National Geographic photographer flies overhead

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National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz took this photograph of the Doug and Kathy Reimer farm. His current project is a book about food and commercial agriculture, which will give readers insights into areas many people think of as 'fly-over country.' (Photo courtesy of George Steinmetz)

By Molly Moser

Renowned journalist, photographer, and explorer George Steinmetz hovered over northeast Iowa last month, documenting the fall harvest from his motorized paraglider. He used satellite images from Google Earth to pinpoint the Guttenberg farm of Doug and Kathy Reimer on Ironwood Road as the ideal location for his photos.

“I chose this part of the country because it’s quite beautiful from the air,” said Steinmetz. The National Geographic photographer from New Jersey knocked on Doug and Kathy’s door and was eventually introduced to their son, Andy Reimer, who helped connect Steinmetz with local farmers. 

Steinmetz is currently engaged in a multi-year effort to create a book about food. “As a journalist I feel like most consumers don’t know where their food comes from. They see a picture of it on a menu, or meat wrapped up in a grocery store, but they don’t know how it got there,” he told The Press.

The photographer began his Midwestern work in Winona, Minn., flying downriver in the lightest powered aircraft that exists today. The aircraft consists of three components: The “wing” of a paraglider (similar to a parachute), a motor worn as a backpack, and a single-seat harness that ties the three pieces together. Steinmetz launches by laying the paraglider out on the ground behind him like a kite and running forward with the motor idling, inflating the cells of the glider as it rises overhead. He lifts off after 20 and 100 steps, at which point he flies at 30 miles per hour. 

“The motorized paraglider is in many ways the best possible platform for aerial photos, as I have an unrestricted view of 180° in both horizontal and vertical directions, like a flying lawn chair. It’s also relatively quiet in flight, like a moped, and it lets me fly low and slow over the ground with minimum disturbance to people and animals below,” explains the photographer on his website. He can fly up to 6,000 feet above ground, but finds the most successful elevation is between 100 and 500 feet. “This gives me a more intimate view of the landscape, and as I’m piloting it myself, I can search out the precise point in the sky to visualize a picture.”

Steinmetz has flown over China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Botswana, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Oman, Chile, Namibia, Chad, Niger, Mali, Rwanda, Kenya, Morocco, Mexico, France, Germany, and the United States. The U.S. aviation authority considers the paraglider an experimental aircraft, thus no license is required for either pilot or aircraft. Steinmetz's paraglider packs up into three bags that weigh less than 72 pounds, allowing him to travel on most commercial airlines and bring his craft into foreign countries without issue. 

In addition to taking aerial photographs of cranberry harvests in Wisconsin and corn harvests in the driftless area, Steinmetz also spent time following the food trail in the Midwest on the ground. “The premise of the book is that by 2050, the world will need double the food supply. People can afford more dairy and more meat, and when farmers can no longer expand their footprint, they have to expand productivity,” Steinmetz explained.

He was intrigued by the food chains area farmers utilize, growing crops to feed their livestock and using livestock manure to fertilize crops. 

“As an artist, large-scale food operations are visually quite astounding. They’re eye-popping,” he said. 

The photographer visited the Kregel family farm, which utilizes automatic milking units that record details about each individual cow’s health. He also visited a turkey operation but had difficulty getting permission to photograph a hog farm. In addition to having biosecurity concerns, he speculated, “Here, people are nervous about others seeing what they do, I think because there has been some activist press about animal rights.” After leaving the driftless area, Steinmetz when on to Fair Oaks, Ind., where the largest dairy operation in the U.S. has been made into a tourist attraction. 

Other stops on Steinmetz’s tour will include harvest in Europe, sheep farms in Australia, and palm oil harvest in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. He has also photographed hog confinements in Brazil, the largest slaughterhouse in Latin America, celery harvest in California and seaweed harvest in China.

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