Friday at Syracuse

De Ruyter was postponed because of a snowstorm earlier in the week, that messed up scheduling. It meant more sleep. 

We drove out to Syracuse super early, lunching at Chipotle, and then meeting up with Susan, my girlfriend, who made the trip up during her spring break- she's a teacher. 
About 100 folks turned out, as Melissa did a great job of setting up food, and Ben, perhaps a student there, helped out, too. 
The conversation following centered largely around what people can do. There was discussion of policy, of the Farm Bill, and of how beginning farmers can get started. Matt, who runs a diversified farm in the area, talked about his farm, about the CSA. 
After, we met 13 year old, JW Griffiths, a young farmer raising rabbits, chickens, pigs and cattle. Hopefully, we'll tell his story in our upcoming documentary. 
We drove to Ithaca, where we'd stay for the weekend. 


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Thursday in Buffalo

We got a few hours of sleep and headed East, knee deep in the longest leg of driving for this 6 month journey. 

As the hours of the morning turned afternoon, we drove through Indiana, Ohio, and into Pennsylvania occasionally stopping at rest areas and toll booths. We hit a snow storm during the last two hours of the drive, and arrived at the University of Buffalo just as the panel discussion started. It was a great discussion, Samina, a professor who is researching ways for government to get out of the way of small farms and small processing facilities, Doug, a farmer in his 70s who raises grass-fed beef and Jesse, of Massachusetts Ave. Farm who Samina said will be an agricultural leader in the region. We talked about liability issues, about the need to build strong community to have local agriculture. The conversation seemed to revolve largely around health, around recalls of meats and how we as a country can avoid more recalls in the future. 
Exhausted, we got dinner at a high-falutin place with local sourced food, our first meal of the day. It was really good. We found a cheap motel on the outskirts of Buffalo and slept and slept. 
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Cooking up Togetherness

After every season of farming, it's always nice to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor (or in this case beef). Pennsylvania is an expansive state with wide open countryside filled with backyard farmers producing everything from common vegetables to beef and pigs.

The PASA Grass Finished Beef Cookoff is an excellent way for even the smallest farmers to garner appreciation for the food they produce. It's an eclectic group that gathers to participate in the cookoff, where no matter what your background is the common bond is always food. Old school commodity farmers who can't afford to keep up with the high costs of running large scale farming operations rub elbows with the up-and-coming young farmers eager to get their feet wet.

The importance of this event, and the multitude of different events similar to this one happening around the country, is that people are coming together and bonding over food. A local gathering of folks in the community having conversations about food and figuring out how they can bring themselves closer to the food they eat. They say the best way to get to know and understand a particular culture is to sit down and share a meal with that culture. You get an understanding of cultural norms and share a deep bond with people, all centered around sustenance. 

Food is good and good food is even better. Sharing a meal with someone, especially a meal you helped raise or prepare strengthens relationships and brings us closer together.

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Little Falls to Northfield to Buffalo

Below zero with the whipping wind on the first day of spring or thereabouts, we headed out to Little Falls High School, where we were greeted by Doug Ploof, the AgEd instructor there.  The 20 students were about to start dissecting fetal pigs, since we were late due to a flat tire, and they promptly removed the plastic gloves and walked into the cozy classroom. 

We did something different. Mr. Ploof had all the students watch the movie before, and write out answers to questions. We then had a conversation for the duration of the hour-long class period. 
It was wonderful to get to know the students a bit better, we talked about the kind of farms that students have, and there is a wide variety. There's dairy, turkeys, chickens, steers, and row-crops, too. We're a hunter-gatherer culture here, we all know how to hunt, how to break down a deer, how to grow and harvest food for family and community, Mr. Ploof said. Mentioned that these skills are in high-demand in the growing local food movement, that a couple hours on the interstate, in Minnesota, there are a lot of people who want local food, and want to learn how to grow food, raise animals, and slaughter, too. 
One young woman, probably 16 or 17, is on a dairy farm. With dairy, you milk twice a day, every day. Her family milks at 4:30am, and 4:30pm  each day. It's usually between 4-6, am & pm, in 12 hour increments. She mentioned that she had never been on vacation. 
The conversation ended on a positive note, Mr. Ploof mentioning that some local nuns had donated a couple acres for the FFA chapter to grow produce in. Students will be bussed out, and work in the field, for class credit. There's much to be learned in hard, physical labor. 
We drove South to Northfield, where Randy Clay treated us to an early dinner at the cafeteria. 
It was full mayhem, reminiscent of Grand Central in NYC, as hundreds and hundreds of students whizzed and scurried around the cafeteria snagging food where wanted. The spirit of spring break was in the air, with the official start being two days away. 
75 people came together, shared some food, film and conversation. There was a wide array of viewpoints, conventional farmers, students who are vegan and vegetarian- we were hosted by SAVVY, a vegan/vegetarian group on campus run by Taylor and Ellie. When all was said and done, it was a good conversation, hands were shook, and each person may have left with a little bit of new knowledge.
We got in the car, which smelled of noxious tire cleaner, and started driving East. We made it to Portage, IN, east of Chicago, before collapsing in an anonymous motel, the parking lot filled with trucks at 5am Central. 
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The Beauty of Farming


It's easy to get caught up in the practical benefits of the sustainable farming movement: Better for the animals, better for our health, better for the land and better for the environment. As Dan Barber says, there are thousands of different avenues that can bring you to sustainable farming. A multitude of different ways and reasons you can choose to start farming but beauty and appreciation for the land are two very important ones.

As we become more densely populated around the globe and forests make way for of neighborhoods, being able to have a plot of land is more important than ever. Of course Joel Salatin loves what he does for a living, he provides people with delicious wholesome sustenance and raises animals in a humane way. He is a steward of the land. But he also owns a little personal slice of heaven in Virginia. He owns land that he controls and can do with what he pleases. This is an extremely important aspect of farming. Whether you own hundreds of acres or a half an acre in a city somewhere, it's important to stop and examine our land's beauty. Even in a city as populated as New York there are small pieces of land that highlight nature's natural wonders.


Dan Barber's grandmother acquired Blue Hill Farm not with the intention of farming but because she was an artist with an appreciation for the land's beauty. Her desire to see land used as it was originally intended, with animals and plants thriving made way for Blue Hill and helped cultivate Dan's love of cooking. The importance of the sustainable food movement is not why or how you do it but just that you are involved in some way or another. 

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Tuesday we got up and headed to Chisago Lakes HS. Jeff Lindeman, who's been teaching Agriculture there for decades, greeted us. He's the type of engaged teacher, that every student benefits from being around. Our first class,  of about 30, was well into the documentary when we arrived, and we decided to stop and talk about some of the issues brought up in the film. We talked about the impact of technology on rural America. How a tractor in the 1940s was relatively affordable, and could only cultivate, or weed, about 2 rows at a time. How today, that same tractor is more than 10 times as expensive, and can cultivate 24 rows at a time. Every small town in rural America used to have a creamery, a grocery store, a hardware store, a school, a salon, a police station, a grain elevator, a post office, a clothes store, a law office, a newspaper. As technology got more and more advanced, one person became capable of farming more acres of land, one person became capable of milking more cows, raising more hogs, more chickens. We've heard before about drone tractors, that no longer need people inside of them at all. And on this trip, we heard about dairies where cows are milked by robots, further removing the need for people in rural America. The result of this mechanization, this advancement is that many small towns in our rural communities have disappeared. It's a slow painful process. As people move out, at some point, there's not enough population to maintain the tax revenue for the schools, and then the school combines with two other schools, and the high school has a name like Milford, Batesville, Amaretto high school. Once the town loses the school, then few want to raise kids there, and the town really begins to disintegrate. The salon closes, the hardware store, the grocery store. The farmers that remain have to farm more and more acres to stay in business, have to raise more and more animals to earn the same amount of living, squeezing by on thin profit margins as the large integrators often operate with a more comfortable economic margin. The small stores close down, and folks drive to the big Walmart that's 40 miles down the road, the stores mirroring the farms, in an economic cycle that forces people to get bigger or get slowly squeezed out. 
We've been to some counties in Iowa where there's talk of having one farmer per county. The reason, is that if you're growing corn and soybeans, and using a drone tractor that does not need a person inside of it, then there's not much need for people at all. What kind of rural heritage will we have if our fields are planted and harvested by drones, and our cows milked by robots? What will we have lost as a people?
Mr. Lindeman talked about systems, about how everything is connected, about how we will all benefit if we know the people who raise our food, who run and own the local grocery store. Those dollars stay in the community, for the people who live in the community, not to the anonymous shareholders whose eyes and thoughts focus on the economic earnings measured by dividing a year on the earth into 4 quarters, in place of 4 seasons. 
We talked of similar issues in the following two classes, one of 60, and the last one of 40. 
On the road South towards Minneapolis, we arrived at the Academy For Agriculture and Science (AFSA) as it is more commonly called. We were hosted by Jordan, Caleb and Doug, the three AgEd instructors there. It's great to see a highschool dedicated to agriculture. 
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Supporting Young Farmers

It's our second core principal on this trip, to support young farmers. There's a number of ways we can do this, individually, and collectively, as a culture. One way is to contact our senators, and congresspeople, and tell them that we want legislation that supports young people interested in agriculture. We support measures like the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Act. 
Another way, is through reflection, or prayer, depending on our spiritual path. Before eating, to give thanks for our day, for our family, our friends, and for the people who raise the food that sustains us. 
Monday morning at St. Peter High School, we got the opportunity to screen the first two sections of American Meat for two agricultural classes. The first was a group of about 20, including the 5 community members who joined. The next group, about 10. Most of these students were involved in agriculture, in dairy, raising hogs, and grain. 
The AgEd instructor, Ms. Lilenthal, herself is a farmer, coming from a family of Wisconsin dairy farmers, and who currently raises some steers and grain. We talked about the various advantages and disadvantages of different systems of agriculture. How in the cold winter we're having out here in Minnesota, farmers raising hogs in snow are appreciative of the chores being done inside. We talked about the upfront and continued costs of climate controlled barn, and outlined, for an agribusiness class, why some farmers get $.08 of every dollar spent at the grocery store, and other farmers get the full dollar. About the advantages and limitations of direct marketing, about how the cost of grain is so high now, that it wouldn't make much financial sense to plow under corn and beans in order to start raising animals on pasture. 
The second class, almost entirely farmers, was particularly engaged, and it being a handful of students, made it possible for us to learn a bit more about each farming operation. At the end, one young farmer who had been particularly aware of the issues at hand, said he was glad to see a documentary that was supportive of agriculture. These types of comments push us forward on our path. 
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Saturday- Austin to St. Peter

We drove from the cold, economical Rodeway Inn out of Austin, MN, the home of Hormel, and arrived at Jarod Ellis' family farm. 

His parents were out of town, so he and his brother were given the charge of caring for younger sister Courtney, who eagerly watched and later participated in the filming process. Ryan, a field agent from Niman, showed up too. 
It was about 20 F, probably colder, so Andy got a chance to wear his coveralls, which are like walking around with a blanket on, he said later. Chores started by checking on female pigs, sows, and little piglets, who in the cold are especially vulnerable to disease, and death. 
From there, walked to the hoop barns, where pigs were fed, and then into an ATV, and over to another property where more pigs were fed in more hoop barns. The "hoops" as they are generally called are filled with straw and manure, and sometimes woodchips. The straw and wood helps to minimize, but certainly not entirely eliminate the smell. 
We tried about 5 different interview locations until returning to our first option, which was at the Ellis dinner table, inside and away from the whipping winds of a cold Minnesota winter. Courtney helped clear the table, and move objects like lights, and mini-whiteboards out of frame. We said she's got a future in set design... She smiled, a smart, well-behaved 5th grader. 
Jarod talked in short responses, usually answering questions directly, and efficiently. It made it a bit difficult to establish a flow of conversation, so we probably covered more questions in a shorter period of time than in previous shoots. 
Jarod talked about how his father's respect, and treating him as a partner, and not a subordinate were probably key in his decision to return to the farm. He said that he believes that in about 20 or 30 years most of the hog barns will be like Niman, because people want to know that their animal is raised humanely. He pointed out that on his farm, everyone working their owns the farm, and therefore has a real interest in making sure that it is a success. At the larger farms, workers are hired who don't care as much about the animals, because they don't stand to gain or lose based on the productivity of the farm. 
We headed out after saying goodbye and drove to St. Peter, where we had lunch at the Co-Op, before finding the most financially inexpensive lodging in the area, the Viking Jr. Motel off of 169. 
After a number of consecutive full work days we both fell asleep for a few hours in the early afternoon. After waking, we headed to a neighboring bowling alley, where we rolled a few games before heading back to the Co-Op for dinner. Sunday would be our first day since last Sunday we'd get some time to fully rejuvenate.
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Rural and Urban

Drove out through the dark to Mark Penner's farm. 

We miked up Mark, which means we handed him the transmitter, told him to put it in his pants pocket, run the wire up underneath his shirt, and then we clipped it on to the collar, so that the mic is mostly covered by the shirt. 
He had a small wagon with some 5-gallon buckets filled with feed and walked out to the hoop barns along the icy dirt path. Andy followed, at times not filming so as to secure footing on the ice. The winter chores are short, and were all done after about 15 minutes, at which point we set up an interview along a treeline, the overturned buckets, seats. 
Mark talked about how we as a country would benefit by shifting subsidies to young farmers and to alternative agricultural systems. His father actually owns a conventional hog barn, and his brother and him are both Niman farmers, which means that they raise their animals outside, without antibiotics or growth promotants like Palene. His father has been supportive of the switch, and it has even allowed him to relive some of the experiences of his youth, when all hogs were raised in such a manner. 
We drove East to Chatfield HS, and arrived at Potter Auditorium, an old school converted into a community center. Stacy Fritz, the AgEd instructor did a great job setting up the event, getting a number of different panelists with a wide range of experiences. The conversation was very constructive, very genial in nature, and we talked about issues like the future of farming, and about how young farmers can get started. Programs like Farm Beginnings were mentioned, about how some FFA chapters like the one at Spencer HS in Spencer, IA, have chosen to raise broilers on pasture for their SAE project. SAE projects are Supervised Agricultural Experiences that are culminating projects for students in FFA chapters. 
After the conversation, we shared a meal together, some chicken noodle soup and deli wraps with turkey, bacon and vegetables. 
We said goodbyes and thankyous and headed out to St. Paul, where we showed up barely in time for the screening at St. Thomas. Lots of Saints in Minnesota. We had a great crowd for a Friday afternoon on a city campus, 100 people in the very vertical auditorium. Most of the questions were directed to Todd Lein and Jon Peterson, who are both local farmers. Todd of the aggregate grass-fed beef provider Thousand Hills Cattle Co. and Jon of Ferndale. People wanted to know if these companies had been offered to be bought out, (they had not) and how these farms are able to supply meat year round (they slaughter much in fall, and sell a lot of frozen product).
Randy, of BAMCo at St. Olaf talked about how education is very important, that many people see a healthy dark yellow yolk, and think that the pale industrial egg is the healthy one, because they've never seen eggs from a chicken raised outside. 
Mitch from Chipotle handed out free burrito coupons, and t-shirts, and lots of folks asked questions. 
One student asked about the connection between rural and urban agriculture, and we talked about how there has been a growing disconnect between the two in the past decades. Bridging the cultural differences between rural and urban, building friendships and business enterprises between these two distinct communities are going to be vital to the health of rural America, urban America, and of course, America as a whole. 
We drove South to Austin and went to sleep, exhausted from a very long day, and prepping for another shoot on the morrow.
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The Honeymoon

We got up in Rum River Motel, where we'd been hosted by the generous Raj. There was about 6 inches of snow on the ground. Not a single school in the state of Minnesota had closed, or even been delayed. And there wasn't a made-up name for the snowstorm either. 
The Meskos were kind enough to have us over for breakfast, another amazing farm breakfast- ham, eggs, bagels. After, John and Lisa, and their young ones Gabrielle and Sarah took us out on a tour of the farm. We walked along the incredibly slick ground, which had melted and refrozen, panels of glare ice underneath the new snow creating a particularly slippery surface. 
We fed the steers, goats, llama, which basically meant piling hay up on the back of the pick-up, driving out to the field and unloading it into circular metal feeders where the animals could get to it, and it would be less likely to blow away. 
We saw the barn that had just fallen down. It's a symbol of America's agriculture, Lisa said. 
It does indeed like the barn is falling down. The small rural towns losing people, three high schools combining into one, the ride on the school bus getting longer every couple years. 
We headed out to Princeton High School, where AgEd Instructor Kristy Storbakken hosted us for two class periods. The first group of 15, the second of 10. John Mesko and daughter Sarah joined us for the firs part. We talked about how rural communities have changed. John mentioned that in the 60s and 70s every little town had a creamery, and all the farmers in the area would drive up and unload milk. They'd get a credit for the amount of milk they'd drop off, and use that credit to either buy goods, or they'd get a check each month. Milk was currency. The downtown of Princeton thrived, a number of independently owned hardware stores, newspapers, groceries, restaurants, clothing stores. Now, there's a Walmart. 
Kristy mentioned that she's itching to get back into farming, and that she feels as if the pendulum swings back and forth, and that perhaps, we're going to return to our agricultural roots. 
We drove out to St. Thomas and St. Benedictine, the two schools separated by gender have shared resources. We had lunch with John, Diane, Leroy, Jim and Matt at the cafeteria. We learned that we were competing with an event on campus that night called "Sustainable Sex", that had free beer. We figured we'd be the only ones in the theater. 
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