Film Review: Farmageddon (2011)

It seems there are some interesting things taking place in the country these days. The 2012 Presidential Election Cycle has already kicked off – 18 months before the 1st Tuesday after the 1st Monday that matters. Those of us in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles have issues we follow more or less closely and care about along a continuum that ranges from ‘interested from a distance’ to ‘this is what I’m rabid over’, depending upon our personal investment or involvement: There is the war; there is the budget. More precisely, there are the wars and budgets. These days, issues and the crises that surround them don’t come at us as one-on-one challenges. The hallmark of the 21st Century seems to be tag team dilemmas.

There is an important and multifaceted issue that those of us living in cities may not yet have had show up on our financial, lifestyle or health related radar: The United States Government at the bidding of a few of it’s corporate ‘sponsors’ (perhaps after the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision we can just call them ‘buyers’) is moving dramatically against the rights of American farmers to produce certain goods sought by consumers, and against the consumers’ rights to purchase them. And we aren’t talking about controlled substances – at least not in the traditional sense of the word.

First time documentary film director Kristin Canty has done a wonderful job of showing the plight of farmers (and their customers) who are running afoul of Federal and State regulatory and enforcement officials over the production, transportation and sale of that most controversial of products: milk. Raw milk, to be precise. And her film Farmageddon (which premiered in Los Angeles June 27th ) offers up lessons both in filmmaking and the politics of food.

First the filmmaking: For being both a novice filmmaker, and tackling a subject important to her due to health issues within her own family, Canty remains remarkably balanced and avoids either the strident or preachy tones more experienced documentarians not only fall prey to, but seek to employ in displaying their High Definition dystopian discourses. Canty avoids all of that, instead letting some really rational people explain some really irrational, but apparently legal, government actions being taken against them.

It is exactly this juxtaposition that makes Farmageddon so compelling and ultimately frightening a work. For any who have come from farming families, known farmers or ranchers, visited farms on school field trips or spent time in an agricultural setting, one of the common images you come away with is the balance and calmness that derives from the almost proverbial ‘connection to the earth’. Like Canty’s film, farmers aren’t given to hysteria or hyperbole. Most crops and most herds require what care they require with a high degree of precision – precision and repetition. Repetition to the point that many of us, more familiar with city life, would describe the farmer’s existence as tedious and boring: The roosters’ warning precedes an ever-advancing daybreak by approximately the same number of minutes each morning, and the cattle want to eat at the same time. Farmers face torrential rains one year and droughts the next with an equanimity that sages have employed for millennia to make their points about balance and stability.

It is hearing these stable and balanced people describing police raids on their fields and homes, handcuffed farmers, destroyed herds and flocks and confiscated property that makes their recounting of their own experiences so unsettling. And this is where Farmageddon is at it’s best. Canty resists the temptation to go where many other documentaries have gone of late – she avoids anger and outrage and simply lets the devastation wrought upon her subjects have it’s own expression, in their own words. The agrarian scenery, the farmhouses with porches and the children that play on them, the morning mists across the pastures serve as dissonant backdrops to the tales of regulators gone amok and the corporations whose bidding they do determined to use them to eliminate not only free market competition, but apparently the market itself.

Which brings us to the underlying theme of Farmageddon, the politics of food. While the more visible elements of the economic and healthcare debate of late have involved some of the largest and wealthiest corporations in the country, there has been another movement underway that has not gotten the same level of attention or caused near the outcry. There is an orchestrated attempt (the orchestra being comprised of corporate/industrial farming interests and the regulatory agencies which it seems they staff and control) to make certain the American consumers’ food choices are limited to the food items and products the corporate food titans find the easiest and most cost effective to produce.

The corporatization of food is about the standardization of production, processing, transportation, preparation and consumption. All of which are contingent upon standardizing consumers expectations from food selling venues whether those be grocery chains, a fast food drive-thru, a small local market – or a farmer selling her own crops, poultry or dairy products from her own property. Farmageddon is a well crafted and wonderfully connected series of first hand recollections about how those who choose to grow their crops, raise their livestock (most often without the use of genetically modified seed or petroleum based pesticides or growth hormones) and sell their goods independent of the factory farm monolith are being increasingly frustrated (read: arrested and prosecuted) for those efforts. For the industrial farming corporations standardization doesn’t mean they grow corn and raise dairy cattle and the independent farmer grows corn and raises dairy cattle. It means everybody raises corn and dairy cattle the way they want those things done. Which actually means using their pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and growth hormones.

The customers who frequent the family farms have a broad range of motivations – some cite health reasons for wanting to purchase non-industrial foods, others want to support a uniquely individualistic approach to eating and, by association, to living. Others are getting something of that ‘connection to the land’ that the farmers themselves are getting through their trips to the farms or the small collectives or buying clubs where these more naturally produced products are sold/exchanged. Canty does a terrific job of leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusions about how the Federal and State regulators are doing more than denying independent farmers the right to make a living raising crops and livestock, they are denying consumers the right to purchase something as simple and basic as food produced in a manner they trust more than they do the methodologies enforced by the corporate farming monolith. It is ultimately a film about freedom.

Farmageddon deserves immediate entry into any discussion about the best documentaries addressing issues related to health, farming and food production, diet and environment. It’s ‘smallness’ of story and reach and intention make it much more accessible, understandable and ultimately frightening than some of the larger and, up until now, better known films in this genre.

Excellent filmmaking about an important and timely issue. Like I said – two lessons for the price of admission to one extremely well shot and edited film.

[Farmageddon is also available on DVD and Blue Ray for group screenings. Use the following link to see a clip from the film or contact Kristin Canty at the films website

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