Stephen Allen Photographs The Final Frontier of Farming

October 3, 2013

By Jacqui Palumbo

© Stephen Allen

All images from the story "Space Farming: The Final Frontier" from the second issue of <em>Modern Farmer.</em>

Photographer Stephen Allen has spent much of his life in and around Orlando, Florida, and his proximity to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) has always influenced his intrigue in space. “Stepping out into the backyard to watch an Apollo or Space Shuttle mission never lost its excitement for me,” he says, mentioning that one of his uncles worked on the Apollo program when he was young. 
When Allen was offered the opportunity to photograph an editorial on farming in space, he jumped at the chance. He had worked with the photo editor Ayanna Quint before, but this was a new magazine in its infancy— the second issue of Modern Farmer. Allen was familiar with the first issue, and was “knocked out” by the content and quality of photography. “Food and agriculture, sustainable and otherwise, seems to be at the forefront of our collective mindset right now, with people wanting to know more about where their food comes from and the technology behind it,” he explains. The first issue had been very well received — Allen would later meet up with a group of local designers for drinks, and after mentioning that he had just shot an editorial for the publication, their reaction made him feel like “the coolest kid in class.”
Space farming has been a topic of interest as of late. The Modern Farmer article, written by Jesse Hirsch, opens by introducing NASA astronaut Donald Pettit’s 2012 project “Diary of a Space Zucchini,” where Pettit wrote entries from the perspective of the budding zucchini plant aboard his shuttle. Private and government-funded programs around the world have taken an interest in studying space farming, viewing it as an eligible option if Earth’s livability were to be exhausted. NASA expects to grow vegetables in orbit by the end of 2013, but for now the project is being studied on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center, where Allen paid a visit for the story.
Allen was tasked with visiting two locations at the space center, and he coordinated a shot list with Hirsch beforehand. He was given free reign on how he shot the subject, so he approached the shot from an architectural perspective using tilt-shift lenses for perspective correction. He says, “I wanted to convey a scientific, clinical vibe in the images and the straight lines in the interior shots help reinforce that idea.” He packed Nikkor 24mm, 45mm, 85mm lenses along with an old 35mm lens, as well as ring flash lights and Elinchrom heads with 12×12 silks to bring on location.
A few days before the shoot, Allen found out the lettuce at KSC, which part of the shoot was centered around, had been harvested. “When I heard this, I gave myself 10 seconds to panic,” Allen says. “Then I started calling farms until I found a place in Sanford, Florida that grew hydroponic lettuce.” 
The farm only offered one strain of lettuce, and Allen decided to purchase $40 of it as a substitute. He wasn’t sure he would be allowed to use it if he asked beforehand, so he packed it in a Pelican case with enough water to cover the roots and brought it in with the rest of his gear, hoping for the best. When he was told in the lab that there was no lettuce available for him to shoot, he opened the case. The microbiologist, surprised, said it was the same strain they were using for their research. “If it had been a different strain, I wouldn’t have used it,” Allen says. “I feel like we totally lucked out.”
Allen’s images show a hint of what’s to come in the “final frontier” of the farming industry. Hirsch writes that the VEGGIE (Vegetable Production System) program will help solve “one of the biggest issues in space travel: the price of eating.” By December, NASA hopes to grow the first bunch of lettuce in space, which will take only 28 days to harvest under bright-pink LED lights.

To read “Space Farming: The Final Frontier” in full, visit the Modern Farmer website.
For more from Stephen Allen, visit his website.