), previously inhabiting the Fields sculpture park at Art OMI in Ghent, New York. With Dredged Garden—Food Park, she conceives of food islands created from soil dredged from the river. She likewise imagines abandoned factories becoming “factory farms,” as volunteer plants propagate a pergola and fish spawn in roof runoff collected below, as well as farms sprouting in furrows and ridges contouring hillsides.

Since maximizing biodiversity and creating spaces that encourage participation and ownership are central to Johanson’s focus, it’s not surprising that human beings are not the only animals Johanson aims to feed with her visionary farms. Johanson’s designs have always integrated animal habitat and food. Drawings such as her two Vernal Pools (Catagramma mionina): Park/Amphibian Breeding Grounds/Edible Landscaping proposals from 1992 link food’s availability and its access to reproduction, species continuation and therefore species survival. Johanson’s most recently completed project, the Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility in Petaluma, California, is a wastewater reclamation plant that doubles as a city park. Not only is it capable of cleansing 16 million gallons of sewage per day, but its functioning pools also treat stormwater runoff, human sewage and industrial waste all while funneling water to irrigate a neighboring vineyard, much like her 1969 proposal Underwater Sculpture/Reed/Marine Habitat advised.


The Learned Pig


Farmers’ Marks

Although art historians have yet to mention Ree Morton’s (b. 1936) relationship to farming, her connection to landscape is indisputable, especially since many of her last drawings, such as Trumpet Weed (1974), gained their inspiration from a Victorian-era plant book she found. In 1974, she said, “I really love Stonehenge or any kind of situation where there is a location which somehow has been set aside for a purpose whose meaning is not clear, or a place where there have been left markings by people whose meaning is not clear but you know that people were there and that they were doing something with that space.”

While she probably didn’t have farms in mind, it’s well known that people have been clearing forests for centuries to produce farmland for food production. In fact, 300 million acres of U.S. forests (or 30% of originally forested lands) have been cleared since the 1600s. Between 1982 and 2007, developers transformed 41 million acres of rural land (roughly 14% of total farmland) into suburban communities, leaving age-old farmers’ “marks” buried beneath new homes.

When Morton installed Drawings for the Manipulation of the Organic, she would write the following text below it: “The Dreamerman becomes the seer . . . He dreams his dream with open eyes, with clear vision of realities, with far foreseeing outlook, with intense persistent concentration upon an idea, a purpose.” Although her foremost “dreamer-man” is Louis Sullivan, she clearly has in mind those, like Johanson, who foresee possibilities previously not considered.



Andrea Bowers (b. 1965) has also used drawing to capture farmers’ marks left behind as farmed land gives way to developers’ sway. One hopes that the fact that Memorial to One of the Largest Urban Farms in America (South Central Community Garden, at 41st and Alameda Streets, Los Angeles, 1994–2006) (2008) is owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art ensures that this work’s story of immigrant urban farmers will never be forgotten. After transforming an abandoned lot into a community garden that provided identity, community and sustenance for twelve years, its stakeholders became ensnared in a battle to retain their incredibly valuable resource. Bowers’ large-scale graphite and colored pencil drawing depicts a vast portion of South-Central L.A. as an intricately drawn monochrome topographical map, whose community garden area is shaded in green. In its lower-right-hand corner, she has rendered the Los Angeles Times story describing the garden’s inevitable destruction. Although these replanted trees are considered a “monument” to trees as unsung heroes of the fallen farm, this orchard’s benefits pale in comparison with the original farm, which hosted some 100 to 150 species, most of which had been reintroduced from Mesoamerica. As Bon points out, “This project started from an ethical conundrum. What does it mean when we live in a world where living things have little economic value? Where regardless of the issues that led to the Farm closing, trees, plants and seeds were bulldozed and fourteen years of cultivated soil destroyed. This is the territory of Farmlab, our inquiry into the preservation of living things in an often hostile environment.” One of this book’s routine stories concerns farmers being chased from their land as soon as farming it draws attention to its value.

One interesting coda to Bowers’ drawing and the plight of these immigrant farmers is the roles played by Farmlab, an Annenberg Foundation initiative spearheaded by trustee Lauren Bon. Farmlab, now considered part of Metabolic Studio, awarded the Huntington Botanical Gardens a $1.1 million grant to cover costs associated with hiring tree experts from Valley Crest Landscape Development to dig up, transport and transplant dozens of trees to their San Marino home, more than 15 miles north of South Central. Efforts have been made to grant the farmers (some 350 families) free access to their trees, which are sited adjacent to the garden’s Huntington Ranch demonstration farm.

Although these replanted trees are considered a “monument” to trees as unsung heroes of the fallen farm, this orchard’s benefits pale in comparison with the original farm, which hosted some 100 to 150 species, most of which had been reintroduced from Mesoamerica. As Bon points out, “This project started from an ethical conundrum. What does it mean when we live in a world where living things have little economic value? Where regardless of the issues that led to the Farm closing, trees, plants and seeds were bulldozed and fourteen years of cultivated soil destroyed. This is the territory of Farmlab, our inquiry into the preservation of living things in an often hostile environment.”


The Learned Pig


Farm Tours

In 2002, British artist Nils Norman (b. 1966) led people on a tour of self-sustaining, experimental gardens, as well as various other ecological and agricultural institutions, throughout the Bay Area. Norman titled this tour Ecology/Art Expedition Survey: A Sustainable/experimental garden and agricultural projects tour of the Bay Area. Phase: 1 (2002). As part of their “Temescal Amity Works” (2004–2007) project, Susanne Cockrell (b. 1966) and Ted Purves (1964-2017) organized The Big Backyard, a series of tours through Oakland backyards to discover low-hanging fruits, thus teaching interested parties how to forage neglected food sources including local citrus and fruit trees, which Italian-American settlers originally planted. Using a hand-built pushcart, the foragers harvested, collected and redistributed thousands of free oranges, lemons, apples, figs, other fruits and even vegetables. With the leftover fresh fruits, they made marmalade, fig conserve and apple butter. In addition to producing a neighborhood resource map that local residents still use to keep tabs on what’s available where, they produced a series of postcards that documented “local groups and collectives, venerable fruit trees and the local landscape.” Some consider urban foraging to “apply the logic of the free and open software movement to the realm of vegetation and the edible in general.”

When the Mayflower arrived in 1620, there were no dandelions. By 1671, they were everywhere.

Chicago artist Nance Klehm (b. 1965) also leads urban-foraging walks, where “walkers learn to identify plants, hear their botanical histories and stories of their use by animals and humans, sharing anecdotes of specific experiences with plants.” A seed archivist, inner-city homesteader and fervent workshop leader, she founded the project Spontaneous Vegetation on a plot in the heart of Chicago. She employs permacultural farming practices to identify spontaneously growing edible plants, which she harvests, cans and preserves.

Exemplary of Europe’s “spontaneous vegetation” invasion, Klehm claims that “[w]hen the Mayflower arrived in 1620, there were no dandelions. By 1671, they were everywhere.” Her workshops cover everything from “grey water conversion [to] water-harvesting, earthworks design and installation, community green waste to fertility systems, horticultural systems design and green waste composting—including vermicomposting and human manure.” A renowned expert on composting human excrement, she was a presenter at the World Toilet Summit held in Philadelphia in 2010. Her seed archive contains seeds from over 350 varieties of North American corn, beans and squash.


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Protest Farms

In 1982, Agnes Denes (b. 1931) worked with numerous volunteers to flatten the rubble pile known as the Battery Park Landfill, lay down soil and plant a wheat field in order to demonstrate the relationship between world hunger and the culture of capitalism. Their efforts captured the imagination of many New Yorkers and tourists, who observed them planting and harvesting Wheatfield—A Confrontation from office and hotel windows. They planted this 2-acre wheat field atop an off-shore landfill constructed with debris left over from the building of the former Twin Towers. Two hundred truckloads of dirty landfill had been dumped on this site, leaving mounds of rubble, dirt, rusty pipes, old clothing, automobile tires and other garbage.

Once the rubble pile was flat enough, they added eighty truck loads of fresh dirt, which they spread out to create 1 inch of topsoil needed for planting. Denes and her cohorts dug 285 furrows, each of which took two to three hours to dig by hand, in which they placed several seeds and covered with more soil. After clearing away rocks, boulders and wires by hand, they maintained the field for several months. Then they set up an irrigation system, weeded, eliminated wheat smut (a disease that was infecting wheat fields across the country), fertilized and sprayed against milder fungus.

Four months later, on August 16, a hot, muggy Sunday, Denes and her volunteers harvested 1,000 pounds of healthy, golden wheat from this field, surrounded by the symbols and key institutions of American commerce, including the World Trade Center’s sprawling campus. Harvesting $158 worth of wheat on land valued at $4.5 billion provided a dramatic gesture, showing how the value of land in Manhattan is less a function of what it produces and more a function of the “symbolic value and global prestige it imparts to multi-national corporations.”

Denes had hoped that her three-month-long performance would inspire people to rethink personal values, to consider misplaced priorities and to realize that life itself is in danger. Denes has this to say about the wheat field’s impact:

Introduce a leisurely wheatfield into an island of achievement-craze, culture and decadence. Confront a highly efficient, rich complex where time is money and money rules. Pit the congestion of the city of competence, sophistication and crime against open fields and the unspoiled farmlands… The everlasting against the forever changing. Culture against grassroots… Simplicity versus shrewd knowing. What we already know against all that we have yet to learn.

Most amazing, the harvested grain traveled to twenty-eight cities worldwide as a part of “The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger” (1987–1990), organized by the Minnesota Museum of Art. Exhibition visitors took seeds harvested from Wheatfield—A Confrontation and planted them across the globe. Even as its thirtieth anniversary arises, Denes’ once flourishing wheat field continues to provoke thoughts about food, energy, commerce, world trade and economics.


Matthew Moore, Rotations: Moore Estates (2005-2006), sorghum and wheat, 35 acres (14.16 hectares), earthwork, Surprise, Arizona


In 2001, Arizona native Matthew Moore (b. 1976) learned that developers eager to build 250 new homes had purchased 400 acres of his family’s citrus farm. After acquiring their blueprint for the new subdivision, Moore and his dad planted the neighborhood at one-third scale on remaining farmland, using sorghum for the houses and black-bearded wheat for the roads. Rotations: Moore Estates (2005–2006), his aerial documentation of this project at every stage, depicts their planting sorghum homes in July, homes sprouting in September, their seeding roads in November and homes shooting up the next June. It ends with their harvesting boulevards of wheat the following August.

In 2007, David Cohen exhibited “The First Seed Project” at Winkleman Gallery in New York City. Sounding like a cross between art exercises routinely assigned to participants and a Shepard Fairey poster-bombing campaign, The Seed Project began in March 2006, when this Brooklyn-based artist began “crowd sourcing to find artists and activists to plant wheatgrass seeds, creating individual art projects from what was grown.” The resulting global farm was published in the “Seed Issue” of Artworld Digest Magazine. According to the exhibition press release, the project has continued to grow and seeds can be purchased at Whole Foods markets throughout New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, so activists can continue recruiting with evermore sprouting wheatgrass kernels. Cohen feels that grown art will help to prompt the cultural shift toward sustainability “by teaching the next generation about the value of growing plants, which are the source of our fuel, fiber and food in our daily lives.” Cohen’s long-term goal for this global cooperative farm is for “millions and then billions of people to engage in creative growth and change. We, as a society, need to turn organized creative energy into nurturing our environment.” And he views art as offering the right kind of structure to support organized energy. The “Seed Project’s” edible paddocks stand as the 21st century version of the 20th century bumper sticker, which once served to bond fleeting strangers to a common cause.


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Seed Rights

People tend to consider flowers private property, yet they treat edible plants like public property, helping themselves to whatever looks delicious. One explanation for this attitude shift is that the very notion of food ownership seems suspect, especially when outputs appear to dwarf inputs. The fact that someone actually purchased and planted some seeds gets lost when food yields depend so heavily on such seemingly free resources as soil, water, oxygen and sunlight. Few people, however, have problems recognizing some correlation between labor and ownership, so that those who make the soil, sow the seeds, water the plants and harvest the food have earned yields ordinary bystanders have not.

When people are totally hungry, however, and outputs appear plentiful, the idea of food ownership must seem totally absurd. The same goes for seed ownership. People recognize the expertise and effort required to harvest, store and protect seeds, so that plants can reproduce seeds for generations to come. But who owns the seeds inherited from our ancestors?

What will it take for well-fed people to consider it morally reprehensible that the same corporation that has the technology to design and patent new seeds routinely prevents farmers from planting their own hard-won seeds, which have been preserved over several generations? Does it make sense that some corporation not only has the legal authority to require farmers to purchase the right to plant certain seeds, but it also has the financial might to fight farmers caught “stealing” seeds, even when its unwanted seeds have merely drifted onto their land? Numerous artist groups, such as the Beehive Design Collective (since 2000), have sprung up to challenge the ubiquity of the bio industry, which aims to control food production by patenting new seed varietals, the distribution and use of which agricultural corporations routinely regulate on land and especially in the courts.

Seeds (save them, share them). Ideas. Neither can be owned. They are premises of life.

Part of the bio industry’s early success can be attributed to its strength at provoking and affording expensive, drawn-out court cases, as well as its facility at getting courts to take its side, since it typically frames such cases in terms of private property. As a result of the bio industry’s building a legacy of legal precedents early on, they’ve ensured the identical outcome of future cases. Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto took 144 farmers to court and settled with 700 others out of court. To both block and challenge Monsanto’s growing authority, the collective Critical Art Ensemble (since 1987) collaborated with Beatriz da Costa and Claire Pentecost to reverse-engineer Monsanto “Roundup Ready” cash crops (corn, soy and canola). They accomplished this feat by adding a simple “pyridoxal” compound, thus creating their very own “vegetation invasion,” which they aptly titled Molecular Invasion (Contestational Biology) and exhibited at the Corcoran School of Art in 2002.

In February 2012, it looked as though some 300,000 organic farmers who had banded together to challenge Monsanto’s “right” to sue farmers caught growing “unwanted” plants from “patented GMO seeds” or pollen that accidentally drifts onto their land might succeed. However, Judge Nancy Buchwald summarily dismissed this case that had been brought by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) and eighty-two other plaintiffs representing these farmers, since she cited as “binding” a “Supreme Court precedent that supports the farmers’ standing as ‘wholly inapposite.’” Only one month earlier, however, Oluf and Debra Johnson, two Minnesota organic farmers, won their case against the Paynesville Farmers Union. This local pesticide cooperative repeatedly (and illegally) sprayed crops on windy days and thus “trespassed” their land and contaminated otherwise certified-organic crops with pesticides and herbicides. As a result, the Johnsons had to forfeit anticipated profits, since non-organic crops sell for much lower prices, leading the courts to take their side.

One of the most obvious ways to raise awareness of the agriculture industry’s aggressive policies is for artists to collect, store and protect seeds as farmers have for millennia. Agnes Denes’ traveling wheat field seeds once did; Futurefarmers have and Nance Klehm still does. Six vegetable seed packets available in the dOCUMENTA (13) gift shop were attributed to Ayreen Anastas, Rene Gabri, Jürgen Heß and Claire Pentecost. The packets contained both messages and seeds for sweet corn, carrots, arugula, cornflowers (for bees), turnips and cherry tomatoes. In relaying the life of seeds, these packets remind consumers that 70% of global food decisions are made by a few private companies.” Other points include:

“Buying, paying for seeds does not mean owning the seeds. A seed is not a product. A seed is not anyone’s property. A seed belongs to itself. If you plant it, it will grow. It will live” (cherry tomato packet).

“Subsistence is resistance. Subsistence is existence. Subsistence is autonomy. Live Eat Love” (turnip packet).

“GMO=corporate control over food, life” (corn packet).

“Plant Pollinate Proliferate Propagate Propel the seeds of revolt” (cornflower packet).

“Seeds (save them, share them). Ideas. Neither can be owned. They are premises of life” (arugula packet).


This is a very lightly edited extract from Sue Spaid, Green Acres: Artists Farming Fields, Greenhouses and Abandoned Lots (Cincinnati: Contemporary Arts Center, 2012).


This is part of FIELDS, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring fields as natural and (agri)cultural, invisible and visible, poor and productive, created and creators. FIELDS is conceived and edited by Marloe Mens.


The Learned Pig


Sue Spaid

Sue Spaid is the author of five books on art and ecology, including Ecovention: Current Art to Transform Ecologies (2002) and A Field Guide to Patricia Johanson’s Works: Proposed, Built, Published and Collected (2012). As a curator and critic since 1986, she has published hundreds of essays on contemporary art in exhibition catalogs and art magazines, such as artUS, where she was a member of its Contributors Board for nearly a decade.

Spaid has taught Engineering Ethics, Design Ethics and Environmental Ethics at Drexel University, Philadelphia. She has presented philosophical papers on groundwater justice, which she argues is prior to climate justice.

She has organized exhibitions for the Contemporary Museum, Baltimore; Abington Arts Center and Sculpture Park, Jenkintown, Pennsylvania; Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, Mississippi; Bellevue Art Museum, Bellevue, Washington and the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, California. Still, she remains best known for Sue Spaid Fine Art (1990–1995), the scrappy Los Angeles gallery that launched dozens of local artists' careers.