Austin Ledzian and Joe Mrava wanted to get away from the paths between their apartments and class at Virginia Tech last fall.
But rather than take a day trip to the Cascades or a night out at the Floyd Country Store they decided they wanted to get to know some folks in the surrounding area who don’t interact with students too often. And they wanted to get to know them really well.
“One of the reasons we were so drawn to it was we knew we would never cross paths with these people if we didn’t intentionally seek them out,” said Ledzian, an industrial design major at Tech.
The pair set out to do a photography project that created that connection then also share it with others. The pastoral setting around Blacksburg was the inspiration for the project called “Women Farmers of Appalachia,” which they plan to debut in a photography show at the Palisades Restaurant in Eggleston July 29 through Aug. 12.
Ledzian and Mrava profiled five female farmers from around the New River Valley and just across the state line in West Virginia for the project. They went to see each farmer in action several times and also conducted interviews that will be used for captions on the photos at the show.
They wanted to profile women in an effort to escape the stereotypes of men being the only people who farm. Mrava, who recently graduated with a degree in residential and environment design, said that many of the farmers he saw at the Blacksburg Farmers Market were actually women – and he wanted to portray their stories.
The 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of farmers found that there were a little more than 20,000 women farmers in Virginia. That number, which is the most recent available, represents 32 percent of farmers in the state. Agriculture is a $70 billion industry in Virginia, according to a recent study by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.
Having the students on the farm was interesting, said Gwynn Hamilton, who co-owns Stonecrop farm in Giles County with her husband, Bert Webster. Hamilton, who mostly grows flowers on her property, said numerous Tech students have approached her for class or research projects in the past but these two design students were different.
“These guys were really so much more,” Hamilton said. “They were hard working and resourceful craftsmen.”
She said the students worked meticulously to get each shot perfectly. To get the best light, they’d wake up as early as 4 a.m. to get to the farms.
Often, Hamilton said she would pose for photos and a few times she was slowed down a little bit as she tried to work on her farm. In the end though, “it felt neat,” she said.
She did find it unusual, though, that the pair weren’t doing the project for class credit or financial prosperity.
“It wasn’t supposed to be anything huge, just different,” Mrava said. “But I wanted to do something bigger than school.”
Mrava estimates, though, that it turned into a large undertaking and that they spent about 15 hours a week working on the project.
Shooting the photos was hardly the end of the pair’s work on the project, though.
Much of the photography was in the fall and all of it was shot on film.
“When you see it on film it’ll have a mind of its own and leave different marks and have a different quality than you expect,” Ledzian said. “We wanted authenticity and there’s a richness to it that we felt like we really needed to have.”
They spent much of their spring semester at Tech finishing school — Mrava graduated and Ledzian will finish his degree this fall — as well as developing the film and arranging the project’s debut at the Palisades.
Mrava said he hopes the project can “go to more places,” hopefully with a video and even more gallery displays around the area in the future.
For Hamilton, she’s just happy to be part of the project and she hopes it will serve as an inspiration for a potential future generation of women farmers.
“Maybe if somebody sees these pictures and says ‘whoa, a girl can do that,’ and it inspires them to farm or grow something, well, that would be great,” Hamilton said.