Photos: A cyclists view of farming around the world

Farming is a big part of the countryside for nearly every country on earth, but what does that countryside look like and how does it compare to ours, here in the UK? In a series of photos taken during his around the world cycle challenge William Frazer provides a snap shot of agricultural landscapes around the world.

In April 2014 I set-off on my bicycle with my best mate on an eight month, 15000 mile ride around the world from London to Miami. The ride took us through 23 different countries and gave us a fleeting insight into the enormous variety of farming landscapes and practices across the northern hemisphere. Through the media it’s very easy to construct a generalised image of farming around the world, but perched on my bike, racing across the global countryside I saw the reality of farming in all it’s gritty detail.

Scroll down through the photographs below to see the farming landscapes that I passed through on my 15000 mile cycle around the world from London to Miami.

Perhaps the biggest revelation for me was just how small a land area is actually devoted to modern agriculture around the world. Even in major economies such as China and the US, there are vast tracts of land completely unsuitable for modern machinery and crops. And across Asia the strength of their cultural heritage actually means traditional methods of farming (e.g. rice production in Japan) have been maintained even when more modern practices are at their disposal. With many of our own UK farming sectors struggling to see a way through the current market volatility and squeezed prices maybe there is something to be learnt from nations that have kept a firm hold of the traditions and practices that first shaped the countryside from which their businesses were born.

Speeding through the fields of oilseed rape in France

Speeding through the fields of oilseed rape in France

From Calais to Offenberg on the German border, the dominance of oilseed rape and its bold yellow flower was hard to miss. It appeared there were few other crops being grown.

Early morning wake up in the field margins

Early morning wake up in the field margins

As we headed into eastern Europe it was noticeable how barley quickly became the cash crop of choice. Across Slovakia, Serbia and Hungary we enjoyed a good few nights in the field margins.

Oil and rough pasture in Romania

Oil and rough pasture in Romania

Over the border into Romania we were struck by the a landscape that, bar the nodding donkeys pumping oil out of the ground, seemed to date back to early settlers. The wooded valleys had been almost completely cleared and left to come back as rough pasture. There was little sign of any stock or crops being grown.

Looming skies over big fields in southern Romania

Looming skies over big fields in southern Romania

That quickly changed though as we headed further south and soon we were dwarfed amongst cereal fields that stretched to the horizon.

A vibrant farming landscape in northern Turkey

A vibrant farming landscape in northern Turkey

Into northern Turkey and blessed with regular rains off the Black Sea the rolling landscape supported a wide variety of different farming enterprises.

The cows in Georgia acted like they owned the place

The cows in Georgia acted like they owned the place

There were cows everywhere in Georgia. They were a genuine hazard on the roads, with whole herds often bedding down on a motorway in the shade of a bridge. A car horn/klaxon is a must for any Georgian driver.

This pig and cow were determined to get in on the action of our pasta dinner

This pig and cow were determined to get in on the action of our pasta dinner

Quite often the local livestock would express strong interest in bedding down with us for the night

Cow hoof stew washed down with a shot vodka - breakfast of champions

Cow hoof stew washed down with a shot vodka – breakfast of champions

But the Georgians know how to deal with the rogue cows. They chop their feet off and serve them up to naive travellers for breakfast.

One of many small holdings scattered across the Georgian countryside

One of many small holdings scattered across the Georgian countryside

By and large Georgia was dominated by small holdings, with little sign of large scale agriculture.

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Into Azerbaijan and the landscape opened up again with large fertile plains settled in at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. Remarkably the landscape in this small country is so diverse that it boasts 9 of the 11 climatic zones in the world.

Fat-bottomed sheep, a favourite across Central Asia

Fat-bottomed sheep, a favourite across Central Asia

Fat-bottomed sheep, were the breed of choice throughout central Asia and due to their hardiness make up some 25% of the world sheep population. The white fat carved off the wobbly backsides of these sheep is a delicacy and will often be scattered liberally over food dishes.

Water buffalo raiding storming our campsite

Water buffalo raiding storming our campsite

The landscape was gradually getting drier and drier as we headed further east towards the Caspian Sea. These water buffalo descended on our campsite through the scrub on their way down to a reservoir on the valley floor.

Camels and oil - that's all there is to this part of Kazakhstan

Camels and oil – that’s all there is to this part of Kazakhstan

And then on the far side of the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan, all signs of a productive agricultural landscape disappeared entirely.

The Karakum desert - not a place to grow crops it turns out

The Karakum desert – not a place to grow crops it turns out

These parts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were formerly used to grow vast amounts of cotton for the USSR, with the land irrigated using water from the Aral Sea. This soon became one of the biggest environmental disasters ever caused by agriculture, as the Aral Sea gradually dried up and now it barely exists. The land is a dry, dusty wasteland full of toxic residues leftover from industrial scale agriculture.

Road grader to the rescue on our toughest day in the desert

Road grader to the rescue on our toughest day in the desert

There weren’t many tractors in this part of the world but luckily this road grader was on hand in the desert to help us out of a sticky situation, after a thunderstorm turned the dirt road into a thick concrete quagmire.

Women at work in the rice paddies

Women at work in the rice paddies

Eventually we made it out of the river into the valley of Amu Darya which flows the length of Uzbekistan. The whole valley is irrigated with an extensive network of canals and paddy fields taking water from the river.

Very friendly Uzbek farmer

Very friendly Uzbek farmer

As we headed further east in Uzbekistan and the land improved, agriculture became more dominant in the landscape. This man was just finishing up for the day and let us sleep in the corner of his field.

Hand weeding the cotton crop - hot work

Hand weeding the cotton crop – hot work

The higher up we went towards the Kyrgyzstan border the more fertile the land became, with large scale cotton crops and orchards in abundance. Most of the field work was still done by hand as with these guys out hand weeding the cotton crop.

Three wheeled tractors were all the rage in Uzbekistan

Three wheeled tractors were all the rage in Uzbekistan

The novelty of a three wheeled ‘morris minor’ style tractor never wore off on me. They were the tractor of choice all across central asia.

A fairly typical yurt strewn valley up in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan

A fairly typical yurt strewn valley up in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Across the border into Kyrgyzstan and the agricultural landscape changed completely. The central asian nations are a mixture of many different nomadic tribes, all of which probably are descended from Ghengis Khan and his Mongolian horde that swept across the Asian continent hundreds of years ago. However only in Kyrgyzstan is the nomadic lifestyle so well preserved, as illustrated by these yurt strewn valleys.

Horses were at the heart of everything up in the mountains

Horses were at the heart of everything up in the mountains

Everything revolves around the horse in Kyrgyzstan. They’re used for work, travel, meat, yoghurt, cheese balls, pretty much anything you can think of.

These cattle are living the dream - so much grass...

These cattle are living the dream – so much grass…

Up on the high plains back near the border with Kazakhstan it was a graziers dream. An unbelievable expanse of open pasture.

The early morning sheep drove

The early morning sheep drove

We got to know the local shepherds pretty well as we were regularly woken by the early morning sheep drove.

Ghost cities - popping up out of the desert in western China

Ghost cities – popping up out of the desert in western China

Across the border into China, nomadic agriculture became a distant memory. In the vast unpopulated provinces of western China uninhabited  ‘ghost cities’ are springing up out of the ground surrounded by large scale cash crops. They’re obviously planning for something…

Not the most appetising roadside snack i've every come across

Not the most appetising roadside snack i’ve every come across

It took us a while to figure out what was edible and what wasn’t. Vacuum-packed chicken feet were a popular driver’s snack found in most petrol stations.

One of many long-range irrigation channels crossing the desert in western China

One of many long-range irrigation channels crossing the desert in western China

Water availability in the north and west of China is one of biggest factors limiting economic development. With much of industrial China built along the banks of the Yellow River in the east, the tributaries upstream in the far west are gradually being sucked dry. These irrigation channels run for hundreds of miles taking water straight from the mountains to the far off towns and villages. The water in the channels is motoring, so not ideal for the wash that we desperately needed.

Wind farms on the move along the G30 in western China

Wind farms on the move along the G30 in western China

We cycled through what must be some of the world’s biggest wind farms in western China and they are being built at a rate of knots. At least 3 convoys of flatbed lorries carrying turbine blades would pass us each day.

The remains of the far western extremity of the Great Wall (or walls) of China

The remains of the far western extremity of the Great Wall (or walls) of China

But for all the industrial activity, much of the country was maintained a traditional pastoral feel, with these fat-bottomed sheep grazing along the remains of the Great Wall of China.

The world's smallest combine harvester?

The world’s smallest combine harvester?

As we emerged out of the desert into the fertile provinces on the banks of the Yellow River, agricultural activity went through the roof. This valley was packed with tiny 1 acre plots of rice grown on shallow terraces. We arrived in the midst of harvest and the field were packed with tiny combines hoovering up the harvest and spilling the grains into tiny trailers on the back of even tinier tractors. What they lacked in size they made-up for in sheer numbers.

The noise and smell of these pig lorries certainly made you think twice about eating Chinese pork

The noise and smell of these pig lorries certainly made you think twice about eating Chinese pork

We didn’t see a single large livestock farm, but they were clearly around because everyday we had these lorry loads of squealing pigs racing past us. In 40C heat, they weren’t happy animals.

Bushels of rice in Gansu Province, China

Bushels of rice in Gansu Province, China

A lost art in the west, but out here stacking bushels of rice to dry is something of an art form.

Terraced valleys growing enormous amounts of food in China

Terraced valleys growing enormous amounts of food in China

The chinese will grow crops literally anywhere. No part of this valley was unused for food production. The geology meant the rivers often carved intricate canyons through the landscape.

Farming scenes from what I thought was a bygone age in China

Farming scenes from what I thought was a bygone age in China

The terraced terrain means this is no place for modern farm machinery – plough and oxen it is then.

Seems like some of the rivers are becoming severely depleted in western China

Seems like some of the rivers are becoming severely depleted in western China

Water consumption for the booming population and economy to the east means river valleys like this are drying up. In background are old dried out terraces indicating how much water used to flow down this river, now crops are only grown in the river bed.

Polyculture terraces in central China

Polyculture terraces in central China

The further east we went the more the terraces came to life. High-up in the valley these terraces were growing everything – spring onions under chilli plants, under maize, under apple trees all working in harmony.

Miles and miles of maize in eastern China

Miles and miles of maize in eastern China

Then suddenly we were out of the mountains and into the flat open flood plain of the Yellow River, where there was nothing but wall-to-wall maize being grown

Rice paddies in South Korea

Rice paddies in South Korea

Across the water to South Korea and the lush mountainous interior was riddled with narrow valleys growing rice

Rice production is maintained more out of tradition than anything else in Japan

Rice production is maintained more out of tradition than anything else in Japan

In Japan it was more of the same – narrow wooded valley’s with rice covering the valley floor

Drying rice on racks in Japan

Drying rice on racks in Japan

Despite Japan being one of the most advanced countries in the world, much of it’s agriculture is still very traditional. Hand harvested rice crops, left out to dry on racks is a practice widespread across the countryside.

No normal food on California coast - all organic, vegan and value added

No normal food on California coast – all organic, vegan and value added

It was always going to be a shock to the system crossing the Pacific going from the far east to the far west. On the Californian coast everything is local, fresh and organic with much emphasis put on added value agriculture for a high-end food conscious culture.

Harvest sprouts in California

Harvest sprouts in California

With Thanks Giving coming up, the brussels sprout harvest was in full swing

Smart ranches, that can afford to spray irrigate their fields

Smart ranches, that can afford to spray irrigate their fields

We arrived in California in mid-October and they were bang in the middle of a drought and heatwave. But this is a part of the world packed full of high value crops, so irrigation is the name of the game

Hispanic labour picking strawberries in California

Hispanic labour picking strawberries in California

Strawberry picking in the heat. The whole farm labour force in southern California is hispanic.

Cotton plantations in the San Joaquin valley, California

Cotton plantations in the San Joaquin valley, California

As we headed inland toward the mountains, the fertile coastal lands gave way to big cash crops in the dry, hot interior such as cotton…

Miles and miles of high value irrigated crops such as these pistachio trees in San Joaquin valley

Miles and miles of high value irrigated crops such as these pistachio trees in San Joaquin valley

…and miles and miles of irrigated fruit and nut groves. These are pistachio trees

Dairy cows in the heat, California

Dairy cows in the heat, California

It was 38C the day I passed this feed lot of dairy cows. With no shade at all, these were hot cows. I’ve never seen so many cows in one place.

Enormous wind farms on the edge of the Mojave desert, California

Enormous wind farms on the edge of the Mojave desert, California

Up into the mountains for a brief respite from the heat and food production briefly gave way to energy – wind power on an enormous scale.

Bison farm in Utah

Bison farm in Utah

Heading North into Utah, we discovered a countryside packed full of bison

Control burned woodland as a firebreak in the Kaibab Forest, Grand Canyon, North Rim

Control burned woodland as a firebreak in the Kaibab Forest, Grand Canyon, North Rim

Wildfires are a serious problem in this part of the world. This belt of control burned woodland aims to protect much of the forest that surrounds the northern rim of the Grand Canyon.

A gathering of tubule weeds

A gathering of tumble weeds

New Mexico – home of the tumbleweed. These dry withered bushes can be seen blowing around all over the place and can gather in large numbers where there are barriers to their progress. We saw some the size of cars blowing across the roads.

The vast empty gaps of New Mexico

The vast empty gaps of New Mexico

Not much going on in New Mexico aside from big horizons, long roads and desert scrub.

Ranches in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico

Ranches in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico

Occasionally you’d come across a sign for a ranch, but with only a few cattle grazing on rough pasture it made you wonder who was making a living out here.

Mega dairy from a distance, Texas

Mega dairy from a distance, Texas

Into Texas and farming was suddenly back on the agenda big time. We passed 6 mega dairies along one road in one morning.

Welcome to the town of errrr… Roundup

Welcome to the town of errrr… Roundup

Round-up ready cotton is so popular here that they even named a town after it.

Enormous Texas truck

Enormous Texas truck

Texas farmers specialise in ginormous trucks.

John Deere post box

John Deere post box

Farming is at the heart of everything they do – even the postal service.

Brahman cattle, Texas

Brahman cattle, Texas

Half cow half goat? Nope these Brahman cattle are one of the popular beef breeds in Texas.

An even more ridiculous Texas truck

An even more ridiculous Texas truck

When I said they like big trucks, I meant it.

Photographs: Copyright Johan du Plessis and William Frazer

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