Wednesday, July 01, 2009

FRESH: Return farming to its roots

Last night, I had the pleasure of watching a thought-provoking new food documentary: FRESH by ana Sofia joanes. There are two characteristics that make the film particularly interesting.

First, there is its depiction of a new breed of farmers from around the country who combine the latest technology with age-old farming techniques in trying to combat industrialization and bring some sanity back to the way we produce our food.

Second, there's the fact that the film currently lacks a distributor and showings of it are being organized at a grass-roots level by community members who have been energized around the new food politics through movies like Food, Inc. and books such as The Omnivore's Dilemma (authored by Michael Pollan, who is featured in the film).

Here in my Rogers Park neighborhood, the film was shown to a packed house at the No Exit Cafe, a venue known more for its musical theater performances. The collection of both already committed food activists and the more recently mobilized information seekers, were drawn to the event thanks largely to promotion done on social networking services such as Twitter and Facebook.

The film's appeal definitely lies in its hopeful message. Early on, we meet Joel Salatin whose father rejected the best advice of both government and corporate agricultural experts about how to best increase productivity on the over-exploited, cheap plot of land he had bought. He instead pursued methods of farming that were informed by Nature's own patterns, rather than bottom-line calculations and economies of scale.

One of the images that stuck with me from the film's opening is Salatin watching over a hog as it joyfully rolls in the mud to cool off. Contrast that with the penned-in pigs of industrial farms, which are kept in such close-quarters that they have to have their tails snipped off.

Carrying on in his father's footsteps, Salatin tells us how he allows his animals to express their natures; or as he describes it, a cow's "cowness" and a chicken's "chickenness." Cows, being herbivores, are meant to graze on grass (not grain mixed with animal byproducts) and they're also meant to do so while being constantly herded (not stuck in stalls). Chickens have beaks and claws in order to root through the fields seeking out larvae for food.

In keeping with those Nature-given qualities, Salatin runs his cows over grasslands and then brings the chickens in after them to peck over the herd's leavings. He describes how this labor "honors" the chickens, giving them a valuable role in the life of the farm beyond the laying of eggs. It certainly benefits them (and us the consumer) much more than the cramped cages and beak-removal they experience at most industrial-scale farms in the United States.

Pollan picks up on the point of our unnatural food practices by discussing the concept of "monocultures." He points out that Nature dislikes a lack of variety in species, which has become the norm in our agriculture. In fact, the plagues of pests and disease that afflict such production can be directly attributed to Nature's attempts to defeat the monocultures that our industrial farms create by planting undifferentiated crops on wides swaths of land and by housing the same breeds of animals in over-crowded complexes.

This gives the truth to the lie that farming needs these pesticides and antibiotics in order to increase productivity. They actually rely on the chemicals in order to maintain their unnatural practices, and to feed the bottom lines of the large corporations who sell them, and the others that profit from single-species production. Such a system also turns animal waste into a pollutant, rather than the nutrient it is in an organic cycle, creating an unnecessary social cost.

There are other hidden costs built into our industrial methods of farming, such as driving down the wages of the workers involved at all levels of production and decreasing the nutritional value of the food sold. Not only are these practices unsustainable, but we learn later in the film that statistics actually show mid-sized organic farms to be more productive than their industrial counterparts.

This just touches the surface of the interesting people and ideas you'll discover in the film; another is Will Allen, who runs Growing Power, Inc. in Milwaukee where he tries to win new converts to sustainability by demonstrating the benefits of composting and urban farming.

To experience it all for yourself, see the documentary. You can find out where it's playing, and how to organize a local showing, by visiting the Fresh the movie Website.
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