hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture September 2015


Brush strokes for conservation

Cambridge artist’s paintings illustrate new book on farming


Contributing writer



Adriano Monacchio’s oil painting “Almost Time to Cut” is among 28 works he created to help illustrate the new book “On The Farm: The Uncertain Future of an American Legacy.”

Ronald G. Dodson says his lifelong interest in farming is two-pronged.

He grew up in Indiana, descended from generations of farmers who lived and worked the land. And later, his career as a wildlife biologist had him working on conservation projects around the world. What he saw over the years shocked him, he said.

“Between the loss of topsoil and people disconnecting from nature and where their food comes from, it was very concerning to me,” Dodson said.

So he says he was inspired to write “On The Farm - The Uncertain Future of an American Legacy.”

The new 74-page book is a collaboration with local artist Adriano Manocchia of Cambridge, who contributed 28 plates of original oil paintings of farm landscapes to complement Dodson’s text.
The two met more than a decade ago when Dodson organized an exhibition of wildlife art. They ended up working together on a project aimed at improving the environmental sustainability of golf courses.

Adriano Mannochia pantingManocchia said he spent nearly two years working on the paintings featured in “On The Farm.”
“I visited farms, farmers markets, and spent a lot of time observing the world of farming,” he said. “I captured whatever struck my fancy.”

Some of the scenes in the book include a farmer at Merck Forest and Farmland Center in Rupert, Vt., plowing a field the old-fashioned way with horses; still life paintings of pumpkins, fruits, and vegetables; and landscapes along the Batten Kill.

“I painted places in Washington County, Vermont, New Hampshire and as far away as Ithaca, N.Y.,” said Manocchia, who works exclusively with oils. “The light is most beautiful during early morning or late evening, and that’s what I like to capture in my paintings.”

Manocchia said the experience expanded his views on farming and how challenging it can be to earn a living doing it.

“I take my hat off to the small farmer,” Manocchia said. “It can be very difficult for them, especially the organic farmer.

“I also learned a lot about the farmer’s temperament,” he said. “They are so dependent on Mother Nature, but none of them seemed rattled by the inevitable uncertainties that go with the territory.”

Farming, he said, is not for the faint of heart.
“One year, my wife and I had the apple trees in our yard ruined by frost,” Manocchia said. “But imagine if you depended on those apples for your livelihood.”


Saving the soil
Dodson, who lives in Albany County, is the founder of Audubon International, a nonprofit group based in Troy that is not affiliated with the better-known National Audubon Society.

He said his new book addresses two major points: the urgent need to conserve topsoil, and the importance of family farming as a way to decrease the carbon emissions caused by transportation.

“Topsoil is the most important habitat on planet earth and the foundation for sustainability,” Dodson said. “Essentially we’ve been flushing topsoil down streams and rivers for decades and in turn creating huge dead zones on our oceans.”

The book looks at agricultural history in the United States, the government policies that have been created around farming – and the practices that have stemmed from those policies.
“The book sheds light on the good and the not-so-good practices,” he said.

The latter, he said, largely stem from “wall-to-wall farming,” in which no buffer zones of dormant land are left near streams and other bodies of water.

“One teaspoon of healthy soil has millions of living organisms in it,” Dodson said. “When it rains or floods, you end up with what is basically anemic soil. The organic matter is washed down the stream. Because there’s not much living matter left in the soil, things like nitrogen fertilizers are used to feed the plants, but they’re not feeding the soil.”

Dodson says a buffer zone of unfarmed land near bodies of water would act as a filter when rain washes the chemicals away. Instead, he said, all those fertilizers go into waterways and eventually into the ocean, where zones of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, occur.

“Oxygen is depleted out of these zones, and no life can be sustained,” Dodson said. “The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico has recently grown an additional 1,400 miles from the chemical run-offs via the Mississippi River, and there are a bunch more dead zones around the world.

“The No. 1 pollution in waters is suspended sediment,” he continued. “You see a river that used to be blue and pretty, and is now brown. That brown is combination of clay, oil, and other elements all going down stream and will end up in many cases in the ocean.”


Connecting farmers, consumers
“On The Farm” offers Dodson’s outline of better farming practices, such as planting native vegetation in buffer zones to absorb chemicals, regenerate the soil and provide wildlife habitat.
“If you farm the right way, you can create wildlife habitat and save the soil,” he said.

Dodson said his other point in the book is the need to connect people both geographically and emotionally with their food sources.

“Most people don’t know where their food is coming from and who they are supporting with their dollars,” he said. “The fact that the average meal travels about 1,500 miles before gets to your plate is embedded with all kinds of costs in terms of fossil-fuel energy. If we can figure out a way to increase the amount of local regional products, the supply can begin to meet demand.”
He blames federal crop subsidies for skewing the farming system in favor of commodity-scale producers.

“As of now, the unit cost of local products is higher than what it is at the grocery store,” Dodson said. “The main reason for this is the government subsidizes certain crops. Therefore, a farmer making a small amount of food needs to charge more to make it worth their while.”

But people who have the financial wherewithal to buy local foods should be encouraged to do so, and elected officials need to support local agriculture, he said.

“A lot of communities, including mine, have passed farmland regulation,” Dodson said. “That’s great, but we need to figure out how to have farmers on the land. With the average age of a farmer being 60, there’s not a huge number waiting in the wings, primarily because of the money involved. We have to subsidize small farmers the way larger food entities are subsidized.
“Most people don’t understand the economic dynamics of what’s behind our food supply, but it’s what we’re a part of,” he said. “If it costs more to do the right thing, then we’re subsidizing the wrong thing.”

The end of the book contains calls to action and introduces an initiative known as Food and Resource Management Sustainability. Dodson also discusses a curriculum, developed through his work with Antioch University, that focuses on using neighborhood and community gardens, the merits of herb and vegetable gardening at home, and community-supported agriculture which supports the local farmer.

“I’m trying to connect those that produce food with those that consume food with those that sell food, which is everybody,” he said. “The book and its art will be a tool that will allow me to engage with the public about some important issues.”


“On The Farm” will eventually be available at local independent booksellers. For now, it can be found at Terry Lindsey’s Tilting at Windmills Gallery, at 24 Highland Ave. in Manchester Center, Vt.

The new book will be unveiled from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 4, at Tilting at Windmills Gallery with presentations by Dodson, Manocchia and Stephen Jones, the president of Antioch University New England, who also wrote the book’s forward.

For more information, visit www.tilting.com or call (802) 362-3022. Visit www.adriano-art.com for more information on Manocchia’s artwork.