A Fresh Look – a review of Fresh, the movie

Ever since watching Food, Inc. and Fat Head, The Movie a couple of years ago, we’ve been on a “food film” jag, hunting down and watching every filmed documentary about industrial food, sustainable farming and healthy diets we can find (and there are quite a few on Netflix).  Fresh, which enjoyed a limited release in theatres in 2009, was just released on DVD and we ordered – and watched – it eagerly.  This is Beloved’s review, and it’s a good one.  A trailer for the film is at the end; please watch it, as well.

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The film Fresh, directed by Ana Sofia Joanes, is indeed a fresh look at the hazards of our industrial food system and the benefits of local and sustainable farming. It is an emotionally compelling look at the contrast between industrial CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Farming Operations) and pastoral heritage farming. Like the documentary Food, Inc., it contrasts the monoculture industrial food system with the medium-sized sustainable farmer representing the local food movement. It picks up where Food Inc. left off by offering an optimistic vision of sustainable farming solutions in contrast to the industrial system. The story is the same: monoculture agriculture promises to cheaply feed the world at the cost of non-renewable resources and tax rebates, where the real price is far more dear than that of higher quality, albeit higher priced, local sustainable food that is being destroyed by the economic and political power of the few companies that comprise the industrial food system. Several of the characters are the same, including Joel Salatin, a renowned sustainable farmer and Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. A compelling story is told through the trials and realizations of conventional farmers and those evolving and succeeding at the next generation of sustainable farming. For those who understand the detriment of the current food industry to our health and our world, this is an inspiring film that offers an optimistic future.  Yet, the concluding call to action is to wait for government resolution to a problem that the government created in the first place.

Several farmers explain their unique position in surviving and defining the shifts in the food industry. The Fox family represents the CAFO chicken farmers who invested in confined mass chicken houses and are being financially squeezed by their relationship with one of the few companies that own the vertically integrated chicken industry.

Russ Kremer came out of college and got “hung up” following his newly learned tactics to drive productivity by converting his family farm to industrial practices that included antibiotic treatments that ultimately lead to a resistance in his pigs and a personal infection that nearly killed him.  He went “cold turkey” when he finally realized that “when you have only one choice, you have no choice” and killed off his entire stock and threw away the syringe. Since then he has built a successful self-sustaining pig farm that hasn’t used antibiotics for fourteen years.

George Naylor, also featured in The Omnivores Dilemma, represents the conventional subsidized Iowa farmer, focusing on mono-crop production based on petroleum and the required chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The imbalance of mono-crop agriculture leaves the topsoil open to erosion – about 50% of Iowa’s top soil has been lost in the last 50 years. Andrew Kimbrell, a public interest attorney, activist and author, states that as we have “lost 90% of our diversity; our soil is being depleted at thirteen times the rate it can be replaced.” Not many people living outside now barren areas (such as the “Fertile Crescent”) understand that top soil can’t be replaced. And while Naylor has so far resisted GMO crops, most have not.

The movie horrifies us with images of these mono-crops being shipped (read, more petroleum) hundreds of miles away to CAFO’s where cattle, crammed together, ankle deep in their own excrement, are fed subsidized grains they aren’t evolved to digest, along with the antibiotics required to keep them alive. As Joel Salatin states:

“…you can go down the line, avian flu, mad cow, salmonella, pfiesteria, Camphylobacter, ecoli, just go down the line and every single one of these things is nature speaking to us today, screaming at our industrialized culture, saying, ‘ENOUGH!’”

Michael Pollan confirms that “monocultures are a dangerous thing… nature doesn’t like monocultures; sooner or later she will destroy them.” Joel further elaborates:

“70% of all the row crops in the United States, which represent most of the genetically engineered crops, the petroleum, the erosion and the negative things in agriculture, are grown for multi-stomached herbivores which aren’t supposed to eat that anyway. Only 30% goes to people, pigs and poultry.”

In contrast, the Salatin family has turned a barren farm with depleted top soil into one of the brightest stars in local sustainable farming by working with nature to develop a poly-culture community that doesn’t need chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Joel is first and foremost a grass farmer – harvesting solar energy that is converted by ruminants into proteins and healthy fats. Cows, fed only grasses as nature intends, are herded from field to field and followed by Joel’s egg mobiles where chickens feed on the larvae in the cow patties.  Instead of manure lagoons, Joel is rebuilding his top soil naturally.  Where his neighbor, farming only beef, is making $150 per acre, Joel claims he is getting “$3,000 per acre …and we haven’t planted a seed or bought an ounce of chemical fertilizer in fifty years.”

Several success stories illustrate the inspiring optimism of this documentary.

One of the most impressive farmers is Will Allen, an urban farmer who runs Growing Power in Milwaukee.  Starting with 3 acres of inner city land, he has created a poly-culture farm on a small scale that uses no chemicals. In his greenhouses he raises 150 varieties of greens alongside a tank of 4,000 tilapia fish which provides fertilizer for the plants.  His vermicomposting converts 6 million pounds of food waste from the Milwaukee landfills per year into what he calls “black gold” – rich, fertile soil.

Diana Endicott runs Good Natured Family Farms, a coop of 75 independent farms near the Kansas City metropolitan area providing local and sustainable foods to independent grocers that are being pushed out of the market by forces such as Wal-mart (which will soon be selling trans-genetically modified ears of corn). In one heartfelt scene, one of Dianna’s farmers brings the optimism home, tearfully saying,

“I’ve been a family farmer ever since I was five years old… and I have been through a lot of struggles and this is all I have ever wanted to do. But you talk about the greatest opportunities in my lifetime, it’s right now. ‘Cause I know, that’s what the consumer wants. They want MY pigs”.

Indeed, this is a well-executed film that explains some terrifying realities using an emotional appeal to get us to take back control of our food system, and the harsh realities are often offset by an idyllic optimism. But an underlying message of the movie suggests that the solution depends upon more regulation.  John Ikerd, of the University of Missouri, blames industrialization for exploiting labor. Michael Pollan suggests that decentralization of the food supply is critical for national security as less people can suffer from epidemics and crop failures – his solution is to shift government subsidies from the industrial to the sustainable farmer. George Naylor comes across as an apologetic conventional farmer who seems to have surrendered his fate saying by jumping into the sinking lifeboat, “many farmers have done what they had to do to survive and knowing full well that it is not the best thing for themselves or for society.” Naylor hopes he can only hang on until he can ”transition back to something that is more sane once we get the policy that’s going to support an agriculture that is sustainable and supports family farms across the board.” It is also suggested that food deserts should be subsidized so people have access to good food when in reality if they wanted it, it would be on their store shelves. They erroneously believe the government will solve our problems: if we could only get the right people in power, power will no longer be corrupt.

But the movie redeems itself in its message and its belief in the power of enlightenment and individuals. The optimism of the movie is best expressed by Will Allen and Diana Endicott. I agree with Allen that only by educating the consumer is “how you grow a movement.”  Endicott understands that it is the consumer who will make the difference and states:

“Consolidation is growing at such a rate, not just in the food industry, but in all industries, that probably the first and foremost thing…I truly believe that we are trying to sustain is consumer choice.”

Endicott pleads for a modest change and suggests each of us of spend only $10 a month on local foods.  Both are right. We won’t correct the injustice of interference and more controls – we can merely battle this issue with the only fair vote we have: our wallets. How much of your food budget is spent within 100 miles? How much of your food budget is spent on petroleum, chemicals, and diminishing soil resources? Health benefits aside, do you still think the higher price tag of sustainable farming costs more in the long run? As John Ikerd explains, “it just happens, one person at a time, one farmer, one consumer at a time.” Are you next?

Preserving The Harvest

Do you like this month’s theme?  I’m not entirely sure I like the execution of the banner – I wasn’t thinking “long and skinny” when I took the photo and as a result could not get it to fit into the entire banner space (at least so you could tell what it is).  Other than that, though, I’m quite please with it…especially since I threw it together in about 20 minutes last night. 🙂    It also fits right in with this week’s Spin Cycle, which is “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.”  ‘Cause see those jars, fruits and vegetables?  That’s basically what I’ve spent the summer doing:  obtaining, cooking, preserving and eating locally and sustainably grown food.

Let’s take an inventory of the jars, shall we?  We have chicken stock, beef stock, homemade mayonnaise, lard, carrots, green beans, bread and butter pickles, garlic dill pickles, and tomato sauce.  I forgot the jars of pickled eggs and beets in the fridge in the garage.  I am going to add to all of this before it’s all said and done – more carrots, if I can get enough of them, more green beans, more tomato sauce, apple butter and/or apple sauce, pumpkin pureé, butternut squash pureé, more cucumber pickles, pickled beets and anything else I can get my hands on that’s suitable to can.  And, of course, more beef and chicken stock, as well as lard and tallow.

I’d never thought about canning until last summer.  Beloved was out of town on one of his extended business trips, The Young One was in Texas and I was alone for the weekend.  Saturday morning I visited the Podunk farmer’s market and the folks who became my CSA co-op providers had a ton of extra roma tomatoes, which are really the best kind for sauces.  I bought a huge box of them, then made a trip to WalMart and purchased a water-bath canner and two cases of pint jars.  I spent the rest of the day peeling, seeding, chopping and cooking the tomatoes down to a sauce, then carefully sanitizing the jars and lids.  When it was all said and done, I had four whole pints of tomato sauce.

Yes.  Four.  Undeterred, I purchased more tomatoes the next week and canned four more jars of tomato sauce.

What I was unprepared for was how much I enjoyed the whole canning process.  Yes, it can be a lot of hard work and you need a pressure canner once you begin preserving stocks, meats and non-acidic fruits and vegetables (while a water bath canner is relatively inexpensive, a good quality pressure canner will set you back a few bucks), but it also quite rewarding.  And once I got over my fear of killing my entire family with botulism, I found that taking those jars off the shelf and using the contents gave me a satisfaction that was equally surprising.  I knew what was in them, and the sauce tasted far better than anything I’d ever purchased at the store, organic or not.

This year, I already have a lot more tomato sauce put away – 16 pints so far – and I plan to have a lot more before it’s all said and done.  Of course, I’m still learning – do NOT cook the carrots before you pressure can them, or they will be way too soft (but still tasty) – but in many ways I already feel like a “pro.”  And it’s helped that I am no longer worried that my pressure canner is going to “go ‘splode,” as Darling Daughter puts it (you can cook in it too, which is beginning to intrigue me).  But mostly, it makes our determination to eat locally and sustainably as much as possible so much easier, even in the winter.

If anyone is interested in the process – and recipes – for all of this, let me know.  I’ll be thrilled to post all about it in the coming weeks.

Next up:  learning how to get the most out of our dehydrator.  Beef jerky, anyone?

Green Vista Farm

I received a wonderful telephone call yesterday.

“Hello, I’m with White Feather Meats – I wanted to let you know that your order will be ready tomorrow.”

As you probably know, we recently ordered a side of grass-fed, 100% pastured beef.  It took us at least a couple of weeks of research before we did, and I’m glad we did the research.  A great many local farmers pasture their animals – until they reach a certain weight.  Then they move them to a feedlot where the cattle are fed grains, which reverses most of the benefits of being grass-fed (conversely, you can remove an animal from a feedlot and pasture it, and the damage done by being grain-fed will be reversed).  Many of these beef farmers will keep an animal pastured if you request it and we nearly went this route, since it was a tad cheaper than the option we ultimately chose.

There were two reasons we didn’t choose the less expensive option:  First, these people are not experts at raising 100% pastured animals, and we simply weren’t willing to spend a large chunk of money on something we couldn’t be completely sure about.  You can go into their bustling little retail store and purchase the meat (which is quite tasty), but I couldn’t get anyone to talk to us about visiting the farm or speaking with the people who actually raise the cattle.

The second reason was Jon Berger of Green Vista Farm.  Jon is an expert at raising totally pastured animals; a half hour conversation with him is nothing short of enlightening.  He is very passionate about what he does – you can tell he loves it, and understands exactly why his methods of cattle farming are so very important.  And not only are his farming practices ethical, so are his business practices; when I initially called Jon to speak to him about purchasing a side of beef, he suggested I go to White Feather Meats – the small, family-owned business that processes his beef and sells it in their tiny retail store – and purchase some before we bought the entire side.  He wanted us to make sure this meat is what we wanted before we made the kind of investment buying an entire side of beef at one time required.

So, we did – and the beef is absolutely delicious.

When I called Jon again to discuss how to go about purchasing our meat, I asked if it would be possible to visit his farm – his answer was a hearty “Of course!  Just let me know when you want to come out!”

Then I asked him if I could bring my camera.  Again, his answer was an enthusiastic, “Sure!”

So, days after placing our order and being given the “hanging weight” of our beef, we headed to Jon’s farm on our way to Cincinnati, camera and check for our purchase in hand.

Grazing Cattle
A Bull and Farm Equipment

This is Jon’s son, coming in from the fields on a large piece of esoteric (to me, anyway) farming equipment.  That’s the farm’s bull in the foreground.  Green Vista actually boasts three bulls, but only this one is allowed to breed for the time being; they are very careful about the breeding of their cattle.

A Cute Calf

This sweet little guy was in a pen outside of the barn – Jon told us he usually resides in the field with the bulls (that are kept separate from the steers that will eventually go to market), but he had put him in the pen while his son was in the field on the large and potentially dangerous farming machinery.  He was also the only calf on the farm, and seemed far too young to be weaned.  And he was; apparently, most calves stand moments after their birth – this baby did not.  He didn’t stand for some time, and rather than leave him with his mother to see if he’d live or die, Jon took him to his farm and is raising him, which is quite a commitment for such a busy (but obviously compassionate) farmer.

Chickens

There were quite a few chickens running about, doing the things chickens are supposed to be doing, and when I asked about the sale of them and/or their eggs, I was disappointed when Jon told me they were laying hens that provided his family with just enough eggs.  “I’m no chicken farmer,” he said, grinning.

Jon Berger

Jon himself, patiently answering our many questions with humor and a great deal of knowledge.

Oh, and one more thing – his prices, as well as those of the folks who are processing the beef, are very reasonable.  I’ve been talking a lot about the investment this has required, but that’s simply because we had to pay for it all at once.  Actually, after it’s all said and done, we paid just over $4 a pound for a supply of meat that will very likely last us at least a year.  When was the last time you paid $4 a pound for a beef tenderloin or a porterhouse?

Live in or near northeast Ohio and are asking “Where’s the beef?”  It’s here, at Jon Berger’s lovely Green Vista Farm.