Moonshine Music for Plant This Movie!

We’re very excited to announce that The Moonshine, a great Portland band that just released their debut album, just jumped on board to record some instrumental songs for Plant This Movie.  Led by the amazing Michael Levasseur and featuring at least two members who have been farmers themselves, this is a perfect fit for the film!  Check out tracks from their album on their website.


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Rough Cut Screening & Final Fundraising Push

The film is in the last mile of the marathon! On Nov. 15, we had a rough cut screening at the wonderful Muse School in Los Angeles, thanks to Paul Hudak, who has moved from his project in Portland to head the gardening program at Muse.

It was a really great day as I went around to all the classrooms from kindergarten to middle school, answering students’ questions about the film and my travels.

Then that night I screened a rough cut of the film for community members, after an out-of-this-world dinner prepared by the school’s in-house vegan chef, Kayla Roche.

Several leaders of the Los Angeles area urban farming movement were in attendance, including Mud Baron and Camille Cimino. It was great to get their feedback on how to take the film from rough to final cut!

Post-production is going strong, and for any last-minute donations, I’m pointing people towards the film’s page at my wonderful fiscal sponsor, The International Documentary Association in LA, where all of your donations are tax deductible.

Thank you so much for your support, and I hope to see you all at a screening of the film this year!

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David Grefrath of Occupy the Farm Jailed

photo credit: Peter Menchini

Update: David got out of jail and the farmers are undaunted.  They’re going back to the Gill Tract on Saturday the 18th!

I just found out today that David Grefrath was arrested two days ago when the police raided Occupy the Farm yet again.  I went through and picked a few of the best of the many insightful things that David had to say during my interview with him and a few others on Nov. 5 of 2012, just a few days before UC plowed under their crops last year.

Hopefully David will be out of jail and back to the great work he does very soon.

Click here for the video: David Grefrath, Nov. 5, 2012



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The end of the project is in sight!  I’m back in Portland, Oregon, but I’ve found so much going on right here at home that Portland will definitely be part of the film as well.  One of the most amazing projects here in Portland is Terra Nova Community Farm, which is also a high school in the Beaverton School District.  The school’s founder, Paul Hudak, has won numerous awards, and rightly so: he’s a tireless and inspiring leader.

Terra Nova is one of the only student-run CSAs in the country.  Paul told me that the key to the project’s success has been including the student farmers in every decision, from day one when they opened up the first seed catalogs together, to major decisions on the direction the farm has taken over the years.  From talking to several long-term students, I can see that he’s succeeded in creating a sense of ownership.  Students have helped build greenhouses and an earthen pizza oven, among other projects, and they are all very dedicated to the farm.

Michael Morton, for example, graduated from Terra Nova over a year ago but he still makes it back regularly to help out.  He has a unique perspective on food and health because he’s now working as a paramedic-in-training with a local firehouse, so he sees the connection between the types of food that people are eating and their overall health when he goes on calls to patients’ homes and sees the empty fast food wrappers lying nearby, while the patients are being treated for heart disease or diabetes.

In addition to the CSA, Terra Nova provides large quantities of produce to other schools in the district.  The week that I was there, they harvested over 10,000 cherry tomatoes, so the volume is getting impressive.  They recently expanded to a second location and have been getting interest from other school districts in Oregon and across the country.  Terra Nova is one of many projects that are part of a growing movement to improve and localize school nutrition, from Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution to Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard to Michelle Obama’s White House garden to Paul Hudak’s student-run Community Farm right here in Portland!

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New York City

In Brooklyn I was able to catch up to Britta Riley, one of the founders of Windowfarms, just after she got back from presenting at SXSW in Austin. The idea of Windowfarms is to give people who live in apartments a way to grow a little bit of their own food. Of course nobody is going to make a big dent in the food supply with what they can grow in their apartment window, but that’s not the idea. As Riley says, it’s not about volume. “I want to give people their first taste, that little spark of discovery that happens when you look at a root system and you’re like ‘man, I can actually see what’s wrong with the plant here’, and then those people go on to be the people who totally re-envision agriculture.” She’s come a long way in only a few years: Windowfarms is now a community of more than 30,000 do-it-yourselfers from around the globe, busily refining and improving the original model and sharing their refinements with the rest of the community.

At the end of the interview I asked Britta to show me some low-power LED grow lights that she’d gotten to tinker with as the community works to make them usable on Windowfarms. This made for some fun light sabre photos. We are allowed to have fun while we work on saving the world, right?

I also finally visited the famous Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm. Having grown up on a farm in Idaho, I can tell you that an acre of farmland perched on the top of a building in New York looks a whole lot bigger than an acre of land in the middle of a field. I interviewed two of the principals at the farm: co-founder Anastasia and new addition Mike. Both of their stories illustrated the joy that comes from putting your beliefs into action.

Anastasia had been interested in food politics ever since her time at Vassar College, but she’s gotten an incredible amount of satisfaction after being “bitten by the doing bug” and farming, rather than just writing about food policy. With her partners, they have proven that small-scale urban farming is financially sustainable in New York; another example to support the argument that for-profit is the way to go to really scale up urban agriculture.

Mike’s story was also pretty amazing. Just a year ago he was working in corporate advertising while at the same time becoming more and more involved in food advocacy and starting to buy some of his food directly from farmers as well as growing his own. “I realized that the work that I was doing at my previous job was actually directly conflicting with my own personal beliefs where by day I was in an office wearing a suit on meetings with Kraft Inc. corporate heads and then by night I was an activist trying to run campaigns against Kraft.” Now that he’s switched over to full time work at the farm, he says he couldn’t be happier.

All in all, my time in New York really energized me and helped me to refine some of the “big picture” messages that I want to get across in the film.

Thanks much to Destiny at Windowfarms for her help and to my guide and host Victoria Smith.

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We’re in Grist!

This is exciting – Grist is one of the most popular environmental websites on the web!

Faraway Farms: Chronicling Urban Agriculture Around the World

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New Orleans

I got to New Orleans about a week after Mardi Gras. As I biked the first day from the Bywater to the Lower Ninth Ward, I crunched on the (in)famous bead necklaces littering the avenue.  Crossing the bridge over the industrial canal, I could look to the right and see the huge cruise and passenger ships on the Mississippi River and look to the left and see Lake Pontchartrain.  A few blocks later, past the rows of houses built by Brad Pitt’s NGO, I’m shocked to see a boat high and dry in the street.

The Lower Ninth is still fairly depopulated seven years after Katrina. Sometimes only one or two houses on a block are occupied, sometimes none. In other words, there’s lots of space for farming.  Nate Turner (yep that’s his real name) and his crew run an urban farm at Blair Grocery that is one part farming, one part education, and several parts community building. They have a constant stream of volunteers coming through from the local area and from universities and church groups from all over the country. While I was there, Alternative Spring Break students were on site from universities in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Blair’s after-school program is an argument for community building and the profit motive when it comes to urban farming. All the students I met were African-American high school students, some of whom had been coming there consistently for two or three years. In addition to urban farming, the school teaches life skills in engaging ways. One day they were deconstructing a rap video and another day they were looking at what it means to be a strong woman by looking at poetry by women authors. Needless to say, urban farming also teaches plenty of life skills. When I interviewed some of the students, they said that two things kept them coming back: the community of fellow students and the $50 weekly paycheck they get for the work they do. Although Blair has gotten several big grants, they are bringing money in, too: they sell sprouts, arugula, tomatoes, and other vegetables to restaurants, at a Co-op, and at local farmer’s markets. They also have an aquaponics system up and running, with local fish from the Mississippi in the tank at the bottom and two levels of plants up top.

The Urban Farm at Blair Grocery really is an oasis in the middle of a recovery, and the endless stream of volunteers is only one testament to their success – the stronger proof is in the changes that they’ve brought about in the young people they work with. Some of these kids are the ones you’ve heard of that didn’t know the names of a lot of vegetables a few years ago, and now they want to grow up to be botanists and farmers.

I also had a chance to interview the legendary Macon Fry (everyone I interviewed there seemed to have a memorable name) while I was in town . Macon has been in New Orleans since the early 80s and has been a teacher and advisor to a whole generation of farmers. One tidbit I took away from our conversation: unlike many jobs where you feel like you’re banging your head up against a wall or wondering if you’re really doing anything worthwhile, farming pays back: “All you have to do to see what you’ve just accomplished is look over your shoulder and look at the row of seeds you just planted, or look over at the row you planted last week that’s already sprouting up.” Macon was humble, too – when I said I’d heard he was the godfather of urbam farming in the Big Easy, he was quick to tell me all about the guy who taught him everything he knows.

From what I saw, Macon Fry and Nat Turner are both living up to their oversized names by leading through example. These guys aren’t just talking the talk; they have their hands in the rich Louisiana soil every day.

Thanks very much to my fixer, Virginia Currie, and my hosts in New Orleans: Lisa, Jesse, Emily and Adam.  Couldn’t have done it without you!

More of my photos from the New Orleans shoot are here on Flickr.

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Cuba is a special case. Many are now familiar with the fact that the end of the Cold War ushered in a period of extreme deprivation in Cuba, when its strong economic ties with the Soviet Bloc and Easter Europe were cut almost overnight. This is what Cubans call “The Special Period”. But as Nelson (a rabbit “rancher” that I met at his home in Havana) put it, “In Cuba, it’s always a special period.” Cubans could begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel by about 1999, but there have been two recessions since then, and of course the US economic embargo against the island continues to this day.

What this means in terms of urban agriculture is that Cuba, out of necessity, made tremendous leaps and bounds in the 90s, and they have continued to refine and improve their urban farming infrastructure since then. In some Cuban cities, up to 80% of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the city are grown in the city. In Havana this is closer to 50%, which is still very impressive for a city of more than 2 million people.

The reason this is particularly relevant for us in the “developed world” is that the story of Cuba is not like that of many developing countries in Africa and Asia and even elsewhere in Latin America. Until the end of the Cold War, Cuba was very much a developed country with a highly educated population. Then they went through what some observers have called an artificial peak-oil collapse. The Cuban people responded with creativity and intelligence to this unprecedented new challenge. In addition to urban agriculture, they’ve found countless other ways to be more self-sufficient and use less energy. It’s not surprising, then, that a 2006 World Wildlife Fundy study found that Cuba is the only country on the planet that can be considered sustainable.

What is becoming more and more clear is that we in the devoloped world are not living sustainably, and that therefore, inevitably, we will eventually have our own special period. Many people say that going to Cuba is like taking a time machine to the past. In some ways this is true – vintage cars from the 50s are still everywhere. But after my visit, I’m inclined to argue that Cuba is indeed a time machine, but not to the past: instead, it’s a glimpse into a future where we in the developed world are producing more of our food and living more sustainably. Cuba is therefore invaluable for us to learn from as we chart our own course to become more sustainable in preparation for the challenges that await us. Even those vintage cars are an example of reusing and recycling. On the outside they’re pure 1950s America – Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge – but on the inside they’re mostly running on repurposed Japanese and Soviet engines. Nobody in Cuba gets a new car when their two year lease is up.

I interviewed Roberto Perez Rivero for the film while I was in Cuba. In the last few years he has travelled extensively to give presentations about the Cuban story as well as to teach permaculture workshops in Latin America, Asia, Australia, Canada, and the US. He had a lot of great things to say that gave me new insights into what I’ve seen around the world in the last several months, and his perspective will definitely inform the film as it takes shape during post-production.

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The megacity of Calcutta has no sewage treatment plant.  Instead, the majority of its wastewater flows east out of the city in a canal towards the Ganges and the Bay of Bengal.  There, the wastewater is put to two uses: one, as fertilizer for hundreds of farms; two, it flows into huge settling ponds where it serves as a food source for algae and other organisms, which in turn are eaten by fish and prawns.  In other words, it’s an ecosystem, with human waste at the base of the food pyramid.  Many of the prawns are sold for good prices on the export market.  I won’t try to claim that the water is completely clean by the time it flows into the Ganges, but after it’s made its way through the whole series of fish ponds, it’s much cleaner than when it started.

Along the way, the whole system supports a community of over 100,000 fish and conventional farmers living in dozens of villages.  This system has been in place since the 1850s.  While the West was busily developing the system of treatment plants where waste is treated with chemicals, the bheris have been steadily producing hundreds of tons of vegetables and fish every year.  While not applicable everywhere, there’s no doubt that many cities in the developed world could build a similar system.

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In Addis Ababa, my guide is Nico, who works for DAI doing urban farming throughout Ethiopia, contracted by USAID.  They work almost entirely with populations who are affected by HIV/AIDS.  Studies show that the nutrients you get from vegetables improve the efficacy of the antiretroviral drugs that HIV-positive people take to avoid getting AIDS.  Studies also show that overall health improves when people’s diets include regular servings of fruits and vegetables.  What studies have a harder time showing is the intangibles, how growing your own food as part of a community of fellow farmers improves your quality of life and your mental health.  But of course the intangibles are all that people talk about.  One woman said that before she joined the project, she rarely left her home.  Now she and her daughter come to work their plot together and she grows enough to feed herself and her children and sell the surplus.  Sometimes American tax dollars are well-spent after all.

DAI also runs numerous school-gardening projects.  At one of them I met Waldemariam.  His father was killed when he was young, and his mother sent him to the capital for school from the village where he was born.  After a time working as a servant and a brief period on the streets, he found a more stable home and a mentor who helped him to enter school.  At his high school he became involved in urban farming.  Many of the students who initially signed up for the program dropped out over time, but Waldemariam showed the patience and dedication required to succeed as an urban farmer.  One of the first things he bought with the money he made selling vegetables was a flashlight and a supply of batteries, so that he could continue studying after dark; the family with whom he was staying were unable to afford electricity after dark, which in Addis is around 6:30 PM all year.  He studied like this, by flashlight, for two years after his father passed away, until recently when he was able to move in with neighbors who have electricity.  Now 17, his dream is to become a doctor, and his physics teacher told me he has what it takes to make it: this term he earned a 3.7 GPA and received one of the only A’s in physics.

Thanks much to Nico, Cherinet Gidi of The Social Welfare Development Association and the rest of the crew who helped out with the shoot in Addis!  And thanks especially to Weldemariam for sharing his story with me.

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