Joe Mrava and Austin Ledzian met in their third year through mutual friends at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, and realised they had a lot in common. “We would take photos together – we loved to explore the areas around Blacksburg and stop to take photos anywhere we thought was interesting,” Joe recalls. When sitting on their balcony one night before school began, the pair decided it was time they completed a project together.
“Blacksburg is an island,” explains Austin, “there’s an energy and a density because of the university, but just outside, it’s quiet. We wanted to capture that but didn’t know how.” It was during their visits to a local farmers’ market that the project started to manifest: “We were drawn to the women we saw there, especially because they didn’t fit with the image of farming that we had in our heads."
In the middle of the 20th century, America underwent a process of centralisation in regards to its agriculture. This change saw small farms give way to larger, corporate ones and with it, women shifted towards more stereotypically conceived roles such as bookkeeping or domestic tasks. Nearly tripling over the last decade, today “women account for thirty percent of farm operators in the United States and an even larger percentage worldwide,” Joe and Austin explain – a statistic at odds with the male-dominated perception of the industry.
Joe and Austin set about documenting both the lives and work of these women, choosing to examine their surrounding areas in what eventually formed their series Women Farmers of Appalachia. Photographing a total of five farmers, the project was a huge learning curve for them both. They chose to shoot on medium format and 35mm film which have a low tolerance for error, making shooting outside, in varying conditions on different days, particularly tricky. The pair encountered a number of issues: “The very first farmer we met was Sally from Glade Road Growing, and it poured with rain during the entire photoshoot. Then there was the time we drove two hours to see Pam from West Farms and got stuck behind traffic on a two-lane highway winding through the mountains. By the time we got to her farm, it was dark and we couldn’t take any photos,” Joe tells It’s Nice That.
Despite this, it was the time spent on each farm, interacting with the women and hearing their stories that consolidated the project and gave it purpose. Austin told us about their visit to Laura, who they interviewed sat at her dining table, her dog sleeping under it. “She lives in a two-story white farmhouse and when you walk in you immediately notice that the dining room has very old wooden walls that you can kind of see-through. Sitting there she told the story of how her family had owned the land for many generations, and the dining room was the one-room cabin they lived in. She built her house around the cabin! That was really amazing.”
The resulting series is tender and honest in its portrayal of a community too often overlooked. Joe and Austin presented 25 of the images in an exhibition held at Palisades Restaurant in Virginia. Choosing the location due to its proximity to the women they met and its farm-to-table ethos, the exhibition was a chance for them to really celebrate the lives of those involved. “Most of them couldn’t see why we were so interested in ‘women farmers’, but I hope when they came to the opening they saw how extraordinary they are,” says Austin.
In Women Farmers of Appalachia, the duo manage to capture and examine the modern-day female farmer in a personal way. Without feeling voyeuristic or intrusive, they present each of their subjects as “weathered in her ways, but abundant in her knowledge and stories.”
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