Review: FRESH the Movie - Coming to a Theater Near You

April 2010, the movie Fresh will launch its nationwide debut...and I highly recommend it. Among films of this genre, my notes say, “This film is vital.” I received an early release copy from the director, Ana Joanes, and was surprised to learn this is only her second documentary. Fresh is evidence that the Swiss-born, Brooklyn-based Joanes has a unique gift for storytelling. Production on Fresh began in late 2005, and it is a thrill to see the final outcome.

NOTE: Early marketing for the film is a grassroots effort. If you'd like to host a screening...details here.

Fresh director Ana Joanes takes us on a journey, contrasting large-scale agriculture with champions of the small farm movement.

The film offers a critical look at mono crops (farms that grow only one product, like corn), profiled against successful farms that have ultimately, veered from the industrial agricultural model. Driving the point home are stunning images of densely-packed feed lots, which make a startling juxtaposition to “farms done right”.

What distinguishes Fresh from other films of this sort is an undercurrent of hopefulness. The film profiles farmers who have broken with modern farm methods, and are thriving. Yes, the American agricultural system is broken. Fresh shines the light on farmers who are pioneering a new model, successfully.

Champion of the good food movement, Michael Pollan and agricultural economist John Ikerd provide an important narrative. “We can tip the balance of nature to a certain extent, “ says Ikerd, “but when we tip the balance too far, it causes problems.”

While Americans have the lowest food-to-income ratio in the world, Ikerd raises the alarm. “We got so obsessed with productivity and having more cheap stuff….We’re facing the inevitable consequences.” High-density animal farming, resulting concentrations of urine and feces that produce toxic waste, teamed with the heavy use of antibiotics and crop pesticides…the current model for cheap food is fraught with external costs.

Ikerd cautions, “It’s time to shift to a different world view, a different paradigm for the future.”

Cut to a pastoral scene of idyllic cows grazing on knee-high grass. Swoope, Virginia sustainable farmer Joe Salatin says, “It doesn’t get much better than this.” Illustrating his point, we see the interconnectedness of a truly sustainable farm. Cows graze on the land, and to avoid over use, they are rotated to a different pasture…daily. Three days after the cows, follow free range chickens that break up cow pies and feed on the fly larvae. The commensal relationship goes full circle. Chickens benefit from the cows, and in turn, break up the manure, which results in a natural fertilizer for the field.

As a steward of the land, the rotation system Salatin uses also makes financial sense. Between grazing and cutting the field for hay, “Not only do you get diversity of multi-speciation, but you’ve got all these complimentary income streams.” He illustrates his point in hard numbers, “Instead of the neighbor who just runs beef cows getting $150 per acre, we’re getting over $3,000 dollars an acre per acre.” Stalin ads, “And we haven’t bought a single seed or an ounce of fertilizer in 50 years!”

Will Allen, professional basketball player-turned urban farmer adds another important perspective. Farming on just 3 acres in urban Milwaukee, Allen illustrates vertical gardening with hanging flower pots staggered from floor to ceiling. In this case, the flowers have been replaced with lettuce, and the camera pans to a bounty of greens. Shuffling between rows of hanging baskets under a greenhouse canopy, Allen says, off-handedly, “We grow 150 varieties of micro-greens and salad greens.”

Moving on, Allen digs his massive hands into a wooden box filled midnight black soil, teeming with worms. Compost is key. “Whether it’s urban agriculture or rural agriculture, in a sustainable way, you have to grow healthy soil. That’s what we do.” He drives the point home, “We’re going to compost 6 million pounds of food waste from the City of Milwaukee this year.”

“We compost the waste and feed it to the worms.” Allen adds, “That food residue turns into microbiological-rich soil.” With his hands writhing with worms, he says, “This is your base material for growing good food.”

Diversification on Allen’s farm includes above-ground tanks of freshwater Tilapia. There too, the waste goes full circle. A pump removes water from the fish tanks, which is then used to water the plants. “Just like a stream or a river,” Allen reminds an attentive audience on a farm tour. “The plant’s roots take up the nutrients and clean the water.”

Fresh profiles a number of other farms, woven seamlessly with narrative of Pollan and Ikerd. (Kudos to the film's editor, Mona Davis.) The end result is an informative film that is both enlightening and entertaining.

NOTE: As of this writing, the film is touring in limited release. Check the website for screenings near you.