Sustainable. Green. All Natural. Organic. These labels jump out at us everywhere now from the aisles of crunchy food coops to swanky upscale health food stores, even the banal big box stores, all trying to grab a share of the burgeoning demand for clean, healthy food.
Food companies large and small, local and international, infuse and package their brands with the message: "Buy me! This product is clean and good for you! This food will help stop illness and will make you live longer!”
But, will it? How can everything all of a sudden be so sustainable? What are we really buying? Or buying into? And, is it good for the planet, really?
Enter the refreshing, informative, inspiring film "Sustainable" which cuts through the green tape and static of TMI and corporate-speak marketing and gets to the heart of the food-that-matters matter.
Farmer Marty Travis on his farm in Illinois during a Chefs Camp working retreat. Image Via Hourglass Films
The soul of the documentary is the endearing Travis clan, an eighth generation farm family
living in Central Illinois, just outside of Chicago.At the turn of the 21st century they were struggling and at wits end. Should they turn their 160 acres into just another another cog in the wheel of the millions of acres matrix of corn and soybeans grown from GMO seeds and sprayed with tons of toxic herbicides and pesticides? The Farmers Travis could have easily just thrown in the towel and succumbed to being absorbed by the surrounding industrial farms.
Thankfully, Marty Travis, wife Kris and son Will believed there was a a better way to farm. They were going to figure out how to exist and continue working the land as their ancestors had since the early 19th century.
The Farmers Travis realized they could create a cash flow by arbitraging the value of plants that grew naturally in the region. Conventional farmer wisdom was that these were “weeds” to be eradicated with herbicide. In this case, the Farmers Travis gathered and marketed wild ramps growing on their cousins' farm. With ramps in hand, Marty Travis approached Chicago chefs who also saw value in the tasty weeds which possessed a flavor profile resembling onions and leeks. Soon the chefs were asking what else could be grown on the their farms. A partnership of mutual need and benefit soon evolved.
Image via Hourglass Films
One Chicago Chef, Ric Bayless, “sets the table” at the beginning of the film:
"Having grown up in the 50s and 60s in a world that was divorcing itself from all of its food.....How am I going to make great food if I do not have a connection to the people that are growing that food. We have gotten so distant from the food that we start thinking about it as a commodity. For goodness sake it is our nourishment as human beings and I can have an opportunity to have a give and take with the people that are keeping me alive."
Bayless, other chefs and their restaurant staffs are palpably excited when Farmer Marty is shown personally delivering produce to them in Chicago. The scenes are heartwarming. The love from the chefs for Marty and the Farmers Travis is returned tenfold by the family. Marty & Co know how lucky they are to not only be so connected to nature, but also grow produce embraced by some of Chicago's top chefs.
Marty Travis reflects while making deliveries to kitchens in Chicago: "It's more about the
relationship than the rutabagas....It's much more than just selling things to them, they've really become our friends."
Greg Wade from Chicago's Famous Publican Quality Bread at one of the Chef's Camp held on the Farm
Much of the film demonstrates how the Travis family success is due, notably, to literally returning to their roots. By considering things the way their ancestors had done before them, they realized there was no other choice but to figure out how to live off the land, sustainably.
Mark Bittman, former New York Times' food columnist, comments in the film: "It's so funny that people talk about how, oh I am a small farmer and I'm providing food to restaurants and I sell some stuff at a CSA and have a truck stand and I go to a farmers market once a week. That's what a small farmer typically these days would say. Well, that is what everybody did 50 years ago"
The cool thing about the Farmers Travis going back to their roots is just how far their roots go back . In the early 1800s the Travis family ancestors were taught by the Kicapoo Indians how to grow and harvest food sustainably. Collecting maple sap from trees to make syrup is but one lesson learned from the indigenous people. The Native Americans did not so much dominate land to grow food, but rather integrated themselves with the land. They were permaculturists. Four generations later we embrace permaculture as a modern day necessity.
Klaas Martens from Lakeview Organic Grains sums up a core message in the film: "We are at a crossroads and I think we need to go back to the way the early farmers did it. We have separated the agri and culture and we need to reintegrate that.”
Image Courtesy Rodale Institute, a Pioneer in the Scientific Study of the Feasibility of Organic Farming
“Sustainable” communicates that connecting with old farming culture does not mean we have to shy away from modern technology or go back to lower standards of past living. What the film depicts clearly is that old methods combined with new scientific knowledge can produce flourishing results. A section of the film highlighting the seminal Rodale Institute proves false the argument that organic, sustainable ag can not support our modern world.
In another film sequence, we learn how an Amish farmer, John Kempf of Ohio, the founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture, has developed a sophisticated plant sap analysis method that determines exactly what micro nutrients in the soil are needed for specific plants to thrive.
Micro nutrient programs tailored for specific plants make them more resilient to weather, pests and droughts. Kempf was not seen on screen as his faith does not allow him to be photographed. It's an interesting juxtaposition with regard to the message of the film. You don't have to throw away the past to succeed in the present and future. As we learn about the cutting edge biochemistry of plants from Kempf, we see him traveling down a quiet country road in a black horse drawn carriage.
Image Courtesy of Advancing Eco Agriculture
Another central premise of the film, raised by Mark Bittman, questions the intent of "modern farming" as defined by the industrialization of farmland beginning in the mid twentieth century. On that paradigm of farming, he states: "You are not saying how do we want to feed ourselves. You are saying how can we make agriculture into the most efficient, profit making system that we can? To start with - how do we make the most possible money, rather, how do we produce the most appropriate food, is asking the wrong question first."
The Farmers Travis asked the right question first. How do we save our farm while helping the community? In the process they created a healthy model which is spreading throughout the region and creating a network of small farmers who help and support each other.
Farmers Meeting With the Travis Family to Learn How to be More Productive and Sustainable. Image
via Midwestern Permaculture
Near the film's end, a piano is heard playing “God Bless America.” Marty Travis speaks:
"If we have done a good job of installing the idea of working together, can you imagine what this community will look like in 20-30 years? Talk about food security. Talk about economic development. We've done it from within."
And, from within he does not just mean from within the community. In the end, what he conveys is that change needs to come from within ourselves, in a spiritual sense. It needs to emanate from a place of doing right with people and planet before profit.
John E. Ikerd. Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics University of Missouri Columbia posits: "Sustainability is ultimately an ethical issue."
Ethical issue, yes. Luckily, Marty, Kris and Will Travis, farmers all, and others like them, are not just debating ethics. They are doing what needs to be done. Philosophy and talking about sustainable economics is great, but getting your hands dirty with real, live permaculture is even better.
Will (left) and His Dad Marty Travis
The Farmers Travis personify the notion that it's possible to make a living working on a farm by collaborating with nature instead of trying to conquer the land in a mad rush for corporate driven profit. Of course, small farmers have to make a profit, no one is denying that. And, it isn't easy. It's hard work. But, prioritizing, putting quality of life before coin, barns before banks, community before capital, might make you feel a whole lot better.
Eyes glistening with joy, Will Travis rhapsodizes about resurrecting the maple syrup business on the farm and re-learning what his 4th great grandfather learned from the Kicapoo in the early 1800s: "I wanted to do the maple syrup because I really enjoyed being in the timber. The sounds and the smells. It was just a very calming relaxing environment to be in."
Now that's an ulterior motive that speaks louder and says more about wealth than any monetary profit.