Soybean South

 - From the Editor -

Farm Hands 2009

By Carroll Smith

Until technology ramped up, agriculture was very labor intensive, requiring quite a few farm workers to prepare the ground, plant the seed, carry out in-season tasks and harvest the crop at the end of the year.

Somewhere along the way, the workers were often referred to as “hands.” In researching this term, I couldn’t locate its origin, but I surmised that it meant that a lot of human hands had to be available to get all of the work done.

While visiting with a farmer in Arkansas, I listened as he reminisced about the “old days” when he began farming with his dad. In the beginning, he said, they used mules to pull the plows. Everyone on the farm got up before dawn, and since it was still dark, had to identify which mule was which by rubbing their hands over the mules’ heads. He said they knew the animals so well that they could identify them by touch.

“Hands” had other uses, too – driving a tractor, loading seed into the planter, hoeing stubborn weeds that popped up in the row middles and tying down tarps on the bean trucks at harvest, just to name a few. In fact, if you took a day to visit a farm just to observe everyone’s hands, you would see that they were continuously moving in an effort to complete whatever work had to be done.

In January 2008, Melinda and Dan Hammelgarn of Columbia, Mo., embarked on an unusual venture – the Farm Hands Project. The Hammelgarns met with 12 random farmers to photograph their hands at work and in conversations.

“We wanted to learn about the pleasures and challenges of farming and understand just what draws these people to their work,” the Missouri couple explained.

The black and white photographs now grace the pages of a calendar titled “Farm Hands 2009 – A tribute to the hands that feed us.” The photograph on the front of the calendar shows a farmer’s hand grasping a fistful of soil. The caption underneath reads, “Potential.”

  “At first the photographs on the pages before you may seem a mere sampling of farmers’ hands,” said the Hammelgarns. “Look closer, though, and you will see the perseverance, strength, wisdom and tenderness. Farm hands tell the stories behind the food on our plates.

  “Calendars hold hope and promise for a new year. May your pages be sprinkled with joyful occasions nourished by precious harvests, and let us never take for granted the land stewards on which our survival depends.”

According to the Hammelgarns, the proceeds from the calendar will help fund the construction of a permanent pavilion to house the Columbia Farmers Market. To check out this unique perspective of a vital part of American agriculture, visit

It’s worth a look.