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April 05, 2019 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
Green grass. Farms. Lots of cows and barnyard animals. Those words conjure up a quaint picture of rural America—a great place to raise a family away from the smog and ills of the big city.
Today we have “factory farming,” where hundreds of animals are raised and housed for food. These farms are typically found in rural, minority, and low-income communities.
Filmmakers Annie Speicher and Matt Wechsler met and interviewed Dr. John Ikerd, an agricultural economist, during the making of “Sustainable,” a film about the pressures of big agribusiness on local farmers.
“During the interview [with Dr. Ikerd], John opened our eyes to the importance that livestock plays in our current system,” say the filmmakers. “Furthermore, he told us about the communities that are suffering because they have to deal with the waste from all these animals.
“Most shocking to us,” they continue, “was the fact that these facilities are all legally protected by government regulations that support the industry over the welfare of people who live in these communities.”
According to the film’s website, 90-95% of all animals raised today for consumption are housed in confinement buildings known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. That means gallons of waste from these animals. That waste, or manure, is used to fertilize fields. It’s also known to contaminate groundwater and spread toxins to the air. Those living nearby suffer.
The filmmakers worked with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, or SRAP, to identify appropriate stories and subjects for their film. They travelled to eight states doing research and interviewing subjects. Once Wechsler and Speicher were in the communities, they got to know the residents and “were able to tell their stories in a very organic way,” they say.
The independent filmmakers were up against big business and, at first, were “a little anxious” about the reaction from CAFO owners and operators. They had heard stories about intimidation from these folks, but “got surprisingly little resistance from them while filming,” they say.
There were just a few dicey instances during filming. “One of the first times we filmed in Wisconsin, our car was followed until we left the CAFO zone,” they recount. While in Iowa, someone fired a gun at their drone as it flew over a hog confinement. “Thankfully they missed,” they say.
Then, while in North Carolina, a local lawyer called the two a “nuisance” for filming a public hearing and questioned them about flying their drone. Again, someone followed their car for several miles.
“Other than that, we would classify the treatment from CAFO owners and operators as silent,” they say. The filmmakers even offered to tell their side of the story on camera. At first, one of the CAFO owners agreed to be interviewed on camera, but then never returned the filmmakers’ calls.
The two clarify that their intent was never “to incite any conflict with CAFO owners,” they say. “For the most part, they are abiding the law. Many of them are barely making ends meet.
“We have always viewed the government regulatory system and large corporations as being the ‘enemy,’ not individual CAFO owners. The reality is that this system of industrialized agriculture is benefitting very few people and we need to change that,” they continue.
It comes back to their initial conversations with Ikerd, who grew up in a time where rural America was a place parents wanted to raise their children.
“There was a connection with the land and the farmers who feed us,” says Speicher about her conversation with Ikerd. “He is hopeful that we can create a regenerative agriculture system that brings prosperity back to rural America. There are already a lot of people out there figuring this out. We just need a few more.”
Wechsler agrees, “Regulatory change is not only possible, it is necessary to create a food system that is equal for all. That requires citizens to demand change and politicians to talk about food production, which hasn’t been the case since the 1960s.”
—Anne M. DiTeodoro
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