by Richard von Busack
Superfarmer is back! Joel Salatin, the engaging Virginia agriculturalist seen in Food, Inc and interviewed in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, returns in Ana Sofia Joanes’s documentary Fresh. (It opens Oct 1 at the Oaks in Berkeley, the Smith Rafael in San Rafael, and the Red Vic and the Opera Plaza in San Francisco.) Let’s say Fresh breaks little new ground…rather, it lovingly cultivates some already fecund soil.
The optimistic documentary carries on the work of earlier studies about the way we get our nourishment.
The kind of information discussed in Fresh will always be fresh news. This summer’s recall of 500 million eggs—just the latest contamination scandal—proves the urgency of changing our way of farming and ranching.
So count me as one who can’t get enough of Salatin’s life and opinions, as he farms his spread in Swoope, Virginia. Bursting with enthusiasm as he is, Salatin seems to spend his off hours patiently discussing his methods with journalists via telephone. In Fresh, we learn more about the history of Polyface Farms, a place so damn pretty most kids would have rejected lunchboxes painted with it as too impossibly sweet.
Salatin is the 50ish son of a father who went back to the land. The elder Salatin picked up a degraded, hilly spread seemingly suitable only for industrial-scale corn farming. Careful husbanding brought brought the land back; today Salatin has rotating pasturage for cows, which is followed up by chickens in a mobile coop. Salatin is seen cheerily greeting his hens (“Good morning, birdies!”) as he releases them to glean the bugs in the chewed over pasture. It’s all part of the symbiotic relationship of ruminants and ground-birds, which existed for eons before chickens were cooped in mega-sheds.
Joanes’ conclusions may seem idealistic. Farmers are pragmatic people, though, and no one is seriously suggesting a return to antique methods (though, on that note, a rising number of Midwestern farms have been revived by the Amish, who must know something). The natural question is whether middle-sized farms with small-scale, more intensive labor can feed as many people as industrial-scale farming.
Pollan, interviewed here, suggests that the phrasing of the question is wrong: what’s being raised today is overloads of corn and soybean, at artificially low prices disguising the expense of fuel and fertilizer. The grain is stuffed into the stomachs of steers, leaving fat feedlot cattle pooping out E coli laden waste, caused by a grain-rich diet. And industrial chicken and pig farming create vast lagoons of crap teeming with antibiotics and hormones.
Fresh focuses on other small agriculturalists, who are far more interesting than the putatively fascinating celebs strutting their stuff on TV.
Meet hog farmer Russ Kremer of Frankenstein, Missouri (!) who had a scary brush with a man-made monster himself.
Once he was a larger-scale hog farmer, doling out antibiotics for his immured, diarrhea-wracked swine. One day a boar tusked his leg. He got a drug-resistant infection that nearly crippled him.
Kremer started over again with a smaller herd of about 300 pigs, allowed to roam and graze instead of being kept in sheds, and he saved $14k a year in drugs and vet bills the first year.
For a man obsessed with earthworms (“My babies!”) the 6’ 7” Will Allen of Growing Power farm at Milwaukee has terrific charisma. Today a small-scale urban dirt-scratcher, he was once the son of a sharecropper, a former college basketball star, and a suit-wearing marketer at Procter and Gamble.
Allen is now a MacArthur Foundation laureate bringing fresh produce to “food deserts” in other hard-hit Midwestern cities; we see glimpses of a system he uses to farm tilapias, using their waste to fertilize greenhouses where he and his partners grows tons of food for locals. Meanwhile Growing Power takes in 6000 pounds of city produce scraps in the worm bins and compost heaps.
Then there’s George Naylor, a conventional (non-organic) farmer, a scholarly-looking party who was the former president of the National Family Farm Coalition; he gives us a tour of the monocultures taking over the rich terroir of Iowa.
The reverse side of modern farming is on display too; interviews with “Mr and Mrs. Fox”, Arkansas chicken ranchers who have to hire out prison trustees to catch their shed-raised birds because the work is too tough for free men to do.
And Fresh outlines how ever-merging conglomerates are taking over the growing and distribution of beef. Alas, we can’t expect an Illinois-based politician like Barack Obama to take on Archer Daniel Midland. The horrific excesses of industrial chicken and hog farming are glimpsed via hidden cameras.
The struggle to change the way we raise food is as exciting a fight as we may see in our lives. Before us, we have the possibility to feed and make a hungry world healthy, through less cruelty and far less waste. And Fresh suggests the battlefronts are as close as the nearest cash register.