Farmageddon Uncovers Government’s Insane Campaign Against Small Farmers
New Documentary Film Examines Attack on Raw Milk Producers, Ranchers
The folks who run Athens Locally Grown in northern Georgia might have known they were crossing the law — but they didn’t believe they were doing anything wrong. Yet the managers of the organic food distribution co-op were, in fact, committing an illegal act. Their crime? Transporting raw milk across the South Carolina-Georgia border and selling it to the co-op’s members.
In mid-October 2009, officials with the Georgia Department of Agriculture impounded 110 gallons of unpasteurized milk co-op members had ordered and then, a week later, ordered Athens Locally Grown to pour out all of the milk. The scene of Locally Grown manager Eric Wagoner dumping milk onto the ground comes about halfway through the new documentary film Farmageddon, and it marks the emotional climax of this intensely emotional film. Especially for a part-time food producer like me, the image is heartbreaking. Such wanton waste seems nothing short of sinful — or worse than sinful, given that the waste is driven by plain ignorance and government overreach. The scene captures so much that is wrong about the agricultural and food systems in this country.
A tremor of righteous indignation runs like an electric current through Farmageddon, which was written, directed, and produced by Kristin Canty. A mother of four, Canty became committed to feeding her family organic foods and raw milk after one of her sons developed severe allergies. The movie is Canty’s way of sharing with people her belief in the importance of local food systems — and sounding a warning about how thoughtless government policies are impacting those small farmers, ranchers, and dairies.
Farmageddon is Canty’s first film and, unfortunately, it shows. Canty seems confused about which story she wants to tell, and how she wants to tell it. Parts of the film feel like a pamphlet praising the benefits of raw milk; other parts come off like an exposé of the depredations of the industrial food system; still others like yet another profile of sustainable farming rock star Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm. The presentation is clumsy, switching up between voiceovers by Canty and a let-the-subjects-speak-for-themselves style of filmmaking. This is an amateurish piece of work that, I’m sorry to say, too often lets its warnings stretch beyond the evidence.
The sloppiness is disappointing, because there’s an important story buried at the center of the film: The inherent unfairness of one-size-fits-all government regulations that apply equally to massive industrial farms and grocery stores and also to family farms and small cooperatives. And Canty raises another crucial question: Why are government regulators so apoplectic about raw milk and unpermitted meat sales that they are engaging in Gestapo-like tactics?
If “Gestapo-like” seems an overstatement, I would ask you to imagine how you’d feel if a dozen armed government agents stormed your house, confiscated your property, and held you and children in a room for six hours. That’s exactly what happened to John and Jackie Stowers, whose home was raided in December 2008 — all for the offense of selling food to their neighbors without a permit. Christian homeschoolers with 10 children (including a son who at the time was serving in Iraq) the Stowers hardly seem like a threat to the common good. Their Manna Storehouse co-op was simply trying to provide the community with healthy foods at affordable rates. And yet they were treated like methamphetamine dealers. The raid, Mrs. Stowers said, resulted in “spiritual and emotional trauma.”
Or take the case of Linda and Larry Faillace, Vermonters who had a dream of producing cheese from sheep’s milk. After they imported some heirloom breeds from Europe, the USDA warned that the sheep might be infected with a disease similar to mad cow disease. The Faillace’s went to great lengths to prove their herd wasn’t infectious, but the USDA eventually came in and slaughtered the sheep. Before the dispute played itself out, the government spent more than $1 million to conduct an around-the-clock surveillance of the Faillace’s farm and the movements of Linda, Larry, and their children.
These stories and others reveal a food regulatory system seemingly gripped by madness. Why the iron-fist tactics against hippies and Mennonites? And why don’t health agencies and agriculture inspectors react similarly when food illness outbreaks are traced back to industrial mega farms? Remember, for example, the recall of 380 million eggs in August 2010. As far as I know, the multi-million-dollar Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa didn’t experience a guns-drawn raid like that suffered by Rawsome Foods in Venice, CA that same year.
The government overreaction leads Canty to hint darkly that there is some kind of vast conspiracy underway to crush local food systems. Near the beginning of the film Canty warns that “the current US agricultural policies could potentially destroy our local food system.” This seems to me an overstatement — especially when I see the cultural craving for locally produced foods, the wave of young people eager to go into farming, the booming farmers markets nationwide. If there’s a conspiracy, it’s hiding in plain sight: The government’s bias toward industrial scale producers.
I doubt that the bias is enough to shut down all small farmers, as Canty warns. But there’s no question that the overzealous scrutiny of smaller farmers, ranchers, and dairies represents a significant barrier to entry that is preventing the sustainable food sector from growing beyond a tiny niche. Organic-certified farmers face far more scrutiny of their operations than any other growers in the country. “I have to do so much paperwork in order to be certified organic. That’s sort of OK, but it’s three inches of stuff I have to submit,” Trina Pilonero of Silver Heights Farm in Jeffersonville, NY says near the beginning of the film. “I don’t resent being inspected. I resent the amount of work I have to do. It’s not productive. I would like to see chemical farmers have to go through this baloney and tell their customers what kind of chemicals they are using on their food that people are consuming.” As one rancher in Farmageddon wryly notes: “The only farm crop regulated more than raw milk is marijuana.”
Fortunately, there’s a simple and reasonable fix: Creating different rules for small producers and large ones. If anything, the burden of proof right now is misplaced. Though it may sound counterintuitive, the best way of creating a level playing field between industrial producers and local ones is to force the industrial operators to be far more transparent about their methods — a fair enough demand, I think, given that most people in this country eat industrially grown and highly processed foods.
Amid Farmageddon’s vague warnings of sinister forces at work, there’s a note of hope. Canty shows that a commitment to food sovereignty (the idea that everyone should be able to grow and distribute food how they want) cuts across the tired divisions of Left and Right, secular and religious. I can’t imagine that Paula Crossfield, the Manhattan-based editor of the sustainable food blog Civil Eats, and Mennonite dairyman Mark Nolt of Pennsylvania would agree on many political issues. Ditto the managers of Venice’s Rawsome Foods and libertarian Republican Congressman Ron Paul. But all of them appear in this film. They each have had their Jeffersonian blood boil by the overreach of food regulations. They all agree that selling food to your neighbors shouldn’t be an act of civil disobedience.
For all of its flaws, Farmageddon is worth watching, if for not other reason than it demonstrates the breadth of the local, sustainable food movement. A breadth that, I remain confident, will keep growing until it eventually overcomes the inconsistencies of the rules governing our food.