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“American Meat”: Not Just Another Food Documentary

Friday, February 24th, 2012


Over the past couple of weeks the mainstream media has been paying more attention to the industrialized meat system in America.  During it’s telecast the Grammy’s featured Chipotle’s ‘Back to the Start’ advertisement, an animated critique of factory farming,  to which the Farm Bureau  and sustainable farming supporters published opinions in major outlets last week.

After the ad aired, two massive food corporations, McDonalds and Bon Appétit Management Company, have publicly committed to sourcing pork from farms that prohibit the use of gestation crates. Are we seeing the start of real change in the meat industry?

Recently I met documentary filmmaker Graham Meriwether at an Occupy Big Food event in New York City.  Over grassfed burgers (his favorite), our conversation turned to the issues with our current agricultural system, and the future of food.  Graham’s latest documentary, American Meat, takes an in-depth look at the problems with meat production and offers models for change in our current food system.

AMERICAN MEAT TRAILER from Leave It Better on Vimeo.

 What really sets American Meat apart from other solutions-based, sustainable agriculture-supporting documentaries is its balanced and respectful expose of the meat system.  Graham, an advocate for sustainable agriculture, originally planned to film a year on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms, but realized his film did not include 99% of the real meat production, the prevailing industrialized system. “I tried to make the film as even-handed as possible. I do have an opinion and I talk about sustainable agriculture, but I want to respect commodity ag.  There is a reason it is in place and that is because we decided as a culture we wanted our food as cheap as possible.”

Graham reached out to commodity hog producers in Iowa and poultry producers in North Carolina for inclusion in the film in order to provide an even-handed look on American meat production.  I asked Graham how he was able to convince these producers to open up their doors to him.  He said that “in 2008 Pilgrim’s Pride was the largest producer of chickens, and then declared bankruptcy and cut off 44 farmers in North Carolina.  I found that to be an opportunity to talk to some farmers who were frustrated with the system. “

The openness of these farmers to camera crews, and the American public’s opinion, is something that you don’t often see in food documentaries.  American Meat humanized these producers and fairly showcased their operations.  While American Meat does present a strong case for encouraging sustainable models like the Salatin’s Polyface Farms, Fred Kirschenmann and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Niman Ranch, and corporations like Chipotle, it also provides factory farmers with an opportunity to tell their story.  A huge risk for them to take on.

Per usual, the segments on Polyface were interesting and inspiring — it’s always wonderful to see farmers in sustainable production — but that’s not the story that stuck with me.  I was more intrigued by how, when, and why farmers have vertically integrated into industrialized production.  There is a strong case for farmers from the Midwest to expand and sign contracts with major corporations.  In order for these farmers to make “big money” in the marketplace, they have to adhere to the status quo.  And, even though production models are changing, today’s dominant system in place is industrialized production.

Many farmers vertically integrate into the industrial agriculture system in order to stay competitive. They invest millions of dollars into their operations in order to fulfill the margins of the companies who contract them, but many end up going into massive debt in order to meet their quotas.  American Meat showcases farmers like Sam Talley, who became a poultry farmer for the independence and gratification of helping feed the world, who was contracted by Pilgrim’s Pride and required to build massive heated poultry houses in order to produce enough chickens to fulfill his contract.  He was cut back in 2008 and 2 of his houses were put out of production.  He is $420,000 in debt, and will pay it all back by the time he is 75.

The story of one hog farmer, Chuck Wirtz of Iowa, stuck with me.  Chuck and his young son Carson operate a farrow-to-finish commodity hog farm. The film shows images of his 10’x18’ pens where 24 pigs live in confinement indoors.  While he is still raising the majority of his hogs in these conditions, Chuck has converted a small portion over to welfare-compassionate production to reach new markets like Whole Foods.  It’s been a challenge for Chuck, but he doesn’t regret it. And, he admits that the meat tastes better!

For Graham, transitioning operations are “just as important to this movement. Folks in Iowa and Nebraska, they’ve been doing [commodity agriculture] for generations.  They have so much pride, they produce most of the food in this country and they will be part of the solution. We need our primary stake behind the middle of the country, it’s very important not to turn a deaf ear and to celebrate what people like Chuck are doing.”

Graham shared with me a story about screenings for the Future Farmers of America he and Chuck did in Iowa.  Says Graham, “it’s an inspiring moment.  [Chuck and I] would have young people in HS after the film who want to try to figure out a way to do [transition].  They are working on a commodity farm, but want to set up a new system.  They ask us how to transition and how to convince their parents to do so.”

American Meat brings the good food movement full-circle.  It goes back to the roots of the issue in our industrialized food system, fairly presents them, and offers models for change and sustainable solutions. Graham feels that “the pendulum has swung too far to this type of production. We need to expand sustainable production to be a much larger part of the market. Right now it’s only about 1%, but should be 10%.” Graham and his crew did a masterful job on the film, and I recommend everyone check out it out on DVD or at a screening near you.