About the Issues

Distance from the Farm 5/14/12 

As more people have left rural communities and moved into cities, our culture has become removed from the cycles of life and death that are necessary for existence. Dead animals, dead plants, worn-down rocks, manure- these things and many others- combine to make a distinct soil. This soil is where the seeds are placed that grow into plants, becoming our food. Each component of the soil is vital.

Vegetable farming is dependent on animals. Soybeans are grown from the manure of chickens and pigs, this manure being one form of organic fertilizer. Much of our world's vegetables are grown with this type of fertilizer. If we were to stop raising animals for meat- we would lose a main source of organic fertilizer. This would have a dramatic impact on our civilization. Our alternative would be to produce much more synthetic fertilizer. To do this, we'd have to mine more potassium and phosphorus, which is extricated from finite natural deposits like the one at the Dead Sea. Twice as much nitrogen would need converting to ammonia- a process heavily dependent on natural gas and coal. These synthetic fertilizers are manufactured using non-renewable energy and would become scarce in the decades and centuries ahead. Manure is a renewable resource.

Our cultural separation from the farm, and the land, has led to a misunderstanding of the nature of life, and particularly of the harsh, often violent, realities of existence. There is no doubt, in the full exuberance of spring, when the first flowers bloom, one cannot think of a word other than beauty when describing a garden. This, however, is only a part of the reality of a garden. The other truth is that many animals and plants were disrupted, and often killed, either purposefully or incidentally in order to create the beauty we perceived in the garden. The same is true of a vegetable farm. When one visits a field of ripe tomatoes in the late summer, and has the pleasure of plucking a sun gold tomato and tasting the burst of flavor directly from the vine, it seems like a wholly peaceful and transformative experience. And yet this is again only a small spectrum of the reality. We are often not aware that the farmer was forced to shoot half a dozen crows to preserve the crop, and that when using the combine to harvest potatoes in the next field over, bunnies and birds may have been shredded within the essential machinery of the farm. Agriculture, in part, is a violent act. Forests are cleared, prairies burned, ecosystems transformed. There is no death-free agriculture . There is no cruelty-free meal. The reality of life and of agriculture is infinitely complex, equal parts wondrous and terrifying.

The reality is stark- our agriculture faces many challenges today. Most of the animals we eat are being raised in ways that require massive amounts of energy. Energy for feed, for crop-dusters, for heating, for cooling, for water, for transport, it goes on. Because of these externalities, the amount of meat our world consumes is out of balance with the resources we have available. The vital news is that we have alternative methods of animal agriculture- although far from perfect- that harness the cycles of life, death and manure to substantially reduce the external inputs needed. These low-input models combined with increased local distribution will bring us closer to finding the proper balance of animals in our diet, a number which will be substantially lower than today- although a number that pragmatically, and ethically, is not zero.

Restaurants, Too 4/23/12

There's a movement afoot. 

Today was in West Orange, NJ at the annual meeting of the New Jersey Restaurant Association. 

Before our screening, Dawn Sweeney, President and CEO of the National Restaurant Association spoke. She showed charisma in remembering a woman who'd recently passed from cancer, who had been a big part of New Jersey's Restarant community, Deborah Dowdell.

She then went on to talk about the power of restaurants in America. There are 972,000 restaurants in America. 972,000. Every day we go to these places, we order food, we share a meal together. Our restaurants are a vital part of our communities, and of our culture. Most of us have worked at restaurants, for many of us it was a first job. And yes, restaurants are directly related to agriculture, and restauranteurs and chefs are inextricably paired with farmers. 

Following the documentary, we talked about the growing trend of restaurants to source locally, a point that was backed up by a number of owners in the audience, and also later in the day by a panel of chefs talking about the current state of the kitchen. We talked about the story of Chipotle, about the amount of money that is saved when a company starts sourcing locally when possible. Instead of being trucked from one side of the country to the other, it travels 80 miles instead of 800. If half of the restaurants in America tried that- billions of dollars would be saved on gasoline in transportation annually. Betsy Alger- who for 29 years owned The Frog and The Peach- she just sold it 2 weeks back- talked about the importance of being honest in labeling menus. It's not local unless it is grown here. Folks nodded. Some chuckled.

There were more questions than time which is better than the other way around. 

In conversations through the day, many, many people came up and talked about involvement with a local farm, desire to learn, perhaps to change daily food. There's something universal in a movement. Even when people don't agree, they seem to agree. And every part of the culture is impacted. A fellow named Paul who runs a culinary school in Jersey City said that people are starting to reevaluate what it means to be wealthy. If you're making 100K- working inside- and feeling apathetic about the work you're doing- are you wealthier than someone who's making 40K but working in a job they believe in? It's a complicated question, and certainly there's valid points on each side- but it's a question more and more folks are contemplating. Paul's right- a lot of people are re-evaluating the word wealth. They are re-evaluating their own lives and their own priorities.  It's infectious, and happening everywhere at once. 

Animal Husbandry 4/16/12

Lots of eager faces. Most of them young. 

We did a special screening as part of Just Food's Animal Husbandry class being taught by Craig Haney and Dan Carr of Stone Barns. It was kind of an odd spot for it too, in the Wall St. Journal's building in Midtown Manhattan. The security guards seemed kind of relieved to see folks in comfortable clothes shooting up the elevator to the venue. 

The students in the class were filled with the passion and energy reserved only for beginners- and experts. Everyone was excited at the prospect of raising bees, or fish, or chickens, or pigs. Everyone wanted to learn. There were a couple of young fellows from Wassaic, who recently purchased 60 acres or so- this is upstate- and were palpably ready to jump in after taking the class. They'd driven hours and hours and hours South into the city just for the 2 hour class. And they'd done this repeatedly for over a month. 

It was the last class, and to celebrate they screened the documentary, and shared a potluck meal of food. The conversation following was fervent, people concerned about the future prospects of our culture and often the topics turned to what is needed for a less turbulent transition from high-input agriculture. 

It was great to see Craig and Dan, both of whom are so humble, and so kind. They are both in our documentary, and we're kind enough to sit through it again.  

People said goodbyes and out the revolving doors into the city night.

Dinner Conversation  4/12/12

Today was a new experience. 

Shared a stage with Dawn, a vegetarian advocate, Dr. Gabor, who's laboring to develop artificially synthesized meat- meaning a meat-like substance replicated from animal proteins that starts out in a petri dish, and Will, who's a good-natured journalist that led our conversation.

This was a departure from the conversations we've had at screenings to this point- often in a room full of farmers, local food advocates, chefs and students.

This conference focused on feeding the world in 2050, with a focus on how agriculture will ultimately impact climate. There were people from so many different arenas- sustainable advocates for major companies like Coke and Pepsi, scientists from universities, journalists, representatives from government, representatives from NGOs, leaders of education, of service. It seemed every few moments a vital piece of the solution was being shared and that if we could just pool the collective ideas- taking the strengths of each perspective- we might be able to reach a starting point for a solution. There are of course challenges when reaching a consensus, compromises perhaps, that become more difficult often as people have more and more passion for or against any measure. And there were disagreements, a few of which I was actively involved in.

There was one moment during the day, where an epiphany broke through. A random group of us- Will- a different Will- this one a farmer at EMU in Harrisonburg, Wesley, a young farmer in Southwest Michigan, Debra- who helped to start an incredible organization called Food Corps- (think Peace Corps for American Agriculture), myself and Jeha (check this)- a scientist based in Vancouver started talking about the power of sharing a meal. Debra mentioned that up until the 1980s, there was a room and a tradition in which members of Congress would sit together and share a meal. This is a comforting thought. In our country, in our world, let us hope that after a conversation we can sit down and break bread together. Perhaps, if Democrats and Republicans occasionally shared a meal together, they might reach a consensus, a compromise and be more able to be productive. It also becomes much more difficult to say negative things about one another, if you know that you'll be sitting down with that person later in the month to eat asparagus.

And in this most contentious of years, a presidential election year, it seems the shades of red and blue are often painted on a few shades darker, with a few more coats. Politicians and citizens often retreat to their camps, and often those issues that bring us apart are emphasized, and those issues that bring us together, forgotten. And among the five of us we had a thought, wouldn't it be refreshing, if this presidential election, President Obama, Governor Romney and Wolf Blitzer changed up the typical format and traded in their podiums for seats around a dinner table. Traded in their thirty second barbs, for thoughtful reflection over mashed potatoes. Because, in the end, we all have more in common than we have apart, and each night, often unaware, across our country, and our world each of us sit down and share a meal together. 


Livestock Genetics 3/29/2012

If you ask someone to think about dogs, he or she will probably consider more than one type: beagles, Labradors, Great Danes, etc. However, if you ask someone to think about pigs, cows, or chickens, it is likely that only a very generic image will come to mind — the white chickens, the pink pigs, the black-and-white patterned cows. But farm animals come in different breeds, too, hundreds of them! So why don’t we ever see them?

Over the course of the past century, as farming has become more and more large scale, we have come to rely on fewer and fewer different breeds of food animals. In the past, the breed of livestock on a farm was the one best-fitted to the climate and needs of the family and community. Now, large commodity farms choose to raise the animal that will produce the most meat in the most cost-effective way. The animals on commodity farms typically have an odd combination of genes and traits that causes them to put on weight in all the right places, and fast. As a result, the types of livestock raised by the million on factory farms are fast replacing traditional breeds — according to Worldwatch Institute, at least 60 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct since 2002 (roughly one breed per month).

So why is this important?

Over time, many  of livestock that are farmed for meat have been genetically manipulated to maximize production, but not the animal’s health. For example, the pigs raised for pork on commodity farms grow large too quickly, and often suffer from joint problems as a result. Similarly, broiler chickens grow breasts so large that they having trouble walking and breathing properly. As a result the farmers have to work extra hard to keep them alive — many of these animals are reliant on hormones, antibiotics, feed-supplements, and other substances. Unfortunately, they are ill-equipped for survival outside the environment of an industrial farm.

Reliance on only a few breeds of animals for such a large portion of our food supply is risky business. It makes both people and animals more vulnerable to disease, famine, and other disasters. If one breed or species of important food animal is wiped out by a disease, it is important that we have other healthy animals for back up!

Traditional breeds of livestock tend to be healthier, hardier, and happier... and many people believe that their meat is much tastier! Companies like Heritage Foods USA have started business programs in which they offer farmers a higher price for meats and products produced from animals of more pure genetic stock. These foods are becoming especially popular among restaurants and chefs for their high quality and unique taste.  Heritage Foods also offers farmers incentives to practice sustainable and humane animal agriculture. By working with Heritage Foods, farmers can more easily transition into operating a profitable farm with healthy animals, healthy land, and delicious food! Check out their website to learn more! www.heritagefoodsusa.com.

Dayton, Ohio 3/22/12

Matthew, Candice and I squeezed into a pickup. 

The door at the Fox News channel was locked and a fellow let us in after buzzing. 

We sat in a room with big couches and waited to go on set. The wait was made shorter by Matt's natural humor, jokes abound about most everything. 

We slipped on mics and met Megan, the smooth host of the morning show, who asked us some questions casually as we waited for a couple segments. 

After a story about firefighters in drag in Minnesota, we went on. The segment was brief and seemed to be over in less than a minute, although after we heard it was three minutes. Megan expertly redirected focus and intertwined our brief conversation from moments earlier, all the while relaying vital information like when and where the screening would be. 

De-mic'd we hopped back in the truck.

Brunch back at the homestead prepared by Karen Keener, who shares her son Matt's sense of humor and generally upbeat presence. We had egg, sausage, and Irish soda bread, and yes all from the farm, and damn good. 

We talked about orchestras and wind ensembles, a passion of David Keener, father of Matthew and husband of Karen.

The Keeners are gracious hosts- opening their home and their kitchen. They have a farm- Keener Farm- that's been around since 1830. A Century Farm- one that's been in the family 100 years.

Again, Candice, Matt and I got in the truck and headed to Winner's - where we picked up a whole hog raised by Hank- who raises for Keener, and then drove it to Antioch College where a young enthusiastic chef named Isaac, and a few of us carried the whole dead hog through a cafeteria at lunch hour. 

Back at the Keener's kitchen, we had lunch, cheeseburgers that were from the farm and caesar salad, Karen being quite a cook. After, David, Matt and I collected eggs. I had a hard time getting one of the hens off the eggs. It eventually happened when grabbing the chicken by the feet. 

130 people showed at the Neon theater which was about right since we had about 140 seats in the theater. Appetizers were served before using meat from Keener farm- the food prepped and cooked by a great new restaurant- Olive

Following, we talked about GMOs, policy relating to the 2012 farm bill, and helping young farmers get started. Free Chipotle burrito coupons were given out, and some DVDs were sold, and we had a culminating dinner at Olive to cap a full, exciting day. 



People we know 3/10/12

The evening started off at Zingerman's Roadhouse, where Chef Alex cooked up a 4 course meal with all local meats, celebrating the farms and farmers who provided the food. About 80 of us, shared the meal together. 

Michigan Theater hosted us, about 280 people. The energy was strong, an enthusiasm for local food and farmers that runs deep in the community. There was no shortage of questions, or opinions, and the conversation following ranged from energy costs, to regulations, to the farm bill. 

The screening was co-sponsored by Slow Food Huron Valley, and by Real Time Farms. And it was a special screening for me personally because Ann Arbor is where I grew up. About twenty of my good friends were there, people known for more than half of my life, friends who've shared the seasons of life. 

And reflecting on the evening, I was struck by something Chef Alex said during our talk. That the reason he sources food from Kris at Old Pines Farm, is because she's someone he knows, personally. He knows the whole family.

And ultimately, that's what this movement, this unnamed starting thing is rooted in. The people we know, the land we know, the food we know. And these things are connected. It was my friend Dax who suggested a book- The Omnivore's Dilemma- that started this journey- and Luke and Andrea who housed me, and introduced me to farmers like Johnny Glosson and Sam Talley in North Carolina. And Karl and Cara who set this evening up, taking the time after full work days to build partnerships that brought people out. And it was so fitting, that they were all there tonight, people I've known for many wondrous years- Marvin, Mike, Lindsay, Nate, Julie, Melissa, Muki, Lauren, Dair, Ian, Alexa, Ryan, Davy- names of these good people I know. Of course, most of the people there tonight- are more recently met, or unknown. And yet we're all a part of something, something larger, and we're living it, and growing and something is taking shape. And there was a sense in the air tonight that we are all lucky to be part of it.


SE Warren & Newton 2/29/12

Bill knocked. The day started with tea and bread- faro- I think it's called. It's filled with oats and Bill makes it almost every day. Toasted with butter.

Out on the road heading West and North to South East Warren High. The drive was quiet, as Andy stayed in Fairfield to edit, and it is near the end of the trip. And endings seem to be quiet usually.

Brooke greeted, and led the group out of the FFA building- a lot of schools have a separate building that is next to the school specifically for FFA- to the auditorium where about 40 students, Brooke, and another teacher sat and watched. Periodically, a loud buzzer would go off, signaling the end of one class, and the beginning of another. Some students stayed throughout, some left for class, some joined midway. We talked about the impact of technological innovation on agriculture, the advantages and disadvantages. We talked about grass-based production and local economies. The class was engaged, and it was a productive conversation, everyone in the room learning, listening.

A couple hours later the last screening started North and East at Newton. A highschooler named Christian greeted me and walked me through the maze of hallways and doorways to the auditorium where about 70 FFA students and a few local farmers were seated. School got out earlier than anticipated so we were only able to watch two-thirds of the film. It was another engaged group, one that was particularly effective when communicating the challenges of grass-based farming in Iowa. A number of kids came up and said thanks, before heading off to band practice, or sports practice, or home, perhaps to farm. 

Most of our screenings- there were 35- were filled with young people who farm, who are interested in agriculture. There were so many open minds, so many constructive conversations. I've learned much about the challenges young farmers face, and the joys that they share. This trip has been a privilege. 

Tomorrow, assuming the engine has been replaced successfully, we'll begin the trip back East. 

More in Common 2/28/12

Fairfield, Iowa is a very unique town. Today we had three screenings, all within a mile of each other, all with a completely different feel. 

The first was with an organic farming classm of about 30 at the Maharishi University of Management (MUM) hosted by Stacy. The students ranged in age, and backgrounds. MUM is a place with an emphasis in alternative approaches to education, and to agriculture, and probably to just about everything. The students were really engaged, and focused, and I actually didn't say a word during the group discussions because the students were already talking in depth about the issues- issues like the cost of energy, and the possibility of a whole new distribution system based on local transport. Francis Thicke- the farmer who runs Radiance Dairy- made it to all 3 screenings today, and helped feed a vibrant discussion in one of the groups. His dairy processes on the farm, and sells within only a 5 mile radius of the farm. As the price of gas gets up, Francis' economic model becomes more and more appealing. 

We- Francis, Andy, and I- headed back to Bill's for lunch, which out here is called dinner, where we ate a vegetable similar to bok choy with paneer cheese, that came from Francis' farm. It's always a great pleasure to eat a meal with the farmer who raised the food being eaten. There were some oven-baked potatoes with the paneer and greens, as well as tortilla chips, salsa and fruit. Nourished, we headed to the Fairfield High School where Ann showed us through a couple doors of the FFA building to the classroom. I said hello to Jon Sandboothe, regional manager of Farm Bureau, who joined Francis and myself for the panel. Jon's a great fellow, a 7th generation farmer- ask him for the story- who raises cattle part-time in addition to his work for Farm Bureau. The conversations were of a different nature here, as more of the students were from conventional farms, and understandably were quick to support the style of agriculture that has provided them and their families with a livelihood. At the end, we all talked about different issues, from feeding the world to the possibility of a sea-change in meat production as the price of energy drives- yes- local food distribution. 

Back at Bill's, who's a selfless host with a culinary gift, we sent out e-mails, mailed DVDs and continued editing. Grilled cheese was served for supper- which is what the third meal of the day is called in Iowa. So it goes, breakfast, dinner, supper for those of you keeping track. 

The third screening of the day was a combination of the two perspectives from earlier. A crowd of about 80 packed into the public library where conventional farmers, niche farmers, and engaged citizens all watched the documentary together. Jon was there again, as was Francis, as well as a couple of other grass-based farmers- Lester who grows for Niman Ranch and drove out from Illinois, and Alice who used to farm in Missouri. The crowd showed a diversity of opinion, of experience, but most importantly a mutual respect. You could tell by the electricity in some of the questions, that deep emotions were behind the words. As the conversation concluded, it was agreed that farmers of all types, conventional, grass-based, large, and small- have more in common than apart. That although we may differ on the path, the intentions are often the same. To grow food, to grow community, to grow health. There's a lot of different ways to approach, and each approach has it's advantages and disadvantages. As we gather together, and discuss our agriculture, there's something to be learned from each camp. The manure from a conventional hog barn may be the fertilizer for the oats you buy in the store, and the new CSA model from grass-based farms might help the conventional farmer effectively find a new market that will strengthen economic viability through diversification.

Farmers all enjoy the connection to the land- the birth of an animal, the sprouting of a seed. It's in the blood, is the phrase heard the most this trip. And that's the same phrase regardless of the type of farm.

Engine Trouble 2/27/12

We walked into a massive 800 person auditorium filled with about 75 FFA members at Indianola High School. It's National FFA pride week- many teachers and students have t-shirts and pins with the blue and yellow logo. Cassie Brown- the AgEd teacher- said hello. Rich, the theater manager, hooked up a DVD player, tested the image and adjusted the sound levels before we got started. Good friend Dale Gruis, his wife Dawn, and son Cole joined. Pressed play.

Outside the theater the day's drama began. A scheduling mishap- my fail- had us going from Indianola to Iowa State and back to Simpson College- in Indianola in the evening. The ISU screening started at 3pm and the Simpson College screening at 6pm, with a dinner at 5. It was beginning to look like we wouldn't make dinner and might not make the start of the movie.

Instead of breaking the discussion into segments at IHS, we screened all the way through. It was just me on the panel, which means a lot of talking, loud talking, in such a large space. There were a few questions, and a few more when Cassie threatened a written test unless more questions were asked. There was a good energy in the crowd, students listening, thinking, ruminating.

Andy and I headed North to Ames, planning on lunch at Wheatsfield Co-op. Those plans changed when we heard the engine make a deep lurch at the stop light. Then another, and another. The engine service light came on, and we pulled over to get it checked out.

We walked along Duff Ave. for lunch, finding a wonderful local spot called Hickory Park, with an old-time soda-fountain feel. The walk itself was a bit demoralizing, as the four lane road was heavy with traffic and box store strip malls in each direction.

Walking back, we talked to Sean and Zane at the AAMCO station- to discover the engine was the problem, it could be the plugs and wires, or it could be the engine. Another test was needed, and this meant more time, and the time for our screening at ISU was fast approaching. Sean dropped me off on campus, and I found my way to Curtiss Hall, meeting the energetic professor, Dr. Nancy Grudens-Schuck. Andy stayed with car to either deliver the good or bad news. A class of 60 undergrads, most of whom were heading directly into farming are a perfect match for who we want to communicate with on this trip.

We tried a new format, which had students take a microphone and talk in a kind of stream-of-consciousness about the issues brought up in the documentary. Most of the students are going into large-scale conventional agriculture, and they felt that the documentary was good because it helped tell human stories about the people who raise our food. But they also felt that some of the downsides of niche production had been left out, and not enough of the benefits of conventional production left in. As a whole there was more we agreed on, then not, the importance of a diversified farm operation- if you're raising dairy and hogs, and hogs have a bad year- the dairy can pull you through those hard times and the reverse. But if you only have one type of operation- hogs- and a year like 1998 happens, then you're livelihood will be at risk. That's one of the advantages of raising many animals and crops, you'll survive a wider range of economic challenges.

Andy called halfway through with bad news. The 2002 beige Honda Accord that had taken us 5k miles thus far needed a new engine. This was bad news for a number of reasons, the most obvious being the cost, and the most immediate being the fact that we needed to be in Indianola- an hour's drive- at 6pm, and it was pushing 5pm, and we didn't have a car. We rented one at Hertz, agreed to put a used engine in, and drove South to Simpson. We got there at 7pm.

Luckily, they already had a copy of the documentary and had already had food. So the film got started as planned at 6.

Lauren- the professor who along with Ryan has sparked a local food enthusiasm- was kind enough to save some burritos from the earlier dinner, and some drinks, which we thankfully ate in the quiet library type hall as students studied.

We entered as the credits started to roll, and were pleasantly surprised to find the theater filled to capacity- about 100- intent with college students primed to change the world. The discussion following was electric. A great collection of farmers, Larry Cleverley, Ethan, Kevin, Lavonne. Dale and Cole were there for the second time that day- we learned they've been raising chickens in the backyard for a number of years. And Chuck Wirtz' middle son- Tyson- who's a student at Simpson joined. The discussion was impassioned, engaged. There was a sense of purpose, and a sense of humor, as Ethan talked about accidental pregnancies of his pigs, and Larry mentioned the free beer at his upcoming farm party- which captured the attention and laughs of many. I talked about the opportunities for young people to get into farming, the impact the cost of energy will have on distribution- pushing it to a local scale as oil inches towards $200 a barrel. With a room full of energy like that, it's a good feeling for the future, and for the present.

We grabbed a couple extra burritos and drinks and hit the road in the white rental Corolla which just a few hours earlier we'd never seen or imagined the need of. Jumped East and a little South. Four screenings tomorrow, sleep tonight.

Give Us a Chance 2/26/12

Sunday morning.

Up at 5:30, we headed South in the darkness down 71 towards Elliot. The drive was about an hour and a half, and the subtle purple light of the sunrise slowly brought the fields of snow into view.

Michael Mardesen greeted us in coveralls, and full of enthusiasm. Inside we met his father Ron, and mother Denise. There was some bacon on the table, and we were both without breakfast. The morning light is gone quick, so we headed out to the main farm, which is where Ron’s parents- Dean and Ilene- live.

Michael put on a wrist brace- he’d recently totaled an old car that slid on ice into the back of a truck. Grabbed some 5 gallon buckets- these are everywhere on every farm- and walked towards an open barn for pigs. He climbed up a ladder and filled the buckets with feed, sliding them out onto the plank. The plank as it is affectionately named, is a unique innovation of Michael’s father Ron. Suspended about 15 feet above the ground, the narrow passageway looks something like a ladder that is suspended parallel to the ground above the pigs. It makes feeding hogs easier, as you’re able to throw feed to a larger area. The only catch is that it’s not for those skittish of heights, as there’s no railing, and it has a little sway walking across.

From there, more buckets got filled up with a byproduct of ethanol that is darker yellow than grain the name of which escapes me.  We walked by a series of 3 hoop barns, the history of which, and the stories of which Michael was quick and eager to share. Michael’s got a natural optimism, and an outgoing temperament. Everything in this farm has a story he said. We were lucky enough to hear a good number of them.

After feeding cattle, walked through the hoop barns, where pigs were finishing out. Finishing means being fed and fattened up before slaughter. Most people don’t think that pigs can be herded like cattle. But if you walk among them each day, they can be. As he walked into each barn, he said good morning to each group of pigs.
Next was feeding hay. Big old green John Deere tractor with a two-pronged steel implement on the end of it speared a circular bail. From there out to the middle of the field, which has a big round steel contraption, into which the hay is supposed to go. The hay fell of the tractor before it got in the steel container, and Michael had to get out and do it manually. Somewhere in the mix, the wireless mic he was wearing got ripped, and I had to go back to the car to get the backup.

Ilene and Dean Mardesen were on the porch and said hello. I walked up and introduced, and we started talking about the weather, something everyone has in common. Before long, the conversation moved to farming, and to the family farm we were on. Andy and Michael joined shortly. The pride and concern was evident in the elderly couple’s voices as they talked about Michael, so proud of his accomplishments, and of the man he is becoming. They brought about 5 framed aerial pictures of the farm out to the porch, so we could see the various stages of the farms growth. One from the 1990s showed acres and acres of A-frames- which are small wooden farrowing huts where sows- female pigs- give birth.  A lot of pride.

Dean and Ilene went in to ready for church and we walked around to find good light for the interview.  We settled on a place and flipped three buckets over and got started.

Michael is a state FFA officer, and has leadership instincts and charisma. He spoke with a breadth of knowledge about a number of production models, and a lot of emotion about working with family, in particular with his Dad. When asked what young farmers need,  he talked with the pragmatic tone of a problem-solver when he said more than anything young people need a chance. There’s a lot of old farmers with land and money, with no one to transfer the land to, and there’s a lot of young farmers with able-bodies who don’t have capital or land but want to work. Just give us a chance he repeated.

The interview concluded we headed back to Michael’s home, where we ate that leftover bacon, and some home-made coffee cake that Denise created. It was good, damn good. We talked about the future of agriculture a bit before Ron joined us. He shared his opinions with a comical gift. He had run the farm during its hayday, when they produced thousands and thousands of pigs. That all came to a crash in 98, when a glut on the market put a lot of farmers out. The two lessons he learned from that meltdown- Never trust banks. And always have a floor. After decades of good credit, the banks liquidated the farms assets. The anger in his voice still palapable. And the floor, that refers to pricing. The Mardesens are currently Niman farmers, a collective of small family farms. They set a floor price for their farmers, which basically limits the amount of risk and economic loss. A floor in 98- Ron wasn’t with Niman then- might have saved them.

We sat around a good hour, drinking coffee and talking about what it would take for Michael to become a full-time farmer.

Around noon, we said thankyous and goodbyes, before heading East and North to Indianola where we found a Super 8 with an indoor pool.

Logging 2/25/12

Given the snow, and the distance to Algona, we decided to stay in Carroll. It was the first night in a while we didn’t have to set an alarm.

In the evening we found many restaurants completely full- due to a youth basketball tournament- and eventually found a place with NY style pizza.

That evening, we logged some of the footage we’ve recorded, which basically means we scanned it over and marked what is seen or said throughout. It was a low-key, regenerative day.

Schaller to Carroll 2/24/12

Not sure of the roads we drove North from Audubon to Schaller. The roads had some ice, but it was a clear day, and people were driving in awareness. We turned left past the mailbox with Miller on it, and soon met up with Daren, who was wearing a pair of beat up Carhartt coveralls. He had been up since 4am loading hogs, at a place where he works in addition to chores at the home farm, in addition to going to school full time at Iowa Lakes Community College. 

Snow blanketed the landscape as Daren filled up 5 gallon buckets with corn, then put them on a trough in the mid of the cattle. They converged on the feed, their breath a slow mist rising. He unhooked the gate, grabbed some more buckets and filled them up at the water pump. Back through the gate, he walked past the cattle into a small old barn, where he dumped the water into a big black plastic tub. Soon the animals left the feed and went in for a drink. There weren't much chores today, so we walked around until we found the right light for the interview. 

Daren talked about his initial desire to be an artist, something he found difficult career-wise, although he plans to set up a studio for the off-season to work on pointalism. Friends have him draw some of their tattoos. He farms because when he's outside, tending animals or planting, or harvesting, it doesn't feel like work. 

He showed us a busted-up snow mobile he'd been driving on a football field the night before, with friends, in the swirling snow. Don't buy one, they're deathtraps. We said goodbyes, and thankyous and headed South to Carroll for the afternoon screening. 

After some technical challenges, we got the screening underway for about 40 or 50 folks, most of them students, many farmers in the mix. We split up into groups and asked questions. There was a lot of spirited discussion, with some of the adults in the audience very strongly speaking out on behalf of conventional agriculture. More so than at any of our previous discussions. We found some common ground, talking about the raising of broiler pens as a good FFA SAE project, and about the economic advantages of local distribution. 

We stayed talking long after the screening, and were energized by students and farmers coming up to say thanks, which we returned in kind. 

Snowstorm 2/23/12

Today was a lot of driving. 

In the morning we jumped on 80 West for Des Moines. I edited while Andy drove. It was raining, sleeting, and passing semi trucks with their back spray was enough to make the heart jump a bit. 2 hours later we were screening at Scavo Alternative High School. There was freshly popped popcorn- which Suzet helped set up- and that seemed popular. About 60 kids in the gymnasium. The combination of small speakers and a large space is generally not the best- but for the first part of the documentary the students were able to keep quiet enough that folks in the back could hear. We had to leave after the first discussion in order to- yep- jump on 80 East- right back where we started in the morning. Not the best scheduling on my part. It would get worse.

Iowa Mennonite School and English Valley were kind enough to host us, and we had a good number of farmers turn out- probably about 20, and they matched up with the 50 or so students. Karen gave an impassioned speech about agricultural education before we started, and some students helped run the sound and computer. The conversations were pretty good during our breaks- some groups more engaged then others. It may have been that I was tired from the driving, or maybe everyone was a bit worn out from the slushy wet weather and the mud everywhere. All in all, we sparked conversations about farming, and put some new ideas out there. 

We stopped by Doug and Justin's place to pick up our stuff and say goodbyes and thankyous- before getting on 80 again- retracing our steps again- West this time. Dinner in Des Moines at Zombie Burger where we had the best fried brussel sprouts ever- a bright spot in a road weary day. This was followed by a 2 or 3 hour stretch in a blizzard that was so strong there were moments that it seemed that we were moving backwards because the snow was so forcefully blowing into the windshield. We stopped hours short of our intended destination, holed up in a motel, and tired, tired, tired. We're supposed to shoot tomorrow morning with Daren in Schaller, and hope that the weather and roads will have cleared enough to make that viable. 

New Life 2/22/12

Chores at sunup before eating. Opening up the roosts for the egg-laying hens, so they can hop into the straw and lay eggs.

From there Doug and Justin rode around back to check on a big black cow who was hours, or days, you never can tell, from giving birth. No calf. Yet.

Inside, we turned the cameras off, and started cooking bacon, sausages and frying eggs. Or I should say Justin cooked breakfast while the rest of us sat around the spacious kitchen and talked. Our plates got filled up with good, filling food. Eggs, bacon, sausage, and bread toasted with butter. The eggs from the farm, the meat from a nearby place that's part of the Iowa Food Co-op, and the bread and butter from- well not sure- but HyVee I would guess. It was damn good, the kind of meal one eats before starting a full day of physical work.

After coffee and tea were finished, and the last of the dishes in the washer, we headed outside, into the deceptively cold morning to interview Doug. He sat on a picnic table which is in front of the front door of the house, a beautiful brown house that sits on top of the tallest hill in the area, so looking out, one gets the sense that they've got the best view around. Doug started off talking about how he got into farming, how he remembered the fateful times when Earl Butts said “Go Big, or Get Out.” That was what guided him for a while, the thought that through chemicals, machinery and land acquisition he would be able to make a living farming. After a time of this, and with a growing family of 6, he realized that his acreage- a few hundred- wouldn't be enough for him to make a living farming. But like all farmers, he loves farming so much that he just can't walk away from it. So he got another job in town, as an electrician to pay the bills, and raised some cattle, and tried to make it work. But it wasn't until he stumbled across Joel Salatin, and read the Omnivore's Dilemma, and most importantly- until his stepson Justin decided to make a full-time commitment that this whole thing started to make sense. Doug has a natural charisma, and makes all around him feel at ease. That's why when he talks about how he was sick and tired of working so that other companies could keep most of the profits it is so powerful. When he talks about how producing a product that has his family farm on the label- Rapid Creek Ranch- that it makes you want to go out and spend money to support your local farmers.

Doug finished- Andy, Justin and I walked around to a barn and opened a door that doesn't usually get opened so we could get nice light. Justin shared that as a 4 year old he farmed with his biological father, who started the first commodity farrow-to-finish operation in Iowa. His Dad died shortly thereafter. Doug has been his father figure most of the years since then- and they interchageably use the terms son, stepson, father, and stepfather in such a way that you realize that these terms are semantic, and that the word family, is the key one. Justin talked about his connection to the land, and to the animals, and about how he works a part-time job putting in hardwood floors to pay the bills. The guy he installs the floors with also wants to start a farm, so when they are putting in the floors they're talking mostly about farming. He talked about a life-defining moment when a strep-infection spread from his spine to his heart and on his deathbed, the doctors saved his life by inserting a couple of mechanical heart valves. That after months in the hospital, and a long time unable to lift his baby girls he decided he didn't want to deal with the daily stress of an engineering career- or an office job. He wanted to work outside, to have that connection to the many things we are not immediately connected to when we look up and don't see the sky.

By this time, the light was crap and we stopped shooting after gathering some eggs. Inside again, we had lunch, a bacon cheeseburger, a hot dog and yes, I've put on some weight on this trip. And there was some kind of asian cole slaw too. The burger was from the farm, as was the dog, and both really good.

Full and done shooting for a bit, there was some e-mails, phone calls. We drove over to a great school that is in its first year. They've taken over an abandoned school- and started teaching kids with a curriculum centered around gardening. Prairie Green School. Paula is doing what school masters did in the 1800s, moving out to a rural area and devoting herself to education. It's pretty inspiring to see kids enter an abandoned school and start learning. We decided to form a partnership with our program at Leave It Better.

In the evening we drove East to Iowa City where Rachel of Simply Food and Jessica Burtt of Farm to Family was hosting a screening for students of the university of Iowa. About 40 students sat in a theater with 60 seats, so it was full but not uncomfortable. Bill Ellison and Lois spoke beforehand about their farm, and then were kind enough to watch most of the film for a third time. Justin, Doug and Pam arrived shortly after delivering eggs, and watched this film for about the 7th time I think. That means a lot considering they were up so early. After the screening, Doug, Justin, Jessica and I talked about farming, and about this movement and there was a good vibe in the air as a lot of folks stuck around after the talk to talk some more and connect. As we left someone snagged the last burrito from the 30 or so that Chipotle had donated.

It was about 10 when we got back, everyone worn out and ready for bed. Except something had happened. That big black cow had given birth. New life. Andy and I delirious grabbed the gear- the 7D and the damn Tascam, and mic'd up Doug and Justin. The momma was worn out and angry, running around and trying to intimidate the oncomers. Doug and Justin calmly navigated the maze of metal gates and managed to separate calf from momma so they could tag the ear and measure the hoof. This maneuver involves a kind of gentle tackle- that Doug managed with the grace of someone who's done it before. Welcome to River Creek Ranch, he said. It seemed the right thing to say. The little heifer- that's a female- was about one hour old- and was already walking. We walked back to the house. A long day. But a good one.  

City to Country 2/21/12

We crossed the street to Des Moines Area Community College- or D-MACK- as it's called. 35 students in a small room in the most urban of our screenings thus far- meaning some of the students present were totally new to farming. But given  this is the heart of agriculture in America- there were still a good number that grew up on a farm, or continue to live and work on their parents or grandparents place in the summers. 

Some scenes- like the story of Richard Morris- a city dweller who ditches a 100k job to start farming- seemed to resonate more, while stories like that of Curlew, IA- a small rural town losing people- was more distant. 

Our friend Brianne Cummins, who's starting a farm in her backyard in Des Moines city limits, and Melanie- who's also starting a farm- a grass-based system similar to Polyface- helped to lead discussions with the small groups around the room. Some students were already excited about local food, as we heard from a woman who helps operate a CSA, and others were a bit groggy considering the screening started at 8am.

Lunch was at Big City Burger, a wildly popular local chain that sources some of their meat and produce locally. 

After- we hunkered down at Java Joe's and edited and e-mailed for a few hours before heading East on 80 towards Oxford. The sun was setting in our rear and side mirrors, round cumulous clouds extending towards the horizon, with red and orange light dramatically underneath. 

Andy took a picture when we stopped to fill up with gas.

As we arrived at Rapid Creek Ranch- near Oxford, IA- a town of 500- Doug and Justin were finishing up chores. Well not totally, they still had some eggs to wash and put in cartons for tomorrow night's delivery. We sat around the kitchen table eating 7 layer dip and talking about the emerging local food movement, about how Rapid Creek Ranch is seeing a continuous rise in demand for their produce. About how they are now getting closer to being able to secure larger guaranteed contracts with schools, farmers markets, restaurants, and even with the local prison. A number of other grass-based farmers are sprouting up in the area, and there's a sense that this thing going on has some staying power.

Pam got home from work and took over quality control of the eggs making sure to shut out an active orange cat. After all the eggs were packed and ready, she made sure we all had cake before heading off to bed. 

Chores start up at 6:30 tomorrow.

Upkeep, Downfall 2/20/12

So windy today it was comical. When we opened the screen door the wind would snatch it out of hand and slam it against the hinges. 

We said goodbye to Paul and headed South and East to Mt. Vernon where Cornell College was kind enough to host us. After a lighting mixup, we got the movie going for about 35 or 40 in a cozy commons area. It was about the perfect fit of people for the venue. 

We opted for a traditional panel following, which was really engaged. Kurt Friese a top chef at Devotay in Iowa City spoke passionately and eloquently about the importance of cooking. It's the act that separates us from animals, he says, and the old saw, you are what you eat, is absolutely true. Given that fact, most Americans are fast, cheap and easy he said with chuckles throughout the audience. 

David- a vegetable farmer- gave an inspiring answer to a young fellow in the front row who asked about how long it would take to be a farmer. Thirty days- he said- which is how long it takes to grow a radish from seed. The enthusiasm was apparent, the sense of possibility pregnant in the air. 

Bill Ellison and his partner Lois talked with romantic charm about the summer they fell in love- he an auctioneer, and her in need of someone to sell her machinery. They started farming, raising lamb, pigs, cattle, and are a big source of meat for Friese's restaurants in Iowa City. 

Brett from the Environmental Working Group pointed out that there are long term and short term goals when aiming to change. When you're looking for immediate results, change what you eat today. If you want to change the food system at your school- plan on it taking a number of years. An attempt to change a system is for the greater good, and may not take firm root until the next generation. 

We called it at 8:30pm and from there small conversations started between lots of folks. Bill Ellison and I got to talking and I mentioned that with the price of oil going up, there could be the possibility of the price of land dropping, allowing an easier entry cost for young farmers. He said he hoped so. Bill then gave a look straight into my eyes and said over the years he's learned one thing... once your upkeep gets too high it'll be your downfall. It made sense. It's true of every business he said. We may be entering a new phase of agriculture, one where high-input production requires too much upkeep to keep up.


Day of Rest 2/19/12

Went out looking for eagles again in the morning with Paul, this time joined by Phyllis. We were further North near Fertile, and moved along the Winnebago River. Winnebago is named for a Native tribe, not for a recreational vehicle. As we drove the country, Phyllis told the history of the families in the region, often stories of troubled times. We stopped by and said hello to Phyllis' sister Gale, who loves ducks.

 Through the afternoon, we saw a number of nests, and eagles, as both Paul and Phyllis are very familiar with the area.

 Phyllis showed us how to play teapots as musical instruments before we headed back to Paul's farm. There we sent out e-mails and started editing the next group of videos that we'll post by day's end tomorrow.

 It was a day of rest and preparation for the times ahead.

Eagles' Nests 2/18/12

Paul and a fellow we hadn't met before- named Daryl- pulled up mid-morning. Paul and Daryl were planning on driving along the West Fork of the Cedar River to look for eagle nests. They asked us to come with. We had a lot of laundry to do, so we put a load on before jumping in the back of the mini-van.

Paul and Daryl are old friends. They went to highschool together, and then reconnected a couple decades later.

As we were leaving Thornton, Paul noticed some cars downtown and figured there was an auction. We parked and investigated. A room filled with people- mostly over 50- were sitting in wooden chairs, as an auctioneer with a quick voice jumped from box to box of items for sale. Stuff like porcelain dolls, salt and pepper shakers, pyrex bowls and jewelry boxes. In the minutes we were there, about 8 sales were made- nothing more than $6. Paul later explained that these types of auctions usually happened after funerals.

Daryl spotted the first eagle's nest. It was towards the top of a very tall tree. Paul, Andy and Daryl are all avid birders, and the excitement in all of them was contagious. We took turns looking at the nest, and then started driving away when Andy spotted an eagle on a nearby tree. These are large, commanding birds. Up until a few years ago, eagles were rapidly decreasing in number. DDT- a chemical used to kill insects- was discovered to be the root cause. We stopped again and looked at the bird. By the way- stopping on country roads is totally fine. There's little traffic.

We continued to follow the river as best we could in a car. The grid of roads is rectangular, and the river meandering, which meant many stretches we were without direct vision of the water. Eagles nest near water.

Paul saw a beaver dam, and we stopped again. Paul, Andy and I went to the river to explore and Daryl took a call from his sister. The dam was impressive, hundreds of sticks fit together. It spanned the width of the river.

It was different to see land that wasn't being farmed. Trees, grasses, rivers. It made one wonder what the land was before.

As we drove and drove- there were a lot of abandoned farm plots. Daryl and Paul talked about how there used to be lots of family farms. When they went to highschool each of the small towns had their own school. Today, at least seven schools have consolidated into one, and instead of listing out all of the community names- Thornton, Sheffield, Meservey, Swaledale, and some others that are escaping memory- they call the school West Fork- after the part of the river they all share. A lot of the homes that used to be here have been completely swallowed up by the corn. The last remnant usually being the old driveway.

We found a second eagle's nest- and then got lunch at Casey's- a gas station chain that also serves as a grocery store and restaurant for a lot of rural communities out here. Daryl was kind enough to treat everyone to lunch, which was eaten in the car as we continued on the river.

Before heading back, we saw a third and fourth eagle's nest, including one with an eagle in it. Paul and Daryl were really surprised and happy. Just a few years ago this would have been unthinkable. But since we stopped using DDT- eagles have been growing in number. They are finding habitats and thriving. It's a reminder of resilience. As we continued back to the farm, endless stumps of corn stalks passed by, and I couldn't help but hope that one day we'll see the small family farms return like the eagle has.

The Barn 2/17/12

Chris, Andy and I met up with Jude Becker at dawn or so.

There was a heavy cloud cover, which the sun only managed to break through in long thin beams, giving the farm a mythical feel. Jude fed some sows- female pigs- and then fed some weaners- pigs that have recently been weaned from their mothers. We then went out to the insulated farrowing huts, a somewhat recent breakthrough- that has allowed sows enough warmth to give birth in winter.

Chris and Jude are good friends, and walked the farm, talking about what's happened since their last visit, soon forgetting the camera Andy held, and the occasional question or comment interjected.

Winter is a time of absence out here. Especially this winter, because there's no snow. The ground, the trees, the roads, all seems to be shades of brown. As I looked out across the arched metal huts sitting on the brown dirt, I couldn't help but imagine how different it must look in the full green of summer.

After Jude finished showing us around, the four of us entered into Jude's dream barn. It's a barn from the 1870s I think- that Jude has renovated into a living space. The entrance has a couple of large ornate wood carvings, which were done by Jude's father, who has passed on. Jude explained the history and background of the pieces, his words full of pride. There's a whole room with carvings that Jude will soon have organized into a formal display. 

Upstairs we had oatmeal, and prosciutto from one of Jude's hogs, as well as some cheese and wheat thins. Excellent.

We interviewed Jude, in a hoop barn with nice light, but it was too loud so we moved to an empty hoop barn, where the light wasn't as nice, but it was quiet. Shortly thereafter we interviewed Chris, once again switching from our initial location.

By this time, it was nearing midday, the sun had broken above the clouds, and the ground was total mud. The mythical feel of the morning was long gone. Chris and Jude went to town to get ingredients for lunch- Andy and I prepped for the shoot.

Andy and I filmed a kind of informal cooking show with Jude and Chris, as they talked about food, farming, and cooking.

It was a bit awkward at first, largely because I haven't ever directed a cooking show before, but after a short while, we decided for a more laid back approach- which seemed to work pretty well.

The end result was a wondrous lunch. Some of Jude's Applegate Bacon- which has been carmelized in a syrup and soy sauce, laid on a bed of spinach and garlic shrimp. It was amazing. Chris finished just in time to get to the airport, and we said goodbye and thanks for a great week. Andy got a few last shots of the farm, and we uploaded our footage from the day. Jude and I talked about land challenges, before goodbyes.

We drove West and North to Thornton, stopping for a meal in Cedar Rapids. Home after a full week, sleep came easily.

Understanding 2/16/12

We left Le Mars and headed North to Sioux Center, once again in the nation's most prolific meat producing county. Gary De Vries- a legendary AgEd instructor in Iowa- is now a professor at Dordt College- which is in Sioux Center. By the way- there are a LOT of cities in Iowa and South Dakota that start with Sioux- Sioux Falls, Sioux City, Sioux River, etc. It is pretty confusing to keep track of them all at first.

Gary introduced us to other faculty in the Ag Dept.- Chris (not Ely) and Duane, and following we made our way to the class where we met the 30 or so students, almost all of whom currently work on farms, and will one day operate their own. There was a diversity of production, from an Wisconsin organic dairy woman to a number of proud west Iowan commodity hog producers. We broke up into four groups and began discussions with the students. There was a really good back and forth, as we discussed the problems of the cost of land, the likelihood of integrators to pull out of contracts, and the barriers- both real and perceived- in rural areas to direct marketing. I learned a number of new things- as I have each day out here- there are grants for young farmers from the USDA- First time farmer loans- that are very competitive but allow an interest rate below 2%. As the grass-based systems entered the conversation, many said the likelihood of converting land from corn/soy to pasture seemed minor- at least as long as corn was selling at over $10 a bushel.

We hopped East and North to Emmetsburg, where a group of 12 students in Kristin's swine production class were kind enough to host us. Again breaking into groups, Chris and Andy both agreed that these two schools yielded some of the most engaged conversations of the screening series. Most of the students are entering into commodity production, but had the open-mindedness to listen to other ideas, and some even came up with really exciting ways to leverage rural communities to grow food and distribute food locally. The school- Iowa Lakes Community College- is lucky to have a teaching farm that they actually own. They get the chance to raise hogs, cattle and chickens- I think. And after today's conversations- they are considering raising broilers on pasture. Of course, it's always hard to imagine a complete shift in the way things are done- and yet- complete shifts happen every generation. The pendulum swings.

As the cost of energy seems headed for continual increase- everyone agreed that local distribution will make far more economic sense- and will often lead to fresher more flavorful meat and vegetables. And everyone agrees that an increase in niche production- from 1% of the market to 20% of the market- would be good for everyone. Given that more labor is needed for niche, it allows for more jobs- which means more people in rural communities in America....

The conversations with these young farmers were really what this is all about. You could see the wheels turning, weighing the points made, agreeing with some, challenging others, reaching new ground.

The next leg of the day took us East and South to Cedar Falls, where we were hosted by the incredibly kind Kamyar Enshayan of the University of Northern Iowa. We had about 20 people, which meant the auditorium was a bit empty. But the audience was engaged, and we had a good conversation following.

We're currently heading further East, back to Dyersville, of Field of Dreams fame, where tomorrow morning at dawn we'll be filming with Chris Ely and Jude Becker.  

On the Road 2/15/12

We woke up at 8 and started our four hour drive west to Sloan, IA, across 80 and up 29, both major highways. We made it in 3 hours, and stopped at the only restaurant in town- a pizza place- where we got cheese pizza. Dan Witten, greeted us at Westwood- which is a school that has 6 former school districts consolidated into one. 

Right before the screening- there had just been a pep rally for the State wrestling tourney- which is happening this weekend- so the kids were pretty riled up. This meant they were a bit talkative throughout the screening- and reacted quite loudly during the slaughter scenes. It was afternoon, and many were not going to be in school the next day, so I think it's fair to say a few had "checked out" a little early. The 80 or so kids were kind enough to sing happy birthday to me- as today was my birthday. I had planned on keeping this a secret, but my dad had alerted Dan- who then told the auditorium filled with kids. I haven't been that red in the face since highschool. Despite the afternoons many distractions,  we did get a few good conversations in the groups, and were extremely excited to hear that Dan had been able to have some of his FFA members raise hogs at a nearby farm, where a very generous individual- had allowed the group to use the land. This got us thinking- shouldn't every FFA chapter or district- have a farm? What about a database that matches farmers willing to open up their land to FFA members that want hands-on on-farm experience? This will definitely come up next time I talk to good friend and FFA state advisor- Dale Gruis!

We stopped in Le Mars for the night, for the second time, and Chris-being the good generous man that he is- treated me and Andy to a wonderful meal at Archie's a legendary eatery in the area. Many stories were told, and lots of food consumed- I think I put down more than a pound of Alaskan crab- quite the birthday feast.

Full of stomach, and with three screenings tomorrow, we were ready for a night's sleep when Chris' GPS' computer-generated british female voice told us we had arrived at the hotel. 

The Good Life 2/14/12

It was our first day of three screenings.

We  drove east on 30 for 15 miles to Nevada, IA, which is pronounced Ne VAY da, different from the state. Kevin Cooper is the Ag Ed instructor there, and has a big personality, and everyone calls him "Coop". He's got a lot of positive energy and a unique creative mind. He told us about a cool concept- Morp- which he'll probably share with you if you ask him.

Gathered about 75 students from two schools in the cafeteria, and were joined by Craig Cox from the Environmental Working Group. The small groups discussed, debated, agreed, disagreed. Good for the mind. 

We drove back to Ames for brunch at a hidden coffee place Craig- a resident of Ames suggested- Stomping Grounds. We talked about the work EWG does and about a number of issues facing agriculture, including the politics.

Marshalltown was closer than expected and we screened for the omnipotent Sally Wilson- who with only a few days notice managed to get 50 students in front of a screen in the general gathering area of the Student Union. There was a group playing the card game Magic throughout the screening- which was a first- but they were kind and didn't distract from the film any more than the film distracted from their game. 

The students at MCC were super engaged, showing a lot of knowledge of agriculture, and many showing an interest in getting into it. The students at Chris' table in the first break really showed passion for the topic. At Craig's table, we had a lively discussion about the emergence of corporate entities like Walmart and Chipotle into local agriculture, and the ramifications of that. One tall earnest Native American student- Dawson Davenport said he wanted to intern at Polyface Farms. His tribe has land he can farm for free, and he wants to make it happen. Moments like the one with Dawson, make everything glow with optimism. 

Further South and East we entered the town of Grinnell where we were welcomed by the very tall John Andelson, a professor at Grinnell College, who made every effort to make our stay wondrous- which it was. On a bit of a tight schedule we went to Relish- a new restaurant- with local meats and veggies. It was Craig, Andy, Chris, John and I at first, and we were then joined by young farmer Kayla- who grew up on a farm in Northeast Iowa and knew much about raising animals, including sheep, cattle and bison. Given that it was Valentine's we were a bit concerned that we'd have a light turnout for a 7pm screening as we headed out of the crowded restaurant filled with lovebirds.

At first, it appeared the fear may materialize, but a late-arriving crowd soon filled the high-ceilinged room, and we filled up the 50 available seats. There was local bison jerky on hand that John had arranged for, and we had a good discussion following, with many local farmers in attendance, and a strong passion for local food. 

Chris, Andy and I said goodnight to Craig- who we'd spent all day with- eating quite well I might add- and then goodnight to Kayla- who made some suggestions for young farmers we could document for our new video series. We had rooms at the old and elegant Grinnell House, where one sleeps in fine antiques, and has constant reminders of tradition and history. It was our first three screening day, and sleep came early, easily and in great abundance. 

Listening 2/13/12

Monday morning it snowed, bringing a quiet calm to the already calm Thornton farm.

We left earlier than planned, knowing the slick roads would make travel times longer.

After a stop at the Ames post office, and a wholly satisfying brunch at the Wheatsfield Co-op, we headed East to Collins-Maxwell High School in Maxwell.

Jamie- the AgEd instructor there- had informed on the phone- that Dave Struthers- featured in the chapter Exit Strategy would be in attendance. We’ve screened American Meat for many of the farmers featured within the film. Every time someone featured sees themselves for the first time on the big screen, there are butterflies.  So far- every farmer has felt that they were fairly represented- a streak we very much wanted to keep going.

The screening was in the school gymnasium, and a lot of FFA students and local families were seated at fold-up tables sharing a meal of home-made pork-burgers & potato-salad that had been cooked up by the 50 or so students.

We solved the challenge of under-amplified sound by taping a handheld microphone to a fleece jacket and angling it right toward the speakers which worked well enough.

After each section local farmers teamed up with groups of students to discuss issues brought forth by the video. We documented as Dave Struthers- a commodity hog farmer- talked to his group, sharing wisdom of years operating the family farm. We got a pleasant surprise- when good friend Chris Ely, the co-founder of Applegate Farms- who is a lead sponsor of this screening series- arrived earlier than expected. We had Chris join Dave’s group, to get a sense of the new discussion model we’ve developed.

Chris and the young FFA members in Dave’s group spent a lot of time listening to Dave as he spoke. There’s a time for speaking, and there’s a time for listening. When a farmer who has spent his whole life farming and contributing to the community in which he lives- when he takes the time from hog chores in the midst of a snowy day- to speak, it’s time to listen. Ultimately, Chris and the students had the good instincts to realize this.

Ultimately, it’s going to be listening that helps us overcome the challenges our agriculture faces today. Every farmer has important knowledge, especially about the region where they live and farm. When you’re talking to a farmer, it’s best to listen.

Day Off  2/12/12

Unlike dairy farmers, videojournalists get to take days off. 

Paul Willis, who's farm we've stayed at 5 nights thus far, took us to the Chit Chat in Thornton for dinner. For those of you not familiar with Iowa- "dinner" is lunch. Let me say that again, the meal that is eaten at about noon, that most people call lunch... out here it's called "dinner".

The Chit Chat is one of the last businesses open in Thornton, and most of the people eating there were over 70. The menu, which was a special one for valentine's day, had a cursive note from the owners stapled on top of it.  It started out talking about the warm weather, and then talked about how the Thornton school was being torn down and salvaged for parts. This unexpected turn, made it an awkward and sad letter for valentine's, but an honest one. You could see a discomfort in Paul's eyes when he talked about the school being torn down- a school where he graduated from in the early 60s.

From there we walked out to a prairie on the Dream Farm, acres and acres of grassland that Paul had helped create. It's a refreshing contrast from the monotonous corn and soy that fills up 93% of the land in Iowa. Seeing the grasslands, and the ponds, with the different yellows of the winter grasses, was a reminder of how quickly nature recovers. Paul said that a couple species of fish had developed in the ponds, and that a few willows had taken root nearby. No humans had introduced fish, or planted willows, they just developed on their own. The wind was strong, and it was still a bit cold, so we made our next stop- to the home of Jon & Mary Larsen.

John makes beautiful stained glass windows of all different designs, and Mary has boundless energy, enthusiasm and generosity. We were the lucky recipients of a loaf of her wondrous banana bread. Both John and Mary always have many projects- Mary has started using an electric grinder to make cornmeal, using Paul's corn, and a sifter from a Des Moines antique store. They are both doers, and builders, and makers, and upon our arrival they had just removed the chimney from their home, brick by brick. It had been causing drafts. John showed us an ornamental fireplace he'd built in the last few months, and we all looked a book written by Mary's grandfather, who had gained great fame in the region for growing potatoes and carrots in the first half of the 20th century. 

After thank yous and goodbyes, we drove into Mason City where Paul ran some errands, purchasing a drill and picking up essentials like coffee and shaving cream. He dropped us back at the Dream Farm and we shared some Cara Cara Oranges before saying goodbyes as the sun went down. 

We're getting prepared for the week ahead, and editing the short video from Saturday's shoot with James- which should be done tomorrow night. 

One out of a hundred   2/11/12

We got up with the sun. It was well below zero, and with the whipping wind, all you could do while outside was think about the cold, and about when you were going to get inside. After letting the engine run, we drove North and East, turning left and right again and again on the grid of dirt roads. 

James Frantzen met us at the door of his new home, which sits atop a hill. He's got a thick what seems to be Wisconsin accent. The first chores of the day were checking on the pregnant sows. Sows are female pigs. James told us one of the sows was due to give birth today, and if we were lucky there would be piglets.

In the toasty warm farrowing unit- farrowing is the word used for birthing pigs- we found twelve newborns hovered together, each trying to get a turn on mom's teat. James yanked some youngsters that were sitting on mom's snout and tossed them back onto the teat. This is essential because those that don't get well fed in the first couple of days- die. Of the twelve, it's almost assured that a couple won't make it.

From there we went to a larger, much colder barn where James fed the slightly older, much larger piglets that were grouped with lactating moms. We met his energetic black dog, a friendly beast who seemed to always go for the crotch.

Andy, the immensely talented and equally patient videojournalist I've been traveling with, had been shooting for close to a half-hour with exposed fingers in the unspeakable cold. I took a turn with the camera and lasted only a few minutes before my hands started to go numb. Not fun-numb, but the kind of numb that makes you sprint back to the car and press your hands against the air vents. Finished with chores at his house, James jumped in the truck and we followed him down to his parents farm.

There we followed along as he fed hay to steers, gave feed to finishing hogs- these are hogs that are about to be slaughtered- and fed gestating- pregnant- sows.

James' parents were out of town for the weekend, and instead of throwing a party like some 23 year-olds might, he was doing the chores that had to be done. The chores that have to get done, every day, regardless of whether it is -5 degrees, or 87, christmas break, or saturday night. Raising animals means work.

After chores, we shot an interview in the Frantzen family kitchen. James is the fourth generation to live in the town, and the third generation to farm the land where he lives. There's a deep pride in his name, and his land. Of his graduating high-school class- '07 or '08- he is the only one who is currently a farmer. That might seem normal at most high-schools, but New Hampton High School- where he graduated from- is in our nation's heartland of farming. Why only one? There's a lot of reasons for this, of course the cost of land being a big one. But also the lack of interest. He estimated only about 10 or so from his class want to become farmers. There's an undeniable pull from urban areas that promise easier jobs, more pay and in the social realm- more people and more forms of entertainment. James himself tried working in an office for a couple years in Wisconsin- and enjoyed the time there- but something kept pulling him back to the farm. It's in his blood. He's hoping that a similar pull will drive more of his classmates- and other young people- back to farming. And of course, he hopes that land prices drop so that his friends that are already interested can get in. These friends interested in farming have had to take part-time jobs in town- they weren't able to work on the family farm like James is.

Grateful for the indoor interview, we said goodbyes and headed back West. We had a good lunch at Ralph's in Mason City. We then replaced a burned headlight and got an oil change. Back to Thornton just with the last red haze of the sun. Andy said the moon's low and the sky is full of stars. Not sure if I'll go out into the cold and see, or take his word for it and go to sleep.

Who Owns This Land?  2/10/12

Le Mars was the first town this trip without a Super 8, so we stayed at a Baymont Inn, I think. 

The weather was below zero with the wind chill, and we drove West to Akron, Iowa. In the warmth of the car, it was a beautiful morning, the simple colors of sunrise against the occasional silhouette of a leafless tree. 

Akron is as far west as you can go in Iowa, sharing a border with South Dakota. The state is so close, at some points you can literally throw a rock from the road across into SD. It's a small town, the reason we stayed in Le Mars is because there's no motel in Akron.

We had about 30 students and about 10 community members in all, which for our purposes often leads to really engaged conversations.  The auditorium seemed brand new, which has been the case at a number of the schools. There's a lot of pride in schools out here, and a lot of money and effort goes into keeping schools vibrant and alive. 

We broke into 5 groups, and I handed each community member a sheet of paper that I'd written the review questions on. Questions like: What are the advantages of commodity production? What are the steps in slaughtering a chicken? and How does a CSA work? One of the best things about this screening model is that it forces the old-time farmers to interact with the high school students, and brings up conversations that will hopefully lead to opportunities for these kids to get into farming. Each and every time, I am inspired by the willingness of farmers who raise animals in conventional production, to be open to new ways of doing things, especially if it creates jobs for young people. 

Of course, there's disagreement over specific things, but that's part of being American. Have a conversation, disagree, and move on. Or perhaps change your position just a little bit. Or not.

There are many things that everyone agrees on:

1) We need young farmers

2) Land is way too expensive

3) Farmers should be paid more of the food dollar

After the screening, and the panel discussion, everyone joined for some Subway sandwiches that Randy- the AgEd Instructor (AgEd stands for Agriculture Educator) had arranged for. I talked to three kids who were interested in farming, and one of the first things that came out was the cost of land. 

How can we get the cost of land down? Who's land is this? There's got to be a way- either through homesteading--- where the government says that if you farm land for ten years you own it, or through massively reduced loan rates for young farmers- that we can get land into the hands of these aspiring youth. The time for action is right now. Would there be some organization, company or foundation who would buy acres and acres of land and give it to young farmers? There's got to be some way. 

After lunch we said goodbyes, and got some very heartfelt thank yous from farmers and students alike, which are more effective than gasoline at fueling us across the state. We were also given some Akron-Westfield FFA T-shirts, to add to our growing collection. 

On the way East we stopped  and bought ice cream cones filled with Blue Bunny ice cream, a national company headquartered in Le Mars. We chuckled at the absurdity of eating something that cold in the dead of winter. 

About four hours later- across a windy truck-filled highway 3,  we arrived in Thornton, and began preparing for a dawn shoot tomorrow with young farmer James Frantzen.

Show of Hands 2/9/12

Here in the heart of agriculture, the issues of farming are vital. Each day, there's a growing sense of urgency. 

We started out at Rock Valley High School- which is in Sioux County, the county in America that produces more meat than any other. When we asked by show of hands how many were farmers or grew up on a farm- every hand out of a hundred went up- except two or three.

During the film, I leaned over and asked AgEd instructor Micah Weber what the main types of farms in the area are- usually an area will have just hogs, or just egg-laying hens. It's rare that a region has more than one or two of these areas of concentration. Micah responded with---broilers, cattle feedlots, hogs, and dairy-- and they've also got slaughter houses. The only segments they are light on is egg-laying hens (where eggs are laid) and cow-calf operations (where calves are born before going to the feedlot). The operations in Sioux County are conventional. 

It was a really cold morning, and I got the sense that the kids and the adults- myself included- were still a bit dazed from getting out of bed and into the biting wind of a 9 degree morning. The conversations were a bit monosyllabic, and generally folks tried to reach an answer with as few words as possible. When we opened up for questions- one young woman asked the question that is burning in every young person who wants to farm in Iowa- and elsewhere- how are we going to get land? One of the young farmers mentioned that his father recently bought acreage at $10,000 per acre, and not far from there acreage had just sold for $20,000 per acre. For those not up on Iowa land prices, this is high. Very very high. And you can imagine, that a 17 year old who wants to farm in the heart of farm country would be very frustrated. I gave as uplifting a response as possible- that there are new websites underway, one that is thinking about being named eFarmony, that would match aspiring farmers with land in Pennsylvania. And that there's also a guy in Boulder, CO who got his neighbors to let him use their land...  as cool as these ideas are, they aren't tangible solutions. The ugly answer right now is that we don't know how to get land in the hands of young farmers. 

But there's reason to be optimistic, too. The two conventional hog farmers on the panel in Rock Valley said that we all have to sit down at the table together, and figure these challenges out. There's positive things from each type of production we can use that will help us build something better. After a couple questions, we called it a morning. The sun was peeking out, the ice on the windshield thawing and we jumped on 18 East for Spencer.


Spencer is a big town with broad streets, big houses and a healthy vibrant downtown.

We got in half an hour before one, and were greeted by lots of kids in sleek black FFA shirts with blue letters. Keaton Hildreth- the Ag Ed instructor- greeted us, and we talked about the best way to structure the screening. Because we had a little extra time- from 1-3:25pm- we decided that we would stop the film at the end of each section and discuss the issues. We decided to break the 80 students into 8 groups of 10, with community members joining each of the groups. It's a challenge in a large auditorium to have a conversation because all the seats are facing forward, so kids often awkwardly pivot or sit on the armrests of chairs. Farmers stand to face the group as they talked to the students.

A bright energetic young farmer named Cassie- more on her later- introduced the film, and people munched on the complimentary popcorn and sipped gatorade as we pressed play.

With the weather warming, and the juices flowing from lunch, the conversations in the afternoon were much more engaged. Students and community members both were quick to share opinions- agreements and disagreements. We bounced around, recording conversations, and listening as people talked about the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of production highlighted in the film. One conventional hog farmer mentioned that he had recently borrowed $750,000 for a state-of-the-art hog barn. 

After the third question and answer session in small groups, three of us, myself and Greg- a conventional hog farmer- and another fellow who's name escapes me- a towering man with huge farm-strong hands, stood up in front of the auditorium. Greg's son asked the first question, one about whether setting up a CSA- a distribution model highlighted in the film- could ever be sustainable in Spencer. To get an idea of the feasibility, Greg asked the audience of 80 kids- by show of hands- how many of them would be willing to work on a grass-based farm if there was land available and a job this summer. What happened next was a defining moment so far on this trip. Nearly every hand in the audience went up. My heart soared. Here we are in a room full of FFA members, and they are all eager to get out onto land and start farming, like the generations before them have. They want to farm any way they can, and perhaps, because of the lower upfront costs, they want to try raising broilers on some pasture this summer. It's an inspiring thing to witness. To feel. 

We've got the people, we've got the will. Soon we'll find the way.  

After the discussion, the discussion kept going. About ten of us- old and young and in between- talked about issues that were brought up in the documentary, and about the challenges farmers face. Cassie- the one who intro'd the film- talked about how she raises hogs and has them slaughtered at a local locker, selling the pork directly to customers so that she can keep the entire dollar spent. As she talked, you could see the pride in the community members standing around. Bright young farmers like Cassie are going to lead the way into the next agriculture, bridging the generational gap. Young farmers Ethan and Patrick also stayed until the end, so excited to farm, and to share their knowledge. 

We took a couple extra bags of popcorn as we said goodbyes and thank yous and headed out to Pizza Ranch for dinner.

No Easy Answers 2/8/12

Tonight's screening at Estherville High School was a reminder of just how hard transitioning into our next agriculture will be.

The screening was booked about a week ago, so there wasn't much time to get the word out. As a result we had a small turnout, about seven or eight young FFA members and about the same number of farmers, including Chuck Wirtz, one of the main characters in the documentary. 

We stopped and talked after each part of the film finished. First we talked about the disappearance of farmers from rural America, and from the surrounding community of Estherville, there was a lot of agreement as to why this has happened.

More and more land and money is getting into the hands of less and less people. Denny Whittemore, a charismatic farmer with much experience, said that the best thing we could do to help get more local businesses- like meat lockers- back in business- is to begin enforcing the anti-trust laws. Basically, we've seen a monopoly or an oligopoly develop, where a tiny few hold all of the cards. It's choking the life out of rural America, and as the young farmers said there tonight- they can't even come close to getting the land they need to start farming. Seeing the frustration, and the helplessness in the expression of the young farmers when they talk about the cost of land is heartwrenching. What are we going to do? HOW ARE WE GOING TO GET LAND INTO THE HANDS OF YOUNG FARMERS? We don't really have an option here, the future of our nation's food supply depends upon it. Perhaps some of the AgLaw students we talked to last night at Drake will be the ones to come up with a modern day homesteading provision that will transfer land from those who don't live in rural America, to those who want to live in and thrive in rural America. Is there a way to end absentee ownership of farmland!? 

After the second and third parts of the film, which highlight the advantages of grass-based meat production, and talk about some of the innovative distribution models on the rise- like buying clubs and CSAs- we once again talked among the group. The young people said they were excited by Joel's methods of raising broilers, because they would be able to get started raising chickens for only a couple hundred dollars, whereas, it would take a loan of about a couple hundred thousand dollars to get a chicken barn. I was particularly moved when a farmer named Wilbur Gregg- who raises animals conventionally- said that he wants to keep an open mind, and that he wants to help out young farmers, even though he doesn't necessarily agree with the methods. But it's more important to Wilbur to help a young farmer get started- then anything else. We're going to need a lot of this kind of selfless attitude to help get knowledge and land in the hands of young farmers. Shortly thereafter, we all had a good laugh when talking about cutting the bottom off of parking cones and flipping them upside down to slaughter chickens on the farm- something the group might be able to do for an SAE (Supervised Agricultural Experience) for FFA. 

There was a good conversation, and a lot of wisdom and positive intention were shared. Denny talked powerfully about the importance of trying something new, and of not being afraid to fail. I saw a glimmer in the eye of the young people- although I must say they did get out of that auditorium the very moment they were able to, while we older folks stayed around and talked about what needs to happen to shift things in favor of our young farmers. 

The tough news is that there is no easy answer. Land is too expensive for most young people to start farming. We need to find a solution to this problem if we want to continue to grow our own food in America. 

Blush--- Compliments  2/7/12

We caught up on sleep, e-mails and phone calls before getting into the car and driving south to Des Moines. 

Awaiting us across from the sun dial in front of the Drake Law School was family farmer and legendary Ag lawyer Neil Hamilton who was kind enough to host a screening of American Meat. The Ag Law students had arranged for pizzas and vegetables- which helped lure a perfect-sized crowd of graduate students into the lecture hall for the screening. 

In the conversation following we talked about the promise of the next generation of farmers, about how because the average age of the U.S. farmer is 57, that there is a golden opportunity for young people to get into a profession that will only be more in demand in each of the passing years- not unlike the current demand for nurses as the baby boomers enter their 60s. State Advisor Dale Gruis- who's helped coordinate the screenings- was on hand- as always tirelessly supporting a dynamic conversation about the exciting possibilities of farming in America.

We also talked about feeding the world, about the global market and the potential sea-change on the horizon in the wake of Chipotle's farm-to-restaurant pilot program.

And- blush- we got a couple of the most well articulated and heartfelt compliments we've ever received. Michelle, whose family raises commodity hogs in Illinois, said the documentary was incredibly balanced, and that she would recommend it to her friends and family back home. This is exactly what we have aimed for, starting conversations with all farmers, conversations that respect the work that all farmers do to feed our country. Rachael- who helped start an organic farm at the University of Minnesota, talked about the balanced tone that will help bring all farmers to the table  and promised to help us set up screenings at the very large and influential Ag school at her alma mater. 

As a whole we were very humbled by the kind words, and feel a growing excitement at the possibility of reaching future farmers across Iowa, and eventually across the country. We said goodbyes and grabbed a half-box of uneaten pizza for the drive back north, as the first snow of the trip started to fall. 

No Sleep 'Til Thornton 2/6/12

Up most of the night editing we headed to New Hampton bright and early on little sleep and no shower. 

The screening for High School Ag Students was at the Middle School, in a big spacious auditorium. At the end of part one, we broke the auditorium into about 7 groups of 10 students. Each group of students is in turn joined by community members, often parents, and more often than not farmers. 

We discussed the first section of the film by going over a few questions together in smaller groups, which has been working well because it allows more students to get to speak up and interact. Before, when we just had panelists in front of the audience, only the bravest students would speak in front of such a large crowd. 

After a second round of small group interaction, we had the adults go to the front of the room for a more conventional panel. It was good to hear the grown-ups speak, but I must admit that the best moments I witnessed came from the smaller group interactions, when students got a chance to share their thoughts. Too often, the panel doesn't allow the kids the opportunity to be actively engaged in the discussion. Passive involvement often leads to texting and squeaking chairs. 

After the panel wrapped, we met some more young farmers interested in being profiled for the Young Iowa Farmers video series, and hope to get the next one out to you in the next couple days. 

Heading South and West we arrived in Latimer at CAL Community with about 10 minutes to spare before the 1pm screening. We were greeted by AgEd instructor Sarah Beaver, as well as Phil Kramer of Niman Ranch and a big table of ham cube samples from Niman. Principal Meyer worked the sound, and the crowd of close to 200 took in the afternoon screening. Once again we had a wide range of farmers, many from Niman Ranch- one of our co-sponsors on the screening series, and many conventional farmers and representatives from Farm Bureau. Sure as fog in winter, there were differences of opinion. But there was a lot of respect, and never once was there any tension. Because of the large number of people in attendance, the small group sessions were a bit more hectic, with the sound reverberating off the walls. We got a surprise visit from a good friend- Paul Willis- who founded Niman Pork in the 1990s. He also generously offered up his farm as a place to stay. 

After sharing closing conversation with farmers, and saying goodbyes, we followed Paul to Thornton. We managed to stay awake long enough to share dinner with good friends Phyllis, Paul, Lisa and Dave before heading back to the farmhouse and uploading videos. Now it's time to sleep. 

First Videos Finished 2/5/12

We said goodbye to the infinitely generous Steve & Andrea, and their girls, and headed Northeast towards the Minnesota border. Halfway to New Hampton we stopped at a Sinclair gas station and cleaned the car, stuffing the less used stuff in the nether regions of the trunk, and putting the oft-used stuff in the back seat, or at the front of the trunk. 

We arrived at night at our third Super 8 motel of the trip. This one had an indoor pool, and a pool table, and was pretty much amazing. 

Hooked up the glyph drives and started editing, our first two videos of the trip. Late in the night, we finally finished and uploaded them today. 

We'll have two basic types of videos during the trip: 

1) The Young Iowa Farmer Series. 

2) Conversations led by Iowa AgEd Instructors

The "Pokey" 2/4/12

Saturday we had the pleasure to screen for the E-club (E stands for environmental in this case) at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.

This conversation seemed to continually shift in a Libertarian direction, largely because of an old farmer named Roy who hated the government and loved Ron Paul. 

See this is how it works- each state determines what is allowable regarding slaughter. Virginia allows farms to slaughter chickens on the farm- only if it's under a certain amount annually-- but not cows or pigs. Washington state allows all animals to be slaughtered on farm. Iowa doesn't allow any to be slaughtered on farm, unless it's for personal use and not for sale. Due to Iowa's more stringent policies about farming, it's harder for small farmers to get their products sold. They often have to ship animals hundreds of miles to the nearest USDA certified slaughterhouse. Which leads to fed up farmers like the charismatic Roy, who used the old-fashioned term "pokey" when referring to "jail" about 6 times during the discussion to get mad as hell. Here's a quote typical quote from Roy: "They'll put handcuffs on a farmer for selling raw milk and put him in the pokey, when what we need to do is get the local sheriff to tell those regulators to get out or we'll put them in the pokey." Every time Roy spoke, laughter and applause generally followed. 

Until recently, Cedar Rapids residents couldn't legally own hens, but one of the women in the audience mentioned that she and a group of people had pushed through legislation to change that. 

One outgoing Coe student asked if the farmers were open to students visiting the farm, to which all replied yes, including our friends Doug Darrow and Justin Wade of Rapid Creek Ranch who stood on the front lines with us for yet another panel. There was an undeniable air of optimism at the small (about 30 folks) yet engaged screening, as people seemed focused on what was possible and empowered with the belief that change- swift and positive- would soon arrive. 

Conversations 2/3/12

Another day, another fog delay. We were supposed to get started at West Dubuque at 8:30am, but fog once again pushed our screening back. 

Instead- we drove an hour back to DeWitt where we had the pleasure to spend some time with Patrick Diedrich, his father Steve, and his great uncle, who said we should call him great uncle. When we pulled up they were putting siding on a big building. We got the cameras out and shot some footage of them working together, and followed that with two emotional interviews, first with Patrick, then with his father.

Patrick is going to college, and is weighing his options about working the farm. His Dad misses his son very much, and his emotions were strong when talking about his son. 

Patrick is wise beyond his years and spoke with passion about FFA, and about a desire to one day have a teaching farm he could share with FFA members. 

At 11am, back in the car, we thawed out our hands and drove back North to West Dubuque, where we met up with a really inspiring and knowledgeable ag educator- Matt Lansing. Right after lunch we set up the screen and projector, and packed about 50 young farmers in. This time we tried a new educational method- we stopped the documentary at the end of each section, to talk in small groups about the issues that are raised in the film. The conversations that followed between the local farmers, students and Matt were really thought provoking. We're excited to try this new- more interactive model at future screenings. Thanks to Susan for this great idea :)

After lots of good conversation with Matt and his father Willy, we headed out, to Cedar Rapids. We're staying with a generous family-Steve and Andrea-who are hosting us before even meeting us! Really kind folks, a wonderful family. Iowans continue to extend hospitality and warmth to us on our journey.

Tomorrow we're gearing up for a screening at Coe College. There's rumors of a snowstorm, so we're leery of a third weather-related challenge in as many days... 

Jobs 2/2/12

Today started with a phone call at 6am from Jim. Fog. 

The fog in DeWitt was thick enough today to push the start of the school day back two hours. This pushed our morning screening back to 11am. Despite the tough weather, well over 200 FFA members crowded into the recently completed auditorium at Central High School, a great place to screen. The chapters were from Central, Northeast and Calamus-Wheatland. The sense of pride among rural communities is huge. And the sense of community is an example to all. 

The discussion after involved some big strong local farmers who have a cow-calf operation, a veterinarian named Jessica and a bright young farmer named Patrick Diedrich. Patrick talked with charisma beyond his years about the economic challenges facing young farmers, and pointed out that the low-infrastructure costs of grass-based systems makes the entry level easier for people coming out of highschool. From there, young farmers could decide to expand into commodity barns, or go further into direct marketing grass-based meats at farmers markets, restaurants and online. 

The fog having squished our schedule tight, we had to skip the lovely meal that followed our discussion- that the over 200 students shared at Central. Didi prepped fruit, and casseroles for an auditorium full of people. Awesome. 

An hour west we were greeted by the refreshingly upbeat Rhonda Clough, who led us to the screening room at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. A room of about a hundred 20 year olds about to graduate with degrees in agriculture sat in green movie seats. When we asked for a show of hands of how many grew up on farms, pretty much every hand in the place went up. 

The discussion following featured about 8 or 9 farmers, so there was a great diversity of opinion. Doug Darrow & Justin Wade, our friends at Rapid Creek Ranch, spoke passionately about the narrowing margins of row crop production, and of the only way to make a living on-farm for them was to get into niche markets. Jason from Farm Bureau spoke well about the importance of choice for consumers. Choice of price-point, and choice of production method. If people want the cheap stuff, they should be able to choose that. If they want no meat at all they should be able to choose that too. Makes sense. 

Another fellow, Arlen, I think, talked about the importance of business sense for young farmers to make it in a competitive post graduate world. Chris, a young farmer who just turned 25, talked about his families strategy to have a very diverse farm to help survive the inevitable ebb and flow of agricultural markets. 

Paul- a devout Muslim- talked about the disconnect between people and meat, and mentioned that he is proud to work slaughtering animals- with his particular niche being that of halal meat. 

I- finally- talked about the possibility of a major growth in the grass-based production- as the price of gasoline goes up- it's likely that more major companies- like Chipotle- will decide to locally source their meats and vegetables so that they won't have to spend a lot of money shipping it around the country. 

Around 5 or 6, the conversation came to a close and we packed up our gear and got word from our good friend Dale Gruis that there was an impromptu screening at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, so we drove an hour Northwest and talked to the college students that were there for an Ag-Ed conference. I caught an inspiring speech from a teacher at Aplington Parkersburg High, who convincingly pointed out that one of the most core American principles is that we have discussions with different viewpoints and then move on. As he put it, we have elections, we vote, someone wins and we move on. 

At the very end of the day, I talked a bit about the path we took in the making of American Meat, and then asked the room of young farmers if any of them were interested in being filmed by Andy and I- we brought our cameras- for a series we're starting tomorrow featuring young farmers. We were thrilled to get about 10 different farmers approach us, which means in the coming weeks we'll be able to share some inspiring- rarely seen footage- of young people working to feed our country. 

After twelve hours of screening, talking and filming we got in our car in Waterloo to find the entire area blanketed in fog. An hour east with tired eyes we pulled into our second Super 8 motel in two nights, and are getting ready for tomorrow's screening in West Dubuque. And for our first shoot in the young farmers series, with Patrick Diedrich. 

Why do we need people in rural America?  2/1/12

Today is the start of our month long journey around the state of Iowa.

We're doing screenings for thousands of young people interested in agriculture.


About 50 students packed into the smallish room. The students are in graduate school at Iowa State, studying “Sustainable Agriculture”.

We screened one chapter of our documentary- What Happened to Curlew?

It's about the disappearance of Curlew, Iowa. Larry Ruppert reminisces about a time when Curlew thrived, and when family farms were everywhere. As hog operations got bigger and bigger, less and less people were able to keep their farms going and had to move to cities to earn a living. Businesses shut down, families left. The school closed down. Today, the only thing left in Curlew is a post office and a grain elevator.

Curlew disappeared because of the incredible efficiency of commodity agriculture. Every year there's a technological innovation that allows one person to farm more acres. Since one person can farm more acres, it means less people have work, and ultimately- less families have a home in rural areas. Every year, homes get bulldozed down, and corn and soy get planted in their place. The latest invention is the drone tractor. In one month, a tractor will be released that doesn't require any people at all. 

As we began speaking about this development, one woman raised her hand and asked a question:

Why do we need people in rural America?

During the next weeks and months we will be in the heart of rural America, talking to the farmers who raise the food all of us eat. We'll start conversations about farming, and about this very question. 

A New Video Project: Young Farmers - 2/1/12

The average age of the American farmer is 57 years old, and that number keeps climbing. New technology has led to less jobs for people on farms and farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a profit. Under the current system, the hard-working farmers that feed America are producing more, but earning less. As a result, not as many young people have been up to the challenge of entering agriculture.

But we need young farmers! They are certainly some of the most important people in the country. The future of farming in America may be approaching a crossroads and much will rely on their decisions. So who are these ambitious young folk? What are they thinking? We’re going to find out!

We are excited to announce that we are embarking upon a new video project!

As we travel from town to town for screenings of American Meat, we are meeting fascinating young people. Many of them are FFA (Future Farmers of America) members or sons and daughters of farmers that plan to make living in agriculture. Our new project will feature a series of video profiles of young farmers from various locations in the U.S. — we’ll hear their thoughts, watch them at work on the farm, and gain some insight into the life of the young American farmer. A young person who aspires to be a farmer is a special story, and we want to share those stories!

New Outreach Coordinator: Kirsten - 1/26/12

As the new Outreach Coordinator, I work with the American Meat team to distribute the film and its message, primarily by helping organize screenings across the nation. Getting people conscious about where the food on their table comes from and how it gets there is something that I care about very much. I spent the greater part of my childhood growing up in a small, rural town in Colorado that is heavily dependent upon industrial agriculture. After seeing the processes and products, both material and cultural, that are integral to large-scale commodity farming, I became very interested in the various complicated issues that accompany the American system of food production. I am excited to work with American Meat to be a part of changing agriculture in America for the better.

I am a junior at NYU, studying Environmental Studies and Journalism. I love to write, particularly about environmental issues. Working for American Meat is a great new opportunity for me to learn about documentary as a both a form of journalism and a way to create green awareness. Eventually I hope to combine my interests in environmental studies and journalism and become a magazine writer for a publication like National Geographic.

Food is something that is inevitably involved in the life of every person and organism on Earth. It’s important from so many perspectives — environment, human health, economy, culture, etc. As an avid distance runner, I am passionate about food, health, and nature. The three should work together in harmony. Films like American Meat are the first step toward creating the food and environmental awareness that will help bring that harmony back to America. I’m so glad to be able to contribute!

Saxapahaw, NC- 12/8/11

Part Two

Jeff and the chefs in the kitchen cooked up pulled pork, pasture chicken, mashed potatoes, greens and a lot of people filled their plates. 

All the meats and vegetables came from local farms, and most of the people who raised the food were there to eat. The pork from Eliza of Cane Creek - the chickens from Suzanne of Cozi- the garlic from Luther at Quarry Dog Farm. It's refreshing. Every one becomes connected on a personal level-> every one is accountable. Farmers take pride in the food they produce.

At 7:30, once the meal was finished and the plates composted, the documentary began. 

The projector spilled it's color onto the makeshift screen- a bedsheet Heather, Tom, Suzanne and I had helped to set up a few hours before. It looked deceptively secure hanging from a couple of steel girders we'd found backstage.

The promise of 200 people had been filled, and exceeded. People filled all the seats on the main floor, up on the second, and even the third balcony, with some sitting on the steps or even standing. I must admit to sitting in fear on the steps- imagining that the clear packing tape wrapping the bedsheet to the steel would give way and our screen would come tumbling down. Thankfully, it never did.

Johnny Glosson, one of the commodity chicken farmers featured in American Meat, attended with his wife Ann. Johnny raises chickens for Pilgrim's Pride. Their son- Chuck Glosson- was lost in a tragic accident while saving his sons lives. Johnny- now 75- continues to keep the farm in operation out of deep love and loyalty for his son and for the farm. 

Following the screening we had a big panel discussion. Bigger than we've ever had. Everyone introduced themselves- explaining how they got into agriculture, and often giving credit to their families for supporting them through the way. Casey McKissick of NC Choices  moderated the discussion, which featured V. Mac Baldwin who raises grass-fed cattle and commodity chickens, Kim who runs a farrowing operation (where female pigs give birth to baby pigs) as well as the aforementioned Johnny, Jeff, Eliza, and Suzanne. The biggest laughs came from the oldest farmers on stage, when Johnny Glosson talked of how tiring it was to artificially insemenate cows, and when V. Mac talked about how his mom tried to unsuccessfully talk him out of farming at the age of 10. Suzanne talked with great knowledge about the importance of soil health, Eliza and Kim talked of the pride in their work, despite the different ways in which they both raise hogs. Towards the end, Jeff responded to a question by talking about the importance of people to the future of agriculture- a point which deeply resonated in the room. Which brings us back to personal connections. 

One of the strengths of the local food movement is that people make connections. Farmers make connections with chefs, with customers, with grocers. These connections lead to friendships. And understanding. If there's a hailstorm that wipes out all the eggs at Cozi Farm, Jeff will understand, and he'll help Suzanne get through it. Jeff knows his customers and can tell them the story of the storm, and why there aren't eggs this week, and people will understand. Local food is about people. People we know. 

Saxapahaw, NC- 12/8/11

Part One

Personal connections. 

This local food movement is rooted in them.

In Saxapahaw, a shift started at a gas station. Or perhaps the better way to put it is with the people who owned the gas station. Jeff Barney decided to put a simple sign out in front of the gas pumps: "Local Food Wanted"

In addition to Doritos and Slim Jims, Jeff decided their Shell station would buy produce from farmers near the store- and cook up lunch with it.

The sign caught the attention of new farmer Suzanne Nelson who had recently started Cozi Farms. She began to produce some eggs for the gas station, and as the food coming out of the gas station got good reviews- things grew. What started out as a few dozen eggs- blossomed into a full compliment of dairy, vegetables and meat streaming into the gas station from many local farms. 

The gas station is now known as the Saxapahaw General Store. It's a place buzzing with good food and good energy. An example of what local food economies are transforming into.

Last night we had a screening of American Meat at the Haw River Ballroom  built from the remains of a dye factory. The venue is next store to/includes The Eddy Pub a gastropub which also shares its kitchen with the gas station (Saxpahaw General Store). The three establishments share people. Jeff- who put the sign out- is part owner of the gas station- and also chef at the gastropub. Another nice fellow- named Ron- works at both the gas station and Cozi farms. It's a little confusing- right? But after some reflection it makes sense... Places like Saxapahaw are building a new local economy, one that fundamentally changes the relationship between farmer, chef, gas station owner, bar, and of course, all of us customers. The buzz in Saxapahaw for local food is unmistakable, but when the town with a population of 1500 said they expected 200 people to show up for a documentary screening- we were optimistically curious.

Washington D.C.- 12/1/11

Another night, another screening, another spark...

Tonight we all learned that there's hope for the 2012 farm bill. 

After the supercommittee failed to reach consensus last week, the doors were reopened for a national conversation about agriculture... which is good news for everybody. 

Why's that-> because people like Susan Prolman who runs the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) will be able to share common-sense solutions to our nation's agricultural challenges. How? Through initiatives like the Beginning Farmer Bill which helps provide funding to new farmers, and the Local Food Bill which- yep- helps support local farms in every which way- through supporting farmers markets, helping farmers to produce food for local markets, and educating us everyday folks about how, why and where we can get this local food. 

What can you do? - Contact your state and federal elected officials and let them know that you support the Local Food Bill & the Beginning Farmer Bill. Right after you've done that- join the pulse of agricultural knowledge at Food Democracy Now! where our good friends Dave and Lisa will let you know about the precise moments when to take action about food topics that matter.

One person tonight asked if we need to focus on supply or demand to grow our movement... Maureen Moodie of Arcadia said we need to do both- that from the supply side- in the urban area of DC there's more demand for local food than can be met, the challenge is how to inspire young people to consider a career in agriculture...

Which is why it was so exciting to have Phil Petrilli- who manages Chipotles in the Northeast region standing right there. For those who don't know- Chipotle has recently started sourcing pork from local farms for a few of their restaurants. The first was Polyface Farms- which sourced pork for the Charlottesville, VA Chipotle. The program saves cash because produce doesn't have to get trucked around the country to get to a restaurant. Instead of traveling thousands of miles- now it travels tens of miles. It also means the produce is more fresh, and it helps to create more jobs. The one-farm-to-one-restaurant program has been successful- and now is at a number of Chipotles- in Texas, the D.C. area, and soon to be PA. They're essentially writing the book on how to locally source a major chain restaurant, and it's pioneers like Phil Petrilli who are making the nitty gritty logistical side of distribution happen...

If half of the 1300 Chipotles source locally, that will create tens of thousands of jobs for young people- right smack dab in the middle of the worst job market for people coming out of high school and college. Let's put a square peg in a square hole- let's employ these young able-bodied people in a rapidly expanding profitable enterprise also known as sustainable agriculture. If we see the niche market jump from 1% to 10% over the next 5 years, we'll see a lot of jobs be created and a much needed revitalization of rural America. 

The pieces are starting to fall into place. It's an exciting time to start farming, and an exciting time to be eating, too. 

Young Farmers Conference- 11/30/11

Just got back from the screening of American Meat at the Young Farmers' Conference at Stone Barns Center...

After the screening we asked farmers what they need help with, and they talked about a number of things, all of which grabbed the attention of the room: 

1) Paid training-To bring the average age of the U.S. farmer down from 57, we're going to train a new generation of farmers. Given the hard work, and long amount of time it takes to learn how to farm, we need to make sure that farmers get paid for on the job training. Ways to do this Give government subsidies to farmers that take on new farmers so they can pay interns. 

2) Cheap leases for land- The cost of land seems to go up every year. That makes it even harder for new farmers to get a loan in order to own land. We need to find ways to get land to new, young farmers cheaply. Ideas?

3) USDA-inspected slaughterhouses nearby- Craig Haney mentioned they sometimes have to truck animals 5 hours one way to get them slaughtered. That's not financially sustainable. We need to come up with creative solutions- like mobile slaughter units- like changing state laws to allow for small farmers to slaughter on-farm- It's different state-to-state. Farmers in Washington state face almost none of the regulatory hurdles that farmers in Iowa face. 

4) Lift limits on small farm slaughter- One farmer mentioned that state law only allows for 200 turkeys to be slaughtered on farm. This unnecessarily limits the economic potential of small farms. How can we work together to have common sense policies for our small farms?

5) More tax breaks for farmers- Full-time farmers should get substantial tax breaks on property taxes because without them we wouldn't be here.

The national conversation is soon going to switch to agriculture as we work through the once-every-five-year 2012 Farm Bill.

The people we should listen to more than anyone about where to spend our tax dollars are our farmers. 

Fred Kirschenmann- President of Stone Barns Center- said that we need to gradually shift our government subsidies to local agriculture. Not all at once. We can't fault our farmers because they gave us what we asked for- large quantities of corn and soy as efficiently and inexpensively as possible. But given current and projected energy costs- we need to wean ourselves onto a more localized food system that isn't so dependent on fossil fuels. The way we'll do this is with a tough strong new generation of farmers.

As we stood in a room full with just those people, the task seemed a little less daunting. 

Do you like this page?

Showing 43 reactions

@AAPremlall tweeted link to this page. 2012-05-01 09:11:33 -0400
Read all about the importance of #restaurants in the #agriculture movement and in #communities @AmericanMeat http://t.co/Cy3TdkxE
@AAPremlall tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-25 02:06:24 -0400
Read all about the #screening of the #film @AmericanMeat last week at Just #Food's #Animal #Husbandry Class: http://t.co/Cy3TdkxE
@AAPremlall tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-25 02:05:57 -0400
Read all about the importance of #restaurants in the #agriculture movement and in #communities @AmericanMeat http://t.co/lcnIYzHq
@LeaveItBetter tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-25 02:05:16 -0400
Read all about the importance of #restaurants in the #agriculture movement and in #communities @AmericanMeat http://t.co/lcnIYzHq
@gardenmuseb tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-25 02:00:35 -0400
Read all about the importance of #restaurants in the #agriculture movement and in #communities @AmericanMeat http://t.co/Cy3TdkxE
@gardenmuseb tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-25 01:57:57 -0400
Read all about the importance of #restaurants in the #agriculture movement and in #communities http://t.co/Cy3TdkxE
@gardenmuseb tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-25 01:21:38 -0400
Read all about the #screening of the #film @AmericanMeat last week at Just #Food's #Animal #Husbandry Class: http://t.co/Cy3TdkxE
@gardenmuseb tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-25 00:53:43 -0400
Read all about the #screening of @AmericanMeat last week at Just #Food's #Animal #Husbandry Class: http://t.co/Cy3TdkxE
@FreshCreator87 tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-25 00:52:31 -0400
Read all about the #screening of @AmericanMeat last week at Just #Food's #Animal #Husbandry Class: http://t.co/lcnIYzHq
@LeaveItBetter tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-25 00:41:22 -0400
Read all about the #screening of @AmericanMeat last week at Just #Food's #Animal #Husbandry Class: http://t.co/lcnIYzHq
@LeaveItBetter tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-20 19:25:27 -0400
Thoughts on the power of a shared #meal on the American Meat #film web site http://t.co/lcnIYzHq
@LeaveItBetter tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-18 20:30:35 -0400
Thoughts on the power of a shared #meal on the American Meat #film web site http://t.co/lcnIYzHq
@LeaveItBetter tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-18 19:30:55 -0400
Thoughts on the power of a shared #meal on the AmericanMeat #film web site http://t.co/lcnIYzHq
@gardenmuseb tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-18 05:10:28 -0400
Thoughts on the American #Meat #Film web site on what we can accomplish when we sit down to share a #meal together. http://t.co/Cy3TdkxE
@LeaveItBetter tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-17 10:31:26 -0400
Thoughts on the power of a shared #meal on the American Meat #film web site http://t.co/lcnIYzHq
@LeaveItBetter tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-17 09:31:15 -0400
Thoughts on the power of a shared #meal on the @AmericanMeat #film web site http://t.co/lcnIYzHq
@AAPremlall tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-17 01:41:51 -0400
Thoughts on the American #Meat #Film web site on what we can accomplish when we sit down to share a #meal together. http://t.co/Cy3TdkxE
@gardenmuseb tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-17 01:16:38 -0400
Thoughts on the American #Meat #Film web site on what we can accomplish when we sit down to share a #meal together. http://t.co/Cy3TdkxE
@LeaveItBetter tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-16 20:01:18 -0400
Thoughts on the power of a shared #meal on the AmericanMeat #film web site http://t.co/lcnIYzHq
@LeaveItBetter tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-16 19:25:10 -0400
Thoughts on the power of a shared #meal on the American Meat #film web site http://t.co/lcnIYzHq