Small farms, big troubles
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, June 17, 2011
The documentary “Farmageddon” peddles food for thought, posing such questions as: Why is it so easy to buy cigarettes but so difficult to purchase raw, unpasteurized milk? A pack of Marlboros arguably has no benefit beyond a temporary buzz — and has plenty of drawbacks — while raw milk is loaded with nutrients but carries a small risk of E. coli, that potentially lethal bacteria we now know can crop up on bean sprouts or spinach.
That is just one of the compelling curiosities unveiled in Kristin Canty’s surprisingly engrossing documentary, a worthy addition to the growing annals of movies and books advocating for sustainable farming methods.
The topic of raw milk seems admittedly obscure. Given that it isn’t available in all states, many Americans might not have heard of it (although spend some time in Berkeley, Calif., and you might unintentionally become an expert). Regardless of the food in question, the subject serves as an effective entry point to consider a much larger, more troubling story that begs viewers to wonder why the government has spent so much time and money cracking down on small farms. Given some of the astonishing episodes of government raids in recent years, Canty is wise to simply let individual stories do the talking.
The documentary travels from Vermont to Virginia and New York to Georgia to investigate the interplay of politics and small agriculture. The film asserts that in one case, federal agents spent a million dollars surveilling a family on a small sheep farm before confiscating all of the animals and euthanizing them. The reason purportedly was mad cow disease, although there haven’t been occurrences of the disease in sheep before or since, and documents that were unsealed thanks to a court order revealed that the animals in question were not carriers.
Meanwhile, a Mennonite farmer was arrested after armed federal agents took $65,000 worth of his food and equipment, even though he had been explicitly told that his business practices were perfectly legitimate. Those are just a couple of the many strange stories that involve seemingly needless raids on small farms, some of which put the owners out of business.
The movie probably could do without voice-overs from Canty or the opening scenes, all of which are replayed later in the film, but those are small quibbles with what becomes a convincing argument that would do the original muckrakers proud.
Given the rise of farmers markets and increasing interest in buying locally, this is a film well worth a watch. Of course, as one interviewee admits, not all small farms are good, nor are all big farms bad. Even so, who benefits by putting the underdog at a disadvantage? That might be the the most compelling question of all.
Contains nothing objectionable.