Kelsey Kobik takes beautiful photographs of agricultural life for groups like the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets and Maine Farmland Trust. We wanted to know how a native of Cape May, New Jersey, who studied history and South Asian languages at Syracuse University, ended up getting the insider’s view of places like Goranson Farm in Dresden, so we called her up to ask. It turns out she weeded, picked and sowed her way into this world as a seasonal farm worker.

DUE NORTH: That college course of study doesn’t sound exactly oriented toward agriculture. True, Kobik says, but the proximity of State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (right next to Syracuse University) gave her a chance to take courses in another discipline. “That is where I got to learn about environmental studies and started to understand about the local food movement.” She also had an interest in moving to Maine, where she had spent summers visiting her grandparents in Wilton. Were they farmers? “They were kind of like sharecroppers.” Her grandfather had worked on farms, although he’d never owned one of his own.

NEW IN TOWN: She arrived in Portland in 2010 unsure of how she would earn a living. “The job market was uncertain, to say the least.” Quickly, Kobik became an expert in living cheaply. She and a friend started with an attic apartment. “I’ve definitely been a budget renter the whole time I’ve lived here. I’ve lived in a lot of wonderful old houses with character, but I have yet to have an apartment with heat in the bedroom.” That’s OK, she says, it’s old style to keep the living area heated and pile on blankets in the bedroom. These days she does have a regular job, teaching music at the Friends School of Portland (located in Cumberland), but with two side passions, photography and farming.

POINT AND SHOOT: Why photography? “I always felt the need to show everyone around me how beautiful things were. I was always wanting people to see some bird, or how a field looked as we were driving by it.” She dabbled with point-and-shoot cameras in high school, but says it took about five more years for her “to have the guts to go for it seriously.” Why was that? A combination of not having the money to buy a better camera and “knowing I was expected to pursue a more stable kind of vocation.” She grew up surrounded by educators (including her parents) but didn’t have models in creative fields. In Maine that changed for her when she answered a craigslist ad for a wedding photographer’s assistant in 2012. Professional photographer Alexandra Daley-Clark “whipped me into shape” during a crash course in shooting for a living on every couple’s Most Important Day. “It is a really high-stakes game!”

Jan Goranson of Goranson Farm, her hands full of peaches.

FALLING FOR FARMING: During this time, Kobik worked on a short documentary about Aroostook County called “Your County,” which introduced her to some potato farmers (she’s got a trailer up on her website). Gaining confidence, Kobik applied for an artist in residence program sponsored by the Harlow Gallery for its “Community Supported Arts” program, a spin on Community Supported Agriculture programs. She was matched with Goranson farm in Dresden. “It was kind of a blind date situation.” After making photographs at the farm “pretty extensively” for a season she felt for the first time that she had a body of work. Four summers ago she returned to the farm. “I approached Jan (Goranson) at the Wednesday market (in Portland’s Monument Square) and said ‘Jan, I really need something to do this summer.’ ” Goranson set her up with a farm job and a place to stay with a 70-year-old farm worker (whose depth of experience includes having survived working for the scandal-rocked DeCoster Egg Farms).

ALL IN THE FAMILY: She felt like part of the Goranson family. “You work really hard and you’re tired but you are well fed and you are happy. I have never been fed better.” Tell us more. “The most memorable bite for me is the first time I taste a fresh crop of something that I have either not been eating or have been eating in storage. That first bite of a fresh carrot. Or the first bite of fresh mustard (greens). You feel your cells just soaking it up.” She’s worked four seasons on Goranson Farm now, and she might live on the cheap when it comes to heated bedrooms, but not when it comes to food. Local food is a good value and “an amazing privilege,” she said. “I don’t mean to sound high and mighty, but the enjoyment of my food has to do with integrity – eating something that I know was produced sustainably and I know didn’t cost however much in carbon emissions to be shipped across the country or the world.”


TIME LAPSE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY: After trying (and failing) each growing season to make plenty of time for photography, Kobik has decided that this summer, her farm work will be entirely behind the camera, chronicling it. She’s hoping to travel back to Aroostook County, to the blueberry fields Downeast and to central Maine, to her mother’s roots. The ban on farm work is because the urge to pick, plant and weed is too seductive to dabble. “There is so much to do on any farm and you care so much, especially when you live on location.” She wants to document the lives of farmhands, who don’t get the rock star treatment farmers do. “I am really glad we have such awareness of farmers and the commitment they make to be stewards of the land and producing food, but on top of it there are also all these amazing people really busting their butts to keep those farms going too, and they are doing it without having a piece of land to pass on to their kids.”

THE INSIDER: How does her intimacy with a farmhand’s work inform her photography? “For me, there is a lot more weight to these stories personally. I do feel a deep connection to these people because in short bursts, I have lived this life.” She’d hate to be the imposing outsider with a camera. “I want to find ways to show that I have that understanding. I know how much effort it takes to even hold a conversation at 6:30 at night when all you want to do is go to bed.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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