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Exploring farms from above

Aerial photographer Alex MacLean estimates he has spent about 6,000 hours in the sky photographing American farms.

His unique perspective depicts the dramatically changing agricultural landscape in the U.S., something he has been drawn to since he started flying nearly 40 years ago.

“I’ve been photographing agricultural lands since I started flying, in the early 1970s,” he says. “I was drawn to the aesthetics of farmland, in part because of its natural response to environmental conditions, climates, soils and topography.”

Since 1975 MacLean has been seeking out the beauty of farmland while flying all across the country in his small Cessna or Flight Design CT aircraft. He received a Master’s degree in architecture and says he began flying as a way of doing site analysis.

“A lot of what I photograph is through discovery of seeing crops, seeing patterns,” MacLean says. “Some is calculated, an example being wheat farming in the Palouse, dry-land farming in Montana and cranberry farming in Cape Cod.”

The photographer says there is nothing like flying in a small aircraft with the window open and watching the dramatic and quickly changing landscape evolve.

“You can go from a dense urban area to wilderness in a matter of moments,” he says. “When flying over the Central Valley of California you can actually smell the flowers from the plane, you can also smell the onions.”

MacLean, who is based in Lincoln, Massachusetts, generally flies for two to three hours at a time and gets in a few sessions per day.

He also does cross-country trips in which he flies for six to eight hours a day. Although when flying across the country, he says, it’s hard to make good time because he’s constantly circling around, photographing things that catch his eye.

“Often in doing a cross-country flight you will come across new agricultural practices,” MacLean says. “For example, catfish farms across the Mississippi or using berms (a wall or mound of dirt) for runoff control in Iowa.”

“The other thing I find interesting is the unknown; the unappreciated. Flying across the U.S. and discovering strip-mining for phosphates, pollution of the Gulf of Mexico creating dead zones from over-fertilizing farm lands, or fast-food chains expanding into suburbs.”

MacLean says his work on agricultural landscapes, which is featured in the inaugural issue of Modern Farmer this month, is a life-long project.

“This body of work will be something that I will continue doing throughout my career. It’s a sort of touchstone in my career that I return to.”

“Food and water is really the bottom line,” he says.

- Raymond McCrea Jones, CNN