This is a thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing documentary, this film is about the history of what we now understand as Organics. Made by Mark Kitchell and narrated by Frances McDormand, the film is divided into acts. THE EVOLUTION OF ORGANIC begins with the counterculture agrarianism of Californian hippies in Act 1 through the struggles to be accepted and the explosive growth of Organics up to now. A time when Organics elders are retiring and the young must preserve that 2% of the United States which is currently organic land.
The film uses stills and vision from the early days of the movement, with long hair and dirty jeans and a passion to eat better. Rachael Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ and Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic philosophy is mentioned as the film explores the Farm Labor Movement and Students on the Land and the influence on Vietnam Vets scarred by the destruction wrought by herbicides during that war.
Evocative interviews with people like Stephen Pavich whose family grew grapes with organic practices long before the term was used. From the first day of farming organic he says, “the microbes were like boom!… you would turn that soil and smell it and it smelled like the earth. Like the earth was supposed to smell like!” The Pavich family and the Lundbergs, who grew rice, were pioneers. Lundberg’s brown rice was a staple of the counterculture.
At the same time Michael Funk, founder of the Mountain Peoples Warehouse and his mates were driving around looking for abandoned orchards and asking to have the fruit. “It was such poor quality … fruit flies buzzing was like a badge of honour.” Supply and distribution was the issue for many organic co-ops as they were then.
Act 2 (Building Organic 1974-1988) is more modern with its look at organic practices like composting and the use of beneficial insects, biological controls. The latter pioneered by Robert van den Bosch who introduced an aphid attacking wasp on farms where pesticide has now not been used since the 1970s.
“We were trying to work out what this word means …we were still explaining ourselves at the marketplace” says Michael Ableman of Foxglove Farm about Organics.
And these farmers were up against it. From the opposition to the certification and coding for organic produce to problems with marketing. Tonya Antle from Pavich Family Farms is hilarious. “Best thing I ever did was cheerleading in high school because seriously, apart from the pom poms missing, that’s what I was doing for the industry!” Also hilarious are the advertisements. The film has a choice selection at the end of Act 2. “dirt made my lunch” was my fave.
Act 3 (Mainstreaming Organic 1989 – Present) begins with 60 Minutes and Meryl Streep. Carcinogens in food stemming from agricultural practices was news. Change was on the way but ‘as Organics scaled up, it began to divide: into an industry and a movement.’ There’s an industrial conventionalisation of Organics and people like Michael Funk partnered up to create distribution networks, while others moved to margins for niche and community distribution.
Some of the Organic pioneers like the Pavichs went under and some thrived but the biggest revolution was to be the National Organic Food Act, Passed in 1990, it took 10 years to implement. The reasons are complex and really well explained by the people who are interviewed, people who were at both the forefront and at the grassroots, and the news footage used. It’s clear that having a national identifiable organic certification changed the game for consumers and farmers and the film has fascinating graphics and stats to bring home the current situation.
For me, the concluding minutes of this section, with its focus on ‘the movement’ is delicious in exploring the alternative vision of agriculture which is supporting human desire for a sustainable future. Spectacularly encouraging images of food and people.
Act 4 (Expanding Organic: The Next Generation). Here the film takes us on a farm tour to look at the how the next generation are embracing Organics. From teachers to students, commercial strawberry farm to urban edge farms and urban gardens. Cultural influences and ethnic delicacies to fibres and salmon and carbon farming, it is inspiring and stimulating.
The history might be the structure, and the history is fascinating, but this is a film which is dense with ideas. There are so many tasty titbits in THE EVOLUTION OF ORGANIC … like the ‘square tomato’ effect of having a hard skin so they can be picked by machine without busting and the later revelation that converts can be made of anti-organic consumers by actually growing them a tastier tomato.
Amazingly, lettuce was the green path to acceptance. And biodynamic techniques like stuffing a cows’ horns with manure on the Fall Equinox to bury for 6 months is something most people have heard of but there are more techniques and fascination techniques used by those who are moved to heal the earth. And I just loved the conspiracy theories about how organic certification was out to destroy American society…
This is also a very motivating film. Pete Seeger’s ‘Garden Song’ never fails to arouse the emotions and images of happy hippies working the crops really do make one feel at once contented and inspired. But THE EVOLUTION OF ORGANIC brings more esoteric ideas as well. Things to think about, gardener or supermarket shopper. Ideas such as the kinship and ‘speaking’ between human and plant. I took nearly five hours to watch an hour and 20 minute film, so much to stop and think about. A young female farmer of the future summed it up towards the end… “Reverence and respect for how sophisticated nature really is … it’s kind of a hippy thing to say.”
THE EVOLUTION OF ORGANIC will play as part of the Transitions Film Festival ( March 20 – 22nd) You can join their mailing list or the view the full program at the Transitions FF website and on Facebook.