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.
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.
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.
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.
That quickly changed though as we headed further south and soon we were dwarfed amongst cereal fields that stretched to the horizon.
Into northern Turkey and blessed with regular rains off the Black Sea the rolling landscape supported a wide variety of different farming enterprises.
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.
Quite often the local livestock would express strong interest in bedding down with us for the night
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.
By and large Georgia was dominated by small holdings, with little sign of large scale agriculture.
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, 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.
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.
And then on the far side of the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan, all signs of a productive agricultural landscape disappeared entirely.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Everything revolves around the horse in Kyrgyzstan. They’re used for work, travel, meat, yoghurt, cheese balls, pretty much anything you can think of.
Up on the high plains back near the border with Kazakhstan it was a graziers dream. An unbelievable expanse of open pasture.
We got to know the local shepherds pretty well as we were regularly woken by the early morning sheep drove.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A lost art in the west, but out here stacking bushels of rice to dry is something of an art form.
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.
The terraced terrain means this is no place for modern farm machinery – plough and oxen it is then.
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.
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.
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
Across the water to South Korea and the lush mountainous interior was riddled with narrow valleys growing rice
In Japan it was more of the same – narrow wooded valley’s with rice covering the valley floor
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.
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.
With Thanks Giving coming up, the brussels sprout harvest was in full swing
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
Strawberry picking in the heat. The whole farm labour force in southern California is hispanic.
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…
…and miles and miles of irrigated fruit and nut groves. These are pistachio trees
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.
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.
Heading North into Utah, we discovered a countryside packed full of bison
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.
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.
Not much going on in New Mexico aside from big horizons, long roads and desert scrub.
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.
Into Texas and farming was suddenly back on the agenda big time. We passed 6 mega dairies along one road in one morning.
Round-up ready cotton is so popular here that they even named a town after it.
Texas farmers specialise in ginormous trucks.
Farming is at the heart of everything they do – even the postal service.
Half cow half goat? Nope these Brahman cattle are one of the popular beef breeds in Texas.
When I said they like big trucks, I meant it.
Photographs: Copyright Johan du Plessis and William Frazer