It's not too late to save the farm


Special to The Progressive Populist

When farms fail in Vermont, the great eastern woodlands quickly grow over the pastures and barns. In Florida, the old cattle ranches are replaced so rapidly by development that a kind of amnesia about the land sets in. But on the Great Plains, abandoned homesteads are visible from any roadway, their rotting boards rattling like ghosts.

More farms go under now, in the 1990's, than did at the height of the Depression, and the effect, whether in the Northeast, the South, or the prairie, is unspeakably sad. Yet this hemorrhage of our country's rural heart is considered normal, like illness in a aging relative.

We, being a small film company called Miranda Productions, set out in 1990 to make a film about sustainable agriculture, which we named My Father's Garden. I was the producer, and Miranda Smith (who grew up on a farm), the director. Miranda found the main character for our film, Fred Kirschenmann, at a conference on organic agriculture in Washington, DC.

The Kirschenmann Family Farm in Medina, North Dakota, is 3,000 acres, produces grain and livestock, and has been fully organic since 1977.

Their yields are as good as, or better than, the best conventional farms in the area, and the family has not had to borrow for operating expenses since the early 1980s. Since Fred pioneered the use of large-scale organic agriculture, its use has spread far and wide across the northern plains and has created pockets of renewed vigor in once blighted and lonely towns.

We see Fred as a a messenger of success and hope for a nation beset with environmental and economic problems

Also in 1990, Jeanne Jordan and her husband Steve Ascher began filming a documentary about her parent's farm in Iowa; they called it Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern.

The Jordans, conventional farmers, were in danger of being foreclosed after their sympathetic bank manager was ousted in a merger. Jeanne tells the story of how her father and mother sacrificed everything they had built, from the prize-winning herd to the beloved dining room table, in order to save the farm for their children.

At the end, Jeanne likens her parents to Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in High Noon., turning their backs on the past and riding off into the sunset. It is a funny, bittersweet, loving portrait of a family in crisis.

Both films took five years to finish. Both films ended up at the Sundance Film Festival, the Promised Land for filmmakers, in 1996. Troublesome Creek went on to win both the Best Documentary and the Grand Jury Prize and eventually an Academy Award nomination. We became "the other farming film". Both are very fine films, but Troublesome Creek got more attention, and I think the reason for this became clear to me at its screening at Sundance.

At the Q & A session afterwards, someone asked Jeanne if she was angry about what happened to her parents. She said, no, she believed her parents had simply been caught in a time when the family farm was becoming obsolete, much like the steel industry. It wasn't anyone's fault, it was just what it was. The audience nodded, some wept silently, but they all agreed: there was nothing to be done.

Miranda and I had to hold each other down. Our film, our beliefs, our story, was so different from that prevailing view that it was all we could do to keep from shouting out like a pair of lunatics: Don't believe it!

Although I read enough about agriculture in the course of those five years to qualify for a degree, I'm never going to know what any farmer knows through experience. What I do know about are stories.

We construct our worlds out of our beliefs, and our beliefs are carried to us in the form of narratives: myths, scriptures, histories, dramas, news reports. Reason, statistics, and evidence are all embellishments to story. Once we have accepted a certain belief, we will reject any story that does not agree with it and embrace any story that does.

This is obvious when contemplating racists and conspiracy theorists, but not so clear when we look at our own belief systems.

The story heard most often in agriculture is that farms will get bigger and more reliant upon technology than ever before. This is because we need the food to feed an expanding population and the "old" ways of farming are simply not up to the task. The family farm will go the way of the horse and buggy. Troublesome Creek puts a human face on this passage, and we are reminded to mourn.

But while we are distracted by the spectacle of tragedy, we fail to notice that our collective future is being sacrificed.

The real story being acted out here is the Labyrinth: The farmer enters a maze of chemical dependency, bureaucracy, Keynesian economics and trade, and is devoured by the Minotaur, the god of profit.

The food business is highly lucrative for everybody except farmers; they currently have so little status in the business that they are labelled "the growers," one insignificant stopping point on the trip the "product" makes from field to table. In this demented scenario, farmers will eventually disappear altogether.

PEOPLE REACT TO the story of the inevitable March of Progress with dismay, but they rarely question it. Vast sums of money are spent yearly to assure its implantation in the American psyche: For example, chemical manufacturers gave $13 million last year in campaign contributions to our policymakers, and around a billion dollars to universities and foundations for research.

A tidal wave of advertising pours out of corporate-owned media and crashes into unsuspecting minds every day. "Experts" tell us how to interpret the conflicts that arise between what our hearts tell us and what we think we believe in.

The story told in My Father's Garden is quite different. It's a classic story of the hero (Fred) who makes a long and difficult journey and brings back a wonderful gift for all mankind. Although it appears to be a system of agriculture, this gift he shares with us is hope, hope for our human future and hope for the healing of our planet.

In essence, all farmers are heros, and seeds of wisdom. They carry the knowledge of how to manage the land properly, and sustainable agriculture depends upon and honors this knowledge. We made this film because we believe this story. The other one has a rotten ending, and we can't live with it.

Agribusiness claims that sustainable agriculture is neither realistic nor viable. We have to ask, what's the alternative?

When all the farmers are gone, when all the topsoil blows away, when all the groundwater is sucked up or poisoned, when genetic diversity is compromised, how are we going to make food? Bioengineering? Nanotechnolo-gy? Another myth, and a dangerous one.

If we can't successfully figure out how to grow food in the same place forever, we certainly can't make food on demand like on board the Starship Enterprise.

THE CONVENTIONAL SYSTEM of agriculture is not a sustainable system. There are many, many reasons why this is so, from its disastrous environmental consequences to its skewed economics to the way it mutilates our relationship with other beings. But the common theme of My Father's Garden, Troublesome Creek, and this article is what conventional agribusiness does to farmers.

Besides losing his life on the land, Mr. Jordan has also lost his health and his wife, although these are not mentioned in the film. The wonderful Mrs. Jordan succumbed in 1995 to cancer; statistically she was at a greater risk because she lived on a farm. Mr. Jordan has Parkinson's, a disease that is six times more prevalent in farmers than it is in the general population.

And why did the Jordans accumulate so much debt in the first place? Any farmer could tell you: insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, hybrid seeds -- all tools of the conventional system.

When Fred scoops up (or rather pries loose), a handful of his neighbor's conventionally farmed land and compares it to a handful of his organically farmed land, audiences literally gasp. The first handful bears a strong resemblance to cement. Fred's land is so rich and healthy looking you can almost smell it.

Such is the power of images, that they can shake loose an assumption which reason can't even approach. What I saw that day from behind the camera is that the earth is alive, and I personally want food that comes out of earth which is treated with respect.

We want every person who shops in this country to understand that when they buy organic food they are supporting a system that is good for farmers, for the environment, for their health, and for their future. This is one way that they can transform themselves from "consumers" into citizens. This is a story that we hope never has an ending.

Abigail Wright is a film producer in Boulder, Colo. My Father's Garden is available on video from Bullfrog Films, 1-800-543-FROG. For more information see thewebsite at, call (303) 546-0880, mail PO Box 4624, Boulder CO 80306 or email miranda@

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