FamilyFarmed EXPO Screening: Fresh

March 13 2010 - 6:16 PM

At the Family Farmed Expo this weekend, they held a screening of the documentary Fresh. This was released in the spring of 2009, but was somewhat overshadowed by the comparatively big-budget and Oscar-nominated Food, Inc. Both films discuss the problems embedded in our industrial food system, and inform viewers about the hidden tolls on your health and the environment every time you eat heavily-processed foods. The omnipresent Michael Pollan arrives to tell you sternly, "Cheap food is an illusion. The real cost is paid somewhere."

All this is fine and dandy, but for someone who has heard Michael Pollan speak and already done some light reading on sustainable food systems, the movie is preaching to the choir. There wasn't a whole lot in the way of new information. The more interesting component of Fresh is the way director Sofia Joanes uses a character-driven format to introduce concepts and motivate teaching without sounding pedantic. In a series of portraits, you get to meet a variety of farmers, activists and supermarket entrepreneurs who are working to challenge and overturn the industrial food complex. The footage is a fascinating glimpse into their lives and the choices they face, which will in turn impact all of us.

We are introduced to Joel Salatin, a farmer from Swoope, VA (who is also prominently featured in Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and Food, Inc). He avoids the use of chemicals while incorporating environmentally holistic techniques to raise livestock. "Chemical agriculture is like a drug trip, it takes more and more every year to get the same kick." You watch as his cattle graze on a verdant field of grass and clover, followed three days later by the "Eggmobile," a portable chicken coop. The chickens root through the cow dung to eat protein-rich fly larvae, while further fertilizing the field. "We're farming grass," Salatin said simply. "If we take care of the grass, it will take care of us." As he greets his flock of chickens in the morning, Salatin notes that they are equal partners in the operation, and that he respects the chicken-ness of the chicken, rather than forcing it into unnatural confinement conditions. Confining too many of one species in one place is a recipe for disaster, and this goes for rats, kids, pigs…

On the conventional farming end of the spectrum, we meet Russ Kremer, a hog farmer from Frankenstein, MO. One day, he was gored by the tusk of a hog, and his leg ballooned to double in size. He had contracted an antibiotic-resistant staph infection, and the doctors were running out of ways to treat it. After his near-death experience, he made the brave decision to exterminate his herd, and start over with a new set of hormone and antibiotic-free animals.

Some of the most exciting footage follows Growing Power's Will Allen, the founder of one of the nation's most successful urban farms. With farms located in Milwaukee and Chicago, Growing Power is able to grow chemical-free produce for urban communities trapped in food-deserts. But Allen's farms are much more than simply food production, they aim to educate and empower their communities with food systems that are equitable and environmentally sound. As you watch Allen hold a large clump of dirt wriggling with worms (black gold, he calls it), you can't help but smile.

In fact, his enthusiasm is infectious. Growing Power Co-Director Karen Parker admits in interview that she was not a vegetable person, but has now changed her ways, in large part due to Allen's prodding. "I would go down the street to you-know-who to get lunch," she said, "and he'd say, 'Do you know what you're eating? Do you know what that's doing to you?' I'd say, 'Hush, I'm hungry.' But now I eat more vegetables than I did my entire life. When I first started working here, farmers would come by and drop off chicken and steaks and tell me, try some. It was fresh. Too fresh. They would tell me where it came from, and the name of the animal that it came from. I used to say, 'That's too fresh! My food doesn't have a name!'"

In the end, I think that progress toward a safer, more sustainable food system will be slow unless there is legislative force behind it. This post from 2007 has a chart on the relative proportions of subsidies for agricultural products that pretty much speaks for itself. However, Fresh does offer a small sense of empowerment, noting that you can vote with your dollars. Every food purchase you make is a choice between the old and new paradigms. If everyone made the decision to spend $10 a month on local products that support small farmers, the aggregate impact would be tremendous.

To find a Fresh screening near you, check out the free screenings on the website. Or, if you are interested in that other food documentary, Food, Inc will be shown on PBS on April 21st at 9 pm. And later this spring, Fresh will also be sponsoring a series of FRESH Restaurant Weeks in major cities, including Chicago. Details are forthcoming, but it looks the movie's theatrical release will be paired with events at restaurants that use locally-sourced and sustainably-produced ingredients.