There’s been a spate of great films over the last year which examine the issues and concerns of food and farming and how we negotiate the climate emergency in the face of these. There is both hope and frustration in the films below, underpinned by the ongoing struggle to make our food and farming better.

Biggest Little Farm

Director: John Chester

Biggest Little Farm, released in the UK this past November, depicts a young couple’s dream of moving out of the city and establishing their own ‘garden of Eden’. The result of their hard work and vision is Apricot Lanes, located just north of Los Angeles, a ‘small’ 213-acre farm, with healthy soils and nutrient-dense food production.

John and Molly Chester’s ambition is inspiring. Filmed over an eight-year period, Biggest Little Farm depicts their passion for rediscovering traditional farming methods in opposition to the intensive, large-scale monocultures that dominate the area. With the help of biodynamic farming guru Alan York, the couple transform a barren landscape into a biologically diverse, yet agriculturally productive, paradise. Soil health, carbon sequestration, cover-cropping and holistic grazing are central to the farm’s success.

The Chester’s end goal is to create not only a productive farm, but a self-sustaining ecosystem, in which all creatures are valued as part of a functional, dynamic and healthy system. It becomes clear through the film, that this is not an easy task.

The farm is home to the usual animal suspects – sheep, cows, chickens and pigs – as well as host of other creatures including snakes, coyotes, mountain lions and gophers (some less welcome than others). The film follows the couple’s awakening to some of the harsher realities of farming and highlights the need for long-term vision and a belief in nature’s ability to adapt and find an equilibrium.

By the end of the film, the Chesters have established a micro-ecosystem managed through methods best described as ‘biomimicry’, whereby nature’s balanced systems are mimicked to enhance the land, the nutrient quality of the soil and, consequently, the food grown.

Despite this, a question lingers around how realistic this way of farming really is? Apricot Lanes has been described by some as “the latest pricy-food-for-rich-people farm”, which, given that eggs are sold at $15 per dozen (in comparison to the average retail price of $1.60), is a fair claim. As well as this, the Chesters chose not to disclose the level of financial investment needed to make the farm a success. After several failed harvests, many farmers would simply go bust; however, the Chesters manage to not only keep the farm going but to expand it. They put this down to the generosity of volunteers and determination; however it’s clear that somewhere along the way, some big investor(s) helped them on their journey.

So, what does this highlight? That food produced in a truly ‘sustainable’ way is too expensive for the average consumer? That farming in this way is a huge gamble?

Unfortunately, it suggests both. However, if farmers were paid for the environmental services of their land, and if governments valued the benefits of regenerative agriculture, then the Chester’s vision suddenly becomes far more graspable. Biggest Little Farm highlights the benefits that regenerative agricultural techniques can bring to farming systems, and showcases why “harvesting in harmony with nature” should not be something confined to our imaginations.

2040

Director: David Gameau 

2040 is a remarkably hopeful imagining of what our future could look like. Following through the potential of already developing technologies and practices in energy use, transportation, agriculture and marine permaculture, the movie’s director and star David Gameau illustrates what possible solutions are available to us in the climate emergency.

Agriculture is unquestionably part of the solution to climate change, but only if we renounce damaging practices and take up sustainable, regenerative ones. Gameau reminds us that although making agriculture sustainable seems a monumental task, industrial agriculture comprises just 20% of our food production, while smaller-scale agriculture produces the bulk of what we eat.

But underlying Gameau’s narrative are the vested interests that don’t want change, that want our consumption to continue until we have gobbled up the earth’s resources, turned our back on renewable energy and committed to a future of catastrophic proportions – Gameau tells us that a billion dollars a year is spent keeping us from lowering our emissions.

Carbon sequestration stands in the foreground of what is needed to turn around our emissions. Speaking to Paul Hawken of Project Drawdown, there is huge potential to use both our soils and seas to lock up carbon. Gameau looks at what regenerative agriculture as a global principle could do for how we produce our food and what seaweed offers in generating healthy habitat for the marine environment, while similarly sequestering carbon.

The film is paean to the next generation – Gameau calls it generation ‘regeneration’ – and the movie is punctuated by the voices of young children around the world telling us what they’d like to see happen in the world they are growing into – “I just want the future to be good,” says one. And that’s what Gameau wants as well.

The Pollinators

Director: Peter Nelson

The plight of bees is now a well-publicised environmental issue and what’s at stake for humanity is significant – without bees a third of our food disappears, mostly fruits and vegetables. The Pollinators takes a close look at the beekeepers that provide pollination for some of the US’s most valuable crops – almonds and other nuts, berries and top fruit.

Commercial beekeepers travel the width and breadth of the country with their honeybees, arriving at the optimum moment for the pollination of whatever crop is coming into season. They are faced by ongoing struggles to keep their hives alive and productive. Bees now face a trio of troubles that make their continued existence very, very hard: pesticides, poor health and varroa mites. Bees might survive individual instances of one of these impacts, but together they are devastating.

At the root of the problem are industrial agricultural practices. Jonathan Lundgren, farmer and former USDA scientist, comments in the film, “The cracks are really showing through the ice right now. Everything in the current infrastructure is hell-bent on making things work, rather than questioning should we have ever gone down this road?” As more and more land has been put in maize and soybean production, available habitat for bees has declined – in particular, native grasslands, conservation acreage and traditional food crops. Add to this, the increasing pesticide use that goes along with this production and bees are trapped in a landscape of desolation and danger.

The answer to saving bees is healthy soil and diverse landscapes – it’s actually a relatively easy problem to fix. We just need to change the nature of how we farm. Better practice – crop rotations, cover cropping, less use of chemicals on the land, min-till and no-till – is taking hold among more forward-thinking farmers, which is hopeful.

However, the complete failure of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fulfil its basic aim of protecting the environment makes this problem more complex. The Pollinatorsends with a pointed attack on the agency evidencing more alignment with industrialised farming than environmental protection. Government needs to take a stand on the side of bees and do more to protect them, for our sake as much as theirs.

Last Man Fishing

Director: JD Schuyler

The industrialisation of the fishing industry is following in the footsteps of agricultural industrialisation – both are squeezing out small- and mid-scale producers in favour of practices that are more damaging to fisheries and seas, with all but the biggest fishing fleets losing out. The rapacious appetite of large-scale fishing trawlers decimates sea floors and indiscriminately swallows up everything in the wake of their vast nets.

The film focuses on small, independent fisherman trying to make a living in the face of ongoing consolidation of ownership in US fisheries. This has been facilitated by government policy, which has practically ‘corporatised’ the fishing industry in many of America’s coastal waters.

The damage of trawling reaches far beyond the impact on stock of bycatch and the damage to ocean environments – the vast power of large fleets can wipe out local fisheries in a short period of time. In southern Alaska, it took five years of community resistance and lobbying to finally ban trawling – but this is a rare success.

What happens to fish as it is shipped around the world is both ridiculous and stupid – it may be caught in Alaska, but it’s cut in China or some other far flung place where labour is cheap. Fish is often refrozen twice, destroying the texture of the flesh, and it becomes anonymous, labelled as whatever is convenient. Fish fraud is endemic through the trade. Independent fisherman, like their counterpart small- and medium-scale farmers, are surviving by stepping outside the corporate model, selling direct to customers, lobbying co-operatively, banking their sustainable, low-impact credentials and building trust with customers willing to pay more for what they believe in. But even in success, these fishermen are up against a wall – struggling against the tide of industrial fishing which continues to pillage the world’s seas.

Farmsteaders

Director: Shaena Mallett

Farmsteaders is a beautifully filmed meditative reflection on small-scale, sustainable family farming. The Nolans, Nick and Celeste and their four young children, have taken on the family farm – where Nolan’s father was killed in a tractor accident when Nick was still a boy. The haunting legacy of this compels Nick back onto the land, reviving the dairy farm his parents ran for 42 years. One of Nick’s early comments in the film speaks volumes: “Whenever somewhere has a hold on you, that can be a powerful thing. It’s like you’re in love with somebody…” This binding relationship to the land that everyone in the family shares is deep and empowering. Everyone mucks in, the youngest holding the arm on the wheelbarrow as Nick pushes it across the farm. Farming and family are enmeshed.

Farmsteaders offers what is perhaps a truer picture of farm life than the Biggest Little Farm (where transformation and success is buoyed by a significant amount of money). For the Nolans, the farm business is built on their backs and exhaustion is an ever-present and demanding companion. Nick notes at the start of the film that when he grew up on the farm there were “several hundred dairy farms within 30 or 40 miles of here…[but] the big people got bigger and the smaller got pushed out of the way.” There is no money in milk on the scale of the Nolan’s farm, so they put their milk into artisan cheese and run a localised business, selling to restaurants, shops and at farmers’ markets.

The weight of work is immense, evidenced in Celeste breaking down in tears on receiving a large order for cheese, that will mean that she will have to forego sleep to deliver it. The calculus of sleep is never in a farmer’s favour. The ability of farmers to push through the breaking point of physical collapse is remarkable, but also devastating. This farm life comes with a cost.

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