Farmageddon disappointment

Farmageddon – Not the movie it could have been


The strong arm of Big Government reaches into small family farms, points guns at their kids and rips out their way of life by slaughtering their livestock and pouring out their raw milk. It’s because the local food system is a threat to the status quo. We don’t know who’s behind it, but it’s probably Big Ag.

There’s just enough in this hard-hitting film to believe all of this, especially if you’re already predisposed to, as I am. There are fantastic interviews with regular people just trying to do the right thing, telling stories of sheriff deputies and USDA officials swooping in and shutting them down. There are questions about “Why me?” when we hear the opening story of a couple importing sheep to start up their operation whose sheep all get confiscated and killed because of a threat of Mad Cow disease that never manifests itself. There are plenty of opportunities to gasp, shake your head and exclaim “WTF?”

So why is this movie a disappointment?

I struggled with this talking to Paul on the way home from our Earthcare Working Group gathering where we watched it with some Quaker friends in Iowa City. The journalist in me told me it wasn’t journalism. And even as advocacy journalism, it wasn’t persuasive. Something was missing, big time.

And I finally figured it out. First, you gotta wonder what it took for a bunch of understaffed, underpaid federal agency officials (often known as “bureaucrats”) to storm the homes and barns of small farmers in the Middle of Nowhere USA. How did they find out about these operations in the first place? Did some neighbor tip them off? If so, why? And how many letters, warnings or subpoenas did these folks receive before it came to the guns-drawn confrontations we see on tape?

Second, and this is the journalist in me, the movie is one anecdote after the next, with no facts to back them up.

Nowhere does the filmmaker support the blurry accusation that The Industry is behind it, even though it’s easy to do.

  • For starters, why not give us some numbers on how many millions (or billions) the industry has spent lobbying our federal officials?
  • Or the latest, greatest hits of offensive policies that have been written by the industry and implemented by the USDA? They’re out there, and there are plenty of good organizations tracking them.
  • Why not include some figures on how big and powerful the Farm Bureau (because it offers affordable health insurance to members) is and how many times it has lobbied on behalf of Big Ag while claiming to represent “family farmers?”
  • How about the dairy industry which I tracked down in Pennsylvania trying to threaten milk regulators into banning the “rBST Free” label from artificial-hormone-free milk?
  • How about any number of excellent journalist reports on food safety?
  • Or about how hard it is to track problems once they hit the industrial food system?

With local foods guru Joel Salatin making a few appearances, you’d think there’d be enough meat on this dish to gnaw on. I’m a huge fan of Salatin, But I know he graduated from Bob Jones University and have to wonder if that conservative upbringing is informing his anti-government position on this more than just raw experience. His biggest complaint in this film is that he has to travel so far to get his meat inspected. Well then, help fund the government programs that will help build more inspection sites. (And to the former slaughterhouse worker-turned-farmer who said the inspector was always “up in his office,” try to imagine the futility of inspecting hundreds of head of cattle or thousands of chickens PER MINUTE as they are expected to do now that Reagan-era budget cuts have made them nothing more than cardboard cut-outs.)

I wish I could trust every farmer – including the one I look in the eye as I hand him my cash at the farmers market – to have clean, safe facilities at the proper temperature to slaughter my meat, but I can’t. Everyone’s gotta make a living. What if one day something goes wrong and this farmer feels the need to cut a corner here or there? Who’s supposed to be there to make sure what we eat is safe? As defunded and understaffed as it is, I’d still rather have the USDA on the case and be demanding our legislators fund more inspectors.

As for raw milk, the filmmaker made the case – especially with the mention of it as a cure for allergic rhinitis which I have – but so much of the movie lacks credibility that as much as I want to believe it, I won’t go out of my way to buy some. Still, I believe it should be made available for sale.

I think the key word Salatin said that made the most sense was that policies and enforcement should be “scalable.” But there are already regulations in place that are based on the scale of the operation. Perhaps these folks think that needs to be fine-tuned. We don’t know.

I’m the last one to defend Big Ag. I think the monopolization of our food system comes second only to the control of fresh water as the most important threat to our survival on this planet. We support our local growers and grow our own food from open-pollinated seed as well. But this movie feeds the paranoid fears of many small farmers by telling the stories of a few, instead of being a truly credible piece that could change people’s minds and move them to act.