Eyes in the sky snap rural America

Sep 21, 2013

Satellite view of a Western Kansas farmstead
Credit Google Earth

Long before unmanned drones buzzed though rural America’s skies, pilots have been recording birds-eye views of the changing history of the nation’s farms and ranches.

Some worked for the government.   But others were entrepreneurs, just trying to make a buck or two.  Now, they are using the Internet too.

Making money in the old days wasn’t easy, said John Mooney, of the Professional Aerial Photographers Association in Houston.

“It harks back to a long tradition of itinerant photographers who would go from farm to farm and town to town to make portraits which they would try to sell,” Mooney said.

Horse-powered traveling photographers started going out of business when mass-produced Kodaks became more widely available and when more schools began scheduling class pictures, he said.

Aerial itinerants who flew the same rural routes shooting low-level, low-angle portraits of farmsteads and selling them door to door to whoever wanted them faced a different challenge – the biggest agricultural consolidation in U.S. history. The number of farms dropped by half between 1950 and 1970 and the number of people, potential customers, living on those farms dropped from more than 20 million to fewer than 10 million.

An aerial view of the Iowa farmstead where the author of this article grew up. The picture was taken in the 1980s by a flying photo salesman.
Credit Courtesy Gene Meyer / Harvest Public Media

“We still fly, but we’re more targeted now,” said Scott Gebelin, an executive with American Images Custom Aerial Photography in Marshfield, Wis.

The company uses postcard mailings and the Internet to find customers before they take to the sky.

Ken Krieg, sales director and motive force behind a company called Vintage Aerial in Maumee, Ohio, aims to put as much of the entire cottage industry’s history online as possible.

Vintage Aerial owns nearly 25 million images of farms, rural homesteads and other property from 44 states and as far back as the 1960s. Many are photos that that Krieg’s father-in-law, Gale Astles, and his fellow pilots made over the years; they bought others from photographers who’ve left the business.

Pilots who flew their small two-seater aircraft just hundreds of feet over rural byways photographed many farmsteads several times during the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s.  Together, those photographs “are an irreplaceable record of this country’s history and the personal history of millions of families,” Krieg said.

Because of those histories tap into generations of farm roots, showing perhaps your kids or grandkids where you or your parents grew up,  “we’ve found that each photo affects maybe 30 people,” Krieg said. 

The company offers free views of the farms and homesteads captured on its more than 700,000 rolls of 35-millimeter film to anyone who asks and sells prints to customers through its website.  Krieg said that ultimately, he wants to make the entire collection available online.

Vintage Aerial’s collection, however, pales in comparison to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies have collected since it began 80 years ago this summer hiring pilots to fly over fields and farms and record the changing face of America.

The government photos aren’t the aerial portraits that private pilots made, though.  The government shot – and continues to shoot today – higher level, bombers-eye images of whole farms to record what they were flying over.

“The government used aerial photography in the 1930s to make sure farmers cut production of the crops they were paid not to produce during the Great Depression,” said Dino Brugioni, the retired head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s photo interpretation programs. The Macon, Mo., native, who a half century ago showed President Kennedy where Cuba was parking Soviet missiles, is a historian and consultant now.

Before the government’s planes began flying, no one really knew what farmers were doing in their fields and pastures, Brugioni said.  But analysts poring over the geometrically dappled mosaics of black and white images captured by straight-down photos found they could even count individual cattle and hogs to see who was complying with Agricultural Adjustment Administration programs of the day.

The government-hired pilots weren’t the first to photograph farms from the air, but they were the first to organize the farmland photo runs, Brugioni said. “They flew patterns, like the military did.”

The collection has grown since then. Brian Vanderhilt, USDA’s Aerial Photography Field Office chief, conservatively estimates that every square mile in each of the approximately 3,100 counties in the continental U.S. has been photographed at least three times during the program’s history; many in the traditional Midwestern Farm Belt or near it have been photographed hundreds of times. 

The process continues.  APFO, as the Utah office is known in USDA-speak, also coordinates photography for the U.S. Forest Service and urban planning agencies, and is incorporating satellite imagery and Geographic Information Services technology into its images.  Businesses and academic researchers use the images too, for everything from scouting sites to studying urban sprawl.  Google uses some of the images too, when its own high resolution images of Earth aren’t available.  

Gene Meyer is a former financial affairs reporter for The Kansas City Star who also has covered agriculture for that news organization,  The Wall Street Journal and the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer-Press.