Hungry Filmmakers

Categories: Events , Films , New York | 2 Comments
Posted Wednesday, December 16th, 2009 at 3:37 pm


Farm Apartment Is In New York!

I get to travel here a couple of times a year since my husband, a die-hard New Yorker, still has his roots here and his parents have a farmhouse about two-hours north of the city.  On this trip, I am excited to check out the urban gardening scene – to see how people are claiming the land in this most densely populated metropolis with the most expensive real estate in the country.

As it turns out, New York is turning into the Big Organic Apple.  Last night, we went to the standing room only “Hungry Filmmakers” event, an evening of provocative documentaries about the new generation of dedicated agro-warriors, scrappy urban-farmers and uber-locavores on the forefront of the new agrarian movement.

All proceeds went to benefit Just Food, which “works to promote access to fresh, seasonal, and sustainably grown food for all New York City residents.”  Delicious.

After a scrumptious dinner at the Spotted Pig and a red velvet cupcake from Magnolia (sometimes I love this city) we walked through the wintery cold to the Anthology Film Archives in the East Village.  The place was jammed packed – standing room only.  Surprised, in a good way, by the vibrant community here, we walked in and took a seat in the aisle as all the theater seats were taken.

Clips from six unreleased films were being shown:

WHAT’S “ORGANIC” ABOUT ORGANIC? by Shelley Rogers – untangling the complexities of this baffling word.

BIG RIVER and TRUCK FARM by Curt Ellis & Ian Cheney – they started a mobile farm in the back of a pickup truck in Brooklyn.  Hilarious.

THE GREENHORNS by Severine von Tscarner Fleming – examines the lives of new farmers

GROWN IN DETROIT by Manfred & Mascha Poppenk – an award-winning documentary about teen moms becoming urban farmers in Detroit.

FACES FROM THE NEW FARM by Liz Thylander, Kat Shiffler & Lara Sheets – three women bike from D.C, to Montreal, interviewing farmers along the way.


While all of the films made these issues come alive, we were both particularly inspired by  “The Greenhorns” a film which explores the lives of young farmers – kids who are basically going for it, with little knowledge and big ideals.

The couple that were interviewed in the short clip we saw were in their 20s, a few years out of college.  The wife described moving to their farm with only their principles, a remark that got a fist pump from her husband. At first, her husband was determined to do all the work with nothing but hand tools – scythes, axes, hacksaws.  He’d even built his own woodfire oven using found materials.

However, she went on to say that it wasn’t long before reality set in.  “We just bought a chainsaw last week.  It’s fine to have your head in the clouds as long as you’re willing to look down every once in awhile.”

During the panel discussion after the screening, the director, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, was asked about the idea of compromising on ideals in the face of real world problems.  She gave a truly thought provoking response.

She talked about the “logistics of courage”, a phrase that beautifully illustrates the challenges faced by these agricultural pioneers.  We all want to be brave, and fully intend to be.  The trick is how to stay courageous when the difficulties of manifesting our ideals set in.

Von Tscharner Fleming (love that name) poetically described how these young farmers were entering into this lifestyle with innocence and purity and dreams – which she likened to “sugar”.  Soon they realize that in order to sell their “sugar” to stay afloat, they need to engage in marketing and other business tactics, to engage the community and create a customer base.  She called this interaction between people and the farmer an “organism.”

She explained that when these folks are using the sun to make “sugar” with their bodies, or farming, the organism of their business model forms around them.  The organism is a very “honest animal” and takes the shape of whatever matrix it’s in, the business matrix, the cultural matrix, whatever.  It’s up to the farmer to live with the organism, and keep it alive while staying as true to their original vision as possible.

Whoa dude.  I never knew the farming business could be so psychedelic.

Her website, which she calls a hub “for adaptive young Americans…and hopeful greenhorns,” is definitely worth checking out.

This whole question of negotiating one’s values comes up a lot around the topic of food.  I’ve been educating myself on how the USDA came up with the federal standards for Organic Certification, which set a new standard for compromise.  So much so, that organic farming, as defined by the US government, can be just as damaging to the environment as industrial practices, but for different reasons.  For more on this, read the Big Organic section in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Yet this new agro-movement is so energized and motivated, it’s hard to discount the progress that is being made.  Yes it’s slow, like good food, but it’s progress nonetheless.

After the screening there was a get together at Jimmy’s 43, but our brains and our stomachs were already full.  On the walk  home my husband said that he could see us moving to someplace like Detroit and raising children and farming the land.  Although it sounds so romantic, and like a possible dream life, the whole point of urban farming is that you don’t have to dramatically change your life, uproot and isolate yourself to grow your own food. You can find ways to do it right where you are, on the land beneath your feet or at the very least, in the back of a pickup truck.

So, for now at least, we are remaining city kids.


Eat Your Corporations – Food Inc.

Categories: Films | 4 Comments
Posted Thursday, November 19th, 2009 at 8:03 pm

food inc.

If we are, as the adage goes, what we eat, then most of us are multinational industrial Agri-corporations.  So says Robert Kenner and Michael Pollan in their enthralling, important documentary about our Brave New World of farming, Food Inc.

The California Endowment hosted a screening on Tuesday night as part of a panel called Greening The Food Desert.  Before the film, Market Makeovers did an inspiring presentation of their work.  They train high-school kids in South Los Angeles to “makeover” their neighborhood corner stores that only sell liquor and candy by installing produce sections. Additionally, they educate the students in how to to document the entire process and make videos which they can then use as marketing tools for their program.  Pretty genius.

After the presentation, the lights went down, the film began and the dark reality of our industrialized food system began to reveal itself.  Very.  Disturbing.

The filmmakers did an excellent job of clearly laying out the complex landscape of how corporations control our food and why it got to be this way.  I took pages of notes, but really, you should just go out and see the documentary for yourself.  It will fundamentally change the way you think about food.

Below are my thoughts on the issues raised about the meat industry.  Check back later for my thoughts on how our produce is grown. Please indulge the following rant.

There’s a reason man didn’t design the planet. What with our greed and small imaginations, we would never have been able to come up with the intricate ecosystem in which everything interconnects and is dependent on each other.  Now agri-business has put that ecosystem into factories and labs and transformed it into something truly grotesque. Then they stomp around the planet and brainwash us into believing that what they’re serving up is “food”.

But it isn’t food, it’s money, and money tastes terrible!

I’m a meat-eater and don’t have a philosophical problem with the idea that humans eat animals.  However, it’s morally imperative to treat the animals with respect, to honor them by giving them the lives that nature intended for them.  To let them exist as they are meant to exist.  By doing so, we acknowledge that they, like us, are living creatures.  It is this life-essence that connects us, and contributes to the nourishment we get from the food animals provide.

Rather than honoring this connection, Agribusiness “sanitizes” this concept right out of our profit-driven food system.  They have instead opted for a monstrous fun-house mirror reflection of Nature, an ecosystem of their own invention, that exists to line the pockets of a few and throw toxic food at the masses.

The gruesome footage of farms where the animals are raised, the slaughterhouses where they’re killed and the plants where their meat is processed paints a nightmarish picture of this abhorrent state of affairs.

The animals are shoved together by the thousands, living in their own feces, collapsing under the weight of their bodies bio-engineered to develop the most meat over the shortest period of time.  Then they are taken to slaughterhouses where low-wage, mostly undocumented workers are treated only slightly better then the animals they’re killing.  The meat goes to a processing plant where thousands of carcasses hang from hooks circling around the factory on byzantine configuration of conveyor belts.  Before being packaged, the meat is often sprayed with ammonia to kill any bacteria that developed during its so called “life.”

And then it ends up in the supermarket at cheap, cheap, cheap prices.

The most horrifying footage obtained with hidden cameras was of the Smithfield hog slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina. Smithfield is the world’s largest pork producer and processor.

Many believe the Smithfield hog farm in Perote, Veracruz Mexico is ground zero for the 2009 Swine Flu outbreak.

At the Tar Heel plant featured in the film, they slaughter 2000 pigs an hour.  Low-wage workers are bused in from a 150 mile radius, because most people, no matter how desperate, will not work there.  The people who do become employees don’t last long.   The appalling working conditions are dehumanizing.  Often they suffer from diseases contracted by the bacteria of handling the guts of that many hogs.  It is common for their fingernails to fall off.

The ghoulish cacophony of thousands of filthy, feces-covered pigs squealing as they were being shoved toward the Kill Floor is something that I will never forget.  These practices must be stopped.

Polyface Farm in Virginia is offered up as a refreshing contrast.  On their website they describe themselves as “ a family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.”

Their machine?  A grass field.  That’s right.  They send their cows into a grass field.  The cows eat the grass.  They poop.  The farmers send in the chickens who eat the gifts left by the cows.  They poop.  Then the pigs come in and eat everything else.

The animals themselves are the machines.  Nature has already invented all the technology we need to produce our meat and vegetables.

It is madness that we have given our bodies over to these agri-corporations.  Food Inc. underscored the necessity of acquiring our food with the utmost awareness and to find the closest connection we can to the source of our food.

The urban homesteading movement is clearly a reflection of the public’s rightful distrust of our destructive system of food production.

So what can we do?  The power of consumer opinion will go a long way toward changing these practices.  If you think it’s hopeless to go against these mega-corporations, the filmmakers ask us to look at what happened to Big Tobacco.  Demand sustainable food at your local supermarket.  Grow our own food when possible, support local farmers through CSA’s and farmer’s markets, buy free-range organic sustainably raised meat and dairy products, get politically involved.

Honor your food.