By Kathy Chaffin
If the attendance at the March 1st screening of “Dirt: The Movie” at the Center for the Environment was any indication, people do care about dirt, the food it grows and the people who grow it.
More than 170 people turned out for a 6 p.m. food tasting followed by the screening and a panel discussion co-hosted by the Center, located on the Catawba College campus, and Salisbury’s Bread Riot. The nonprofit food advocacy organization is dedicated to “facilitating a supply of locally produced food, utilizing sustainable farming practices.”
“Dirt: The Movie” – an award-winning film directed and produced by Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow – was inspired by William Bryant Logan’s acclaimed book, “Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.” It examines the history and current state of soil, offering a sobering look at how man’s misuse and abuse of this valuable natural resource has left the planet in crisis.
A third of the world’s topsoil, for example, has been lost in the past 100 years. The film shows how industrial farming, mountaintop removal, deforestation and urban development have endangered the soil and resulted in droughts, starvation and floods.
Among the haunting scenes are a farmer crying as his equipment is being sold at auction and an interview with the widow of a farmer who hanged himself after not being able to survive financially.
“Dirt: The Movie” reports a growing trend of farmers in Third World countries committing suicide. In the past decade, 200,000 farmers in India have taken their own lives, some by drinking the very pesticide they cannot afford to buy.
Movie Offers Hope
Despite the frightening statistics, the latter part of the movie offers hope by showing what people are doing to improve the soil. Administrators in some urban schools, for example, are opting to remove concrete and involve students in planting in the dirt. A prison in New York is giving new meaning and purpose to inmates’ lives by having them plant trees, plants and gardens.
Featured in the film is Wangari Maathai, the late Kenyan environmentalist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, telling a story about a hummingbird that flies back and forth to put water on a huge forest fire – one drop at a time – while the other, much larger animals stand helplessly watching the trees burn.
Maathai said the other animals asked the hummingbird, “What you think you can do? You’re too little. This fire is too big. Your wings are too little and your beak’s so small. You can only bring a small drop of water at a time.
“As they continue to discuss it, the hummingbird turns to them without wasting any time and says, ‘I am doing the best I can.’ And that, to me, is what all of us should do,” Maathai said. “We should do like the hummingbird. I may feel insignificant, but I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching as the planet goes down the drain.
“I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can.”
Addressing the audience after the film had ended, Center Executive Director Dr. John Wear asked, “Is everybody inspired to be like a little hummingbird and do the best we can?” People responded with applause and a resounding “yes.”
Panel Discusses Film
Participating in the panel discussion were: Dennis Testerman, manager of Cabarrus County Soil and Water; Sarah Moore, farmer and environmental leader at Catawba; Amy Hoffner of Hoffner Farms, a certified organic dairy in Mount Ulla; Jim Graham, farmer and former county commissioner for Davidson County; and Aaron Newton, local food system program coordinator for Cabarrus County. Wear served as moderator.
Testerman, who is part of an eight-generation farm family, said he had visited several of the countries with soil issues included in the film and appreciated the long-term perspective offered by “Dirt: The Movie.”
He noted that National Association of Conservation Districts’ Stewardship and Education Committee’s 2012 Stewardship Week is set for April 29 to May 6. This year’s theme is “Soil to Spoon.”
“It’s an important reminder that there is a sacred nature of the land,” he said. “The relationship that we have with it is one that has a spiritual element that really helps guide us in where we need to go.”
Moore, a senior environmental education major at Catawba, said her family has been farming in Davie County for years. “Since a young age, it’s been drilled into my head – ‘no erosion,’ ” she said.
Her grandfather, Ray Crotts, and her mother and sister, who all help with the family farm, were in the audience. Moore said her grandfather keeps urging her to look at soil samples taken over the past several years to see what is happening to it. “Are we keeping it alive?” she asked. “Are we keeping it healthy? Are we keeping the microorganisms healthy?”
Love Our Dirt
Moore said she hopes to teach future generations to appreciate the soil and its importance to the future of the planet. “We need to love our dirt,” she said.
Hoffner, who will graduate from N.C. State University this spring with a master’s degree in crop science, said she hopes to start growing vegetables on her family’s dairy farm. “When we went organic, it’s just like something connected in my brain,” she said. “It just made sense.”
As for the film, Hoffner said it focuses on what people tend to take for granted, “like our soil, like our water, like our food system and ourselves and our neighbors and our neighbors halfway across the world.”
Graham said he grows corn, wheat and soybeans in a rotation system on his Davidson County farm. At age 6, he began recycling natural waste to replenish the soil on his family’s dairy farm.
In 2003, Graham said his family sold their dairy cattle because they weren’t making enough money. They sold their last shipment of milk at $12.50 per 100 pounds.
The next day, he said milk was shipped in to the local Food Lion from Texas at the cost of $18 per 100 pounds. If his family had been able to get that price for their milk, Graham said they’d still be in the dairy business.
Ensure Healthy Soil
As local food system program coordinator for Cabarrus, Newton said he works with the county’s Food Policy Council, established two years ago, to assist local farmers with such issues as making sure their soil is healthy.
He was the first to pose a question to the panel, particularly Graham. In his 60 years experience recycling natural waste to improve the soil, Newton asked Graham for advice on how to get others interested in the natural fertilizer practices.
“The movement is there,” Graham said, adding that it simply has to be financially feasible.
One woman in the audience noted that the 4-H program is set up to educate children on farming, but that it’s not being used. “As far as our children are concerned, they don’t even know where eggs come from,” she said. “I think we can sometimes revitalize those things that can assist us.”
Newton addressed the audience, asking how many have egg-producing chickens. When only a few people raised their hands, he said chickens would be a good way for people interested in learning about farming to get started.
Hoffner said her family would love to have children visit their farm and “get their hands dirty, touch the cows, touch the chickens and pull the vegetables up.”
In answer to a question about how many people in the audience are thinking about making a full- or part-time living from farming, 10 people raised their hands. “What do you think, Aaron?” the woman asked Newton. “Is that a good start?”
“Sure,” he responded, adding that he believes a lot of people are interested in farming. Trends show that more women are going into farming, Newton said. “That’s a very interesting and welcome trend.”
One problem in Cabarrus, he said, is that there needs to be a stronger knowledge base. The average age of farmers is now 59, he said, noting that it’s important for them to share that knowledge base with young people while they’re still active.
Farm Subsidies a Matter of Survival
One participant asked if federal subsidies had been detrimental as far as requiring more chemicals and pesticides. Graham said he used to get $38,000 in government subsidies for his 3,000-acre farm and that only paid a small percentage of the costs. Today, he said he only gets $800.
Even the larger farmers are getting considerably smaller subsidies, Graham said, because the market “is taking care of them.”
Moore said farmers don’t have a choice when it comes to accepting government subsidies. The government requires them to purchase genetically altered seeds every year and fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides, she said, all of which ultimately benefited large chemical and oil companies.
Farmers need those subsidies to survive financially, Moore said. If they don’t accept them, they run the risk of being bought out by larger farms. One reason the average age of farmers today is 59, she said, is because young people can’t afford the cost of equipment. The average cost of a John Deere combine, for example, is $265,000.
Moore contended that looking at more natural ways of farming is the solution to many of today’s problems.
Hoffner agreed. “The farmer has to put out so much money every year,” she said, “and it’s horrendous.”
In the United States, Hoffner said cows in the Midwest are kept up to their knees in manure in feed lots without grass or soil. “And then this meat is being sold,” she said.
Newton said 70 percent of government farm subsidies are for corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat, rice and corn with 2 percent allocated for specialty crops. “Anybody know what specialty crops are?” he asked.
A woman answered: “Fruits and vegetables.”
Another woman in the audience suggested that people can help small farmers by not eating hamburgers at fast-food restaurants because 70 percent of the corn and soybeans being subsidized today are used to feed cattle slaughtered to make those hamburgers. “That’s a movement we could think about starting,” she said.
In answer to a question about whether local grocery stores are receptive to buying locally grown produce, Moore noted that her family barters eggs, meat and produce for services in their community.
Hoffner responded: “I love hearing that people are starting to do that again …. That’s the way we used to do things hundreds of years ago.”
As for attempting to sell produce to local grocery stores, she said she wouldn’t even consider it and would opt selling them at local farmers’ market instead.
‘Do What We Can’
In closing remarks, Testerman said he would like to see more emphasis put on the relationships between people and the land.
“I’d like to leave everyone with the idea that less fertilizer is more,” Moore said.
Hoffner encouraged people to decrease their consumption of meat and sugar “as hard as that may be.”
“We need to sometimes step back and look at ourselves,” she said, “and look at what we’re doing … and what we’re buying and what we’re feeding ourselves … and at the little things we can do.”
Graham said the presentation had been valuable as far as generating ideas for moving forward to help replenish the soil and support local farmers. “I think it’s just like the hummingbird in the movie,” he said. “Each one can do what we can.”
Newton encouraged people to stop eating meat from fast-food restaurants and start eating food that makes them feel better afterward. People also need to work together, he said, to build local foods communities.
Wear closed by saying he appreciates what all of the panelists are doing “and have been doing for years.”
Bread Riot members set up the food tasting using donations from local farms. Providing vegetables and meat for the food tasting were: lettuce and tomatoes, Fiddlehead Farms in Faith; carrots, onions, collards and kale, Muddy Boots Farm in Mount Pleasant; popcorn, Barbee Farms in Concord; cheese, Goat Lady Dairy in Lexington, Sandy Creek Farms in Lexington and Ashe County Cheese in West Jefferson; flour, Hoffner Organic Farms in Mount Ulla; organic pizza, Fair Meadow Bakes in Mount Pleasant; berries and green peppers, Wilson Family Farm in Salisbury; eggs, Bame Farms in Salisbury; elk, Tom Dixon of Charlotte; and chicken broth, Laughing Owl Farm in Richfield.
By Kathy Chaffin