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Mountain Man Micro Farms

July 2021

Tucked away in the beautiful Rocky Mountain foothills near Denver, Colorado, Mountain Man Micro Farms is ran by a friendly farmer named Andrew McArdle, who goes by Andy. Back when he was studying for his degrees in Natural Resource Management and Fisheries and Mariculture, Andy started his business inside his apartment and eventually moved it into a shared warehouse in the city. Years later he'd go on to achieve one of his most cherished dreams and earned enough to purchase ten acres of beautiful land - gifted with rippling grass pastures and pure mountain creek water - and built a new, state of the art greenhouse on it.

Thanks to Andy I was able to visit his property, see how some of Denver's most elite restaurants and grocery stores got their food, and also had the opportunity to shoot a ton of new agricultural photography for him. As kid who was born in the country and grew up tending gardens with my family, it was a welcome return to my roots - A temporary oasis away from the ever expanding concrete world.

Andy ( a.k.a. "The Alpaca Whisperer") watches a morning sunrise with one of his best friends, Rosie. 

On the day that I got to meet Andy I was greeted with classic country hospitality and noticed that he had all of the positive qualities of an honest, hard working farmer. His dirtied hands and torn up jeans wore his experience like a medal, and you could see his heart and grit just by how he'd jump right into any task no matter how difficult it looked. I also discovered that he had a great sense of humor when I asked why he decided to own Alpacas, who I noticed were poking their heads out from behind a fence and snorting at me as I arrived. He laughed, and in his words "I just love how alien the look. They make the weirdest sounds and they're just so bizarre and lovable!" I also found out that he took great care of his eccentric little herd and fed them some prime treats. On top of their evening grain feeds and constant grazing sessions with the local the deer, they also got to enjoy all the leftover micro greens that grew too big or plentiful for the business' orders. 

As we chatted about the alien Alpacas we made our way to the greenhouse, and immediately upon entering it I was stunned with its impressive blending of technology and nature. The space was immaculately clean and organized, there were automatic rails moving the roof around like a Tetris board (adjusting for better sunlight), and throughout its interior were dozens of massive, swiveling metal tables filled to the brim with micro greens.

Curiosity was biting in my brain and I had to ask Andy what the micro greens were made of and he proceeded to show me all the colorful varieties. Cilantro, radish, arugula, basil, mustard, lentil, carrots sprouts, and dozens of other plants were on the menu, and there were even some other unique crops like edible flowers and assorted lettuces too. I felt like I was looking into a tasty rainbow, and when the giant industrial fans fired up (to regulate the greenhouse's temperature) the delectable airborne medley of spices, sweets, and floras entering my nose was intoxicating.

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Since the greens had already ensnared my stomach as well as my attention, I decided to spend my first day capturing some close-up, intimate photos of them. The lighting inside the greenhouse was already immaculate so I only had to set up a single light, and for some photos I even exclusively used natural light, which is something I rarely do. Speaking further on this, if you ever get the chance to shoot inside a greenhouse then I highly recommend it. The thick  frosted glass is perfect at resembling a gigantic diffusion disk, and since the light cascades down from above it also gives every subject a flawless hair/rim light. 

As far as angles were concerned, I wanted to get very low and close to the plants, almost as if you were viewing a miniature landscape or a forest. To better emphasize that art direction I also shot at a shallow depth of field (usually with a telephoto set between f/2.0 to f/4.0). To me, a shallow depth of field makes a photo feel more three dimensional and immersive, and the blurred edges also draws the viewer's eyes towards a center point of interest.

Green Chinese leek microgreens. 

Red radish microgreens.

Organic pea shoot microgreens.

One butterhead lettuce seed managed to sneak its way into this entire flat of Bronze Mignonette.

A close-up on a pair of edible flowers. These can be bought at high-end grocery stores and are also used by fancy Denver restaurants for garnish. 

The sheer variety of plants gave me plenty of creative material to work with, and as the shoot progressed I wanted to add a relatable, human connection. I thought back on Andy's cast-iron hands and brought him over to interact with some of the plants. His chipped fingernails, sunburnt skin, bruises, and scars all told a story about his commitment and sacrifice to help these fragile plants grow, and it was also a beautiful way to reflect on how special it is to nurture life.

On the second day of shooting I returned early in the morning with a full agenda for only portraits, and since I had actually never shot portraits inside a greenhouse before I was really giddy with creative ideas.


Again the alien Alpacas greeted me with their hilarious hums, snorts, and goggling, and this time Andy invited me into their corral for a little meet and greet. The baby of the group, Rosie, had by far the biggest personality. She quickly approached me with max curiosity, and more like a cat than an Alpaca, she sniffed my face, stretched towards my hands, and heavily leaned into some demanded head scratches. 

Andy later let the herd out of their corral and the last I saw of Rosie was her bounding towards a group of wild deer resting peacefully in the pasture. They seemed to be all too familiar with her antics and frantically away as she chased them like an overly cuddly T-Rex.

Back inside the greenhouse: I decided to kick off the day by working on Andy's portraits first, and with these I really wanted to experiment with the greenhouse's available geometry. Everywhere I looked there were metal supports, rails, shelves, tabletops, hoses and other structures that I could place the farmer into -  which would lead to some very satisfying environmental framings. Also just like in the previous day's plant photos, I shot at a shallow depth of field to enhance the immersion.                 

We also shot a photo with a hopeful magazine cover in mind. Since every time I looked in Andy's direction he was shuffling flats of micro greens around, I had him grab two of them and stand in-between the tables. Just like in the previous shots, I used the architecture and equipment to build a frame, but this time with leading lines going towards him. 


The ever-present sky light was also still a great friend and casted a natural hair light on Andy's head. I wanted to preserve that effect, so in order to blend my strobe with the natural light I raised my beauty dish high above and mimicked the exact direction.  

Next up was a shoot with another team member named Laura. She had a soft, gentle, and peaceful personality that I wanted to preserve, so for her portrait I slightly overexposed the light to make it warm, sunny, and soothing. I was also lucky enough to catch her while she was working on a large flat of butterhead lettuce, which was a fantastic prop. 

One of the farmers, Laura, carries a freshly watered flat of butterhead lettuce towards the cutting table. In about 5 minutes the lettuce will be cleaned and bagged, and the next morning it will already be delivered and eaten inside a Denver restaurant. 

Laura, Tamara, and Andy all begin to harvest some different micro greens. 

To finish up the shoot I wanted to capture some of the extra work tasks that went into the company's daily routine. One such task was when I watched Andy answer some emails from local Denver restaurant chefs as he simultaneously notified his team about what new orders were coming in. I was especially fond of the props around his table (like the turkey feather, the horseshoe, and the pack of working man's food, a.k.a. granola bars) and how you could see the greenhouse from behind his office window. To me, this photo was a perfect representation of modern farming and how it requires a combination of both new-age and traditional skills.

Andy loads some boxes of microgreens for the next day's customers. On delivery days he gets up as early as 1:00am and drives over 150 miles. 

Conclusion

Out here in Colorado, agriculture is a massively crucial industry. It's also highly competitive and tough to stand out in, but thanks to Mountain Man Micro Farms' creative crop variety and innovative technology, I think they've carved out a very special place for themselves. 


I also can't give them enough credit for their hard work ethic and inspiring resiliency. There's something very special about farming and the spirit and nerve it requires, and overall it can teach us all a great lesson about what it takes to get something done. We consumers sometimes forget to appreciate the people behind the food we eat, but after this experience I know I'll never look at my produce the same again.


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