For three years, Alex Potter has lived in war-torn Yemen, documenting the civilian toll of a war that has brought relentless destruction. She has learned how to flee for shelter during air strikes and witnessed the tragic deaths that follow. But this summer, she shifted gears to tell a story a little closer to home—in her own backyard in Windom, Minnesota, where she used to take summer jobs as a rock picker.
“It was super fun and you got a great tan and you got to get dirty,” she says. “I would pack a lunch and hang out on a flatbed trailer connected to a 1950s John Deere tractor with my friends. Every time there was a rock, someone would yell, ‘rock’ and the kids would jump of, throw it on the trailer and run after the trailer.”
Potter grew up in a farm town populated by 4,000 people. The region—the remains of a prehistoric glacial zone—still has rocky deposits in its soil. So, every year before corn harvest, the soil is tilled and everything below comes to the surface, including rocks, which can damage crops and equipment. Having planted their crops ahead of corn season in June, farmers need to get rid of these pesky disturbances.
Rock picking is a minimum wage-paying, high-energy job for kids who are out of school for the summer, Potter says. “They have nothing else to do, and their parents see it as a way to keep them busy.”
Potter’s images capture the rolling cornfields of Murray County, Jackson County and Cottonwood County. They show the day-long process pickers go through. Some farmers are pickier than others about the size of the rocks that need to be removed – it varies from fist size to arm’s length. Those too large to carry are flagged for others to get later. Many of the rocks are sold for landscaping.
Growing up in small town Windom, Minnesota, Potter says she was always restless. “I always felt different, out of place,” she says. “I tried to distance myself a bit. I’ve always been proud of where I’m from, but I was never satisfied. I wanted to get away from a small town and from Minnesota.” After training as a registered nurse and graduating from Bethel University in 2011, she left for the Middle East. “I went back to Jordan, where I had studied abroad and that was a little too quiet and Yemen was having an election, so I bought a ticket and went,” she says.
Now returning to her hometown, she says she identifies with her native land more than ever before. “This time, coming back, I see a lot of that in myself, whether I wanted to or not. And I’m proud of where I came from.” Her work is an attempt to make life in a small town in Minnesota a little more relatable. “Some people tell me they thought farms didn’t exist anymore, or they have a very provincial view of what farming is,” she says. “I hope people can see this is one slice of rural America that was important to me at a certain time and is still important to a lot of people.”
Alex Potter is a photographer based in the Middle East.