Everything is Connected

Everything is connected. 

Our day started off easily enough, awaking in Sacramento, packing up our things and heading South. We drove the rental along the highway through the rolling green hills and past the oil refineries, that are not as pretty, and yet made it possible for us to be driving the car. 

We lunched at Cheese Board in Berkeley, the pizza of the day involving roasted potatoes, a choice only a master would make. The result was heavy on the stomach, and subtle flavor, an excellent meal we finished just as live music began.

With the size of the RSVP list for Stanford, we wanted to get there well in advance, and did. We spent the afternoon in Meyer Library, editing, e-mailing, in concentration staring into computer screens in a room full of students doing the same.


Rohisha greeted us, as well as Maria, Priya and Caroline, the kind students of the Stanford's group Appetite for Change who were kind enough to host the event.

Shortly thereafter, I got to meet Bonnie Powell, a kindred journalistic spirit, who like myself aspires to further conversations that construct our next food system. She introduced me to Maisie, who is a colleague of Bonnie's at Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCo), who has partnered with and sponsored our screening series. Maisie was to join myself in what was to be the most unforgettable panel I've ever been a part of...

Mike, a good natured sound engineer with a long salt and pepper beard, miked us up, and after Rohisha thanked the University's sponsoring organizations, I gave an introduction to the event, thanking our sponsors, and outlining our three core goals for the screening series. Thank America's Farmers, Support Young Farmers, Food Choices Matter.

The audience of 275 or so was very engaged, laughing often and loudly- catching subtle nuances that as a filmmaker too close to the material- it is often hard to know if people pick up on. The audience applauded as the credits rolled, and Debra, our wonderful moderator, a veteran of hundreds of panels across the world, started a panel that she would tell me later in the evening, was unlike anything she has ever seen before...

Ros talked from a wealth of knowledge about agriculture, discussing the possibilities of a systemic shift from our current system of agriculture towards a grass-based local one. She spoke with the reserve and cool demeanor of a person who's looked at the issues of hunger from many different perspectives, and understands that there is not a simple solution to challenges of sustaining a growing human population. 

Maisie spoke next about the leverage a company like Bon Appétit Management Company has in purchasing food from many different providers. The wide scope of their relationships was apparent even in the documentary, as they purchase from George and Eiko Vojkovich of Skagit River Ranch- a small grass-based farm North of Seattle, as well as from Pilgrim's Pride (perhaps past tense on this one?), a major commodity integrator in the chicken world. Massive transitions take time, patience, and persistence, and we're all in this together. 

Vas talked about how he believed that the documentary showed only two systems of agriculture, or two options for food, conventional meat production and  grass-based. He pointed out the inherent flaw in this reasoning, because there is a third option, which is to become a vegan, which is not addressed in our documentary. Being a Professor at Stanford, and a PhD candidate, he sited a number of studies which point out that a large portion of our climate challenges are related to carbon dioxide emissions from all types of animal agriculture. 

Debra pivoted the statement to me, and I talked about how there is no system of agriculture, there is no ecosystem, that does not include animals. That often people think that by going vegan or vegetarian they are completely removed from animal agriculture. The reality, the truth is that all systems of agriculture, and all of us are interconnected. If you buy any kind of soy milk, corn meal, oatmeal, or wheat that is almost certainly being grown by a chicken, cattle or hog farmer. Farmers like Chuck Wirtz, who stars in our film, take the manure from their hog barns, and spread them on their fields to grow corn and soy and oats and wheat. There is no system of agriculture that does not include animals as a vital part of the equation. 

At that point, a young man stood up and spoke passionately in defense of animals everywhere. He held up a picture of a dog and asked people if they would kill this dog and eat it. His voice grew in volume as the story unfolded and he walked  towards the stage holding up a picture, and by this point yelling, directly looking at me and asking if I would kill and eat the dog, who's name was Lisa, if I recall correctly. This was the beginning. About 8 or 9 people, staggered in timing, stood up, holding pictures of dogs with names and told similar stories. They walked to the front and stood facing the audience, who began asking for these protestors to end this display. Debra, a veteran of panels, immediately attempted to notify security, only to discover that there was no security to be found. We attempted to continue the conversation with the audience, however, disruptions were frequent and made conversation difficult. Some of us walked in front of the protest and continued to talk. I started telling a story of how I came to make the documentary, because I felt that it may be relevant to the demonstration taking place. At the halfway point of the story, the protestors decided to leave, and everyone took their seats to allow the conversation to continue. 


 The basic point of the story I told was simple. I understand and respect the protestors. Our grandparents generation knew how farming worked, everyone knew how to slaughter a chicken, and how to grow a potato. People inherently understood the natural cycles of life and death that are a necessary for all of us to exist. It's all connected. But recent generations, have been so far removed from farms and from agriculture, that often the first time we see an animal die, is when watching a video on YouTube. Death is a scary and overwhelming thing, especially when we have no context to place it in. The truth is that every meal we eat is filled with death. Any vegetable farmer can attest to this. If you grow cantaloupes for a living, and a bunch of crows start eating your cantaloupes, then you have to kill a crow, and hang it from a fencepost to make sure that no more crows will come by and eat the food you are growing. Even the act of clearing a garden, the most simple act of creating food, is a violent one. It requires cutting down trees, disrupting soil, completely altering ecosystems, and inevitably leading to the death of many animals and insects. We're all connected, we all face these global challenges together, and all of us are part of whatever solution this generation will arrive at. A solution, which inevitably, will lead to unforeseen problems for the next generation along the way. 

The panel ended with a discussion about how all of us can impact the farm bill, by supporting organizations like Food Democracy Now!, Organic Consumers Association and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Roz talked about how states that grow a lot of grain have a disproportionate amount of subsidies, and that it is up to us, as citizens and participants to respectfully educate our politicians that we'd like to see our tax dollars shift a bit more to help out young farmers and local distribution models. 

The conversation ended, all relieved, and a bit mystified by the odd dream-like experience that had just occurred. As Rohisha said, it's a discussion that none of us will soon forget. And for that we have the passionate protestors to thank. 

Andy and I got in the car, after saying so long to my parents, who were in the audience, all of us a bit shaken by the whole experience. We're currently driving 3 hours South to Templeton HS where first period tomorrow we'll be talking to the fine folks of the FFA chapter there. How many different perspectives one sees, this wandering life on the road. 

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