A few months ago I received a bar of handmade soap in the mail from photographer Erik Jacobs. It came with a note saying he was leaving photojournalism to attend The Farm School, and the soap, made by him and his wife, was a way of wishing his clients farewell. I emailed him immediately.
I had a million questions about farm school. What was it? Why was he going? How could he give up photojournalism?
Turns out The Farm School is just that — a yearlong program to teach 15 student farmers how to grow organic vegetables, raise livestock, and actively manage forests for firewood and timber. With Thanksgiving approaching and food on my mind, I caught up with Jacobs by phone, and his answers to my questions, like many issues surrounding food and agriculture these days, were complex.
"I feel a responsibility, and it's an honor, and it feels very important to me," he says about his desire to attend farm school. "I'm here because of my concern for our planet, and I feel a responsibility to share that. The roof is on fire, and all we are talking about is 'what's for dinner.' "
Jacobs has been chronicling his experience on his blog, The Plough and Stars Project. He posts a weekly dispatch sharing the joys, and the challenges, of his new endeavor.
"At farm school I'm interested in being close to the whole cycle of life, and as a photographer there's a part of me that wants to show that," he said. "I'm drawn to photographs that illustrate life and death at the same time — that show humans' transience compared to the world around us."
Still, he says, it hasn't all been easy.
"I think it's confirmed what I suspected — that there is a lot of joy in this work and it feels very purposeful. It has also confirmed some of my concerns that some of the work isn't fun. It's hard on your body and is fairly tedious and monotonous at times."
"But I don't get up and check my email, drive through traffic," he adds, "It feels incredibly natural and intuitive in a way that's built in."
Jacobs' wife, Dina Rudick, is a photographer at the Boston Globe, and they have a house in Somerville, Mass., with six chickens and nine raised beds. The Farm School, in Athol, Mass., is a few hours away, so they don't get to visit too often. But they see his education as something they are doing together, and eventually they hope to lead a more agrarian lifestyle, along with the baby they are expecting in May.
And, Jacobs says, the best thing about being a photographer on a farmer's schedule — the light at sunrise and sunset is amazing.