In the fall semester of 2013, I led a seminar on sustainable agriculture at the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry (VBC). The main product to emerge from the class was a 25-minute film entitled Down to Earth: Small Farm Issues in a Big Farm World. The students in the seminar also developed a website containing recipes for foods that are locally available and more than 60 articles meant to serve as supplementary materials to the film. In addition, they built a four-week curriculum on sustainable agriculture and implemented it in an after-school program for elementary students at the Roy C. Buley Center in Muncie. I see the seminar as a great success! The students and I were able to develop informed opinions about the future of farming and food production. The course also allowed us the opportunity to enter into the current social and political movement toward sustainable agriculture by sharing important information about local foods with community members—and the world—through the film, website, and educational program.
Since I hail from the Department of English, many people have asked me about my interest in sustainable agriculture and why I chose this topic for a VBC seminar. Certainly, I’m not an expert in agriculture or environmentalism. But I care about finding solutions to the problems in our current food system in order to build a healthier world population and to mitigate the damage that humans have caused to the Earth over time. Agriculture has always been a part of my life, as I grew up in rural Indiana surrounded by soybean and corn fields, many of which my family owned and leased to local farmers. I began to develop a real interest in farming only a few years ago, however, after I changed my eating habits because of health issues. In the process of researching the impacts of food choices on human health, I also learned about the economic, social, and environmental issues that have arisen out of our current methods of agriculture. I saw the VBC seminar as an opportunity to produce a film that would advocate for responsible production and consumption of food items and, on a personal level, as a chance to learn more about farming, an endeavor that I may someday undertake through ownership of my own family’s farm.
Some of the students in the seminar knew more about farming than I did at the start of the semester. Those from scientific fields brought valuable background knowledge of agricultural and environmental issues, such as soil science and climate change, to the seminar group. One student had grown up on a working farm, and another was currently interning at a farm in the local area. Others in the class were more like me, from disciplines and backgrounds removed from agriculture. But each of us felt passionately about some aspect of sustainable agriculture or another, and, throughout the semester, we developed shared knowledge of the field. The students also learned to depend on each other’s individual academic strengths and personal skills to complete the projects of the seminar. Students from Telecommunications and Journalism contributed particular skill sets that were crucial for the success of the film, for instance, while those who were talented in research and writing focused on producing articles for the website.
We began the semester with a visit to Becker Farms, where we witnessed the successful use of sustainable methods such as rotational grazing and natural pest control. In addition to leading a tour of his own farm, Kyle Becker took us to see additional farms—ranging in size from small to very large—that he serves as a large animal veterinarian. During this time, we also read seminal texts in the area of sustainable agriculture, such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Anna Lappé’s Diet for a Hot Planet, to name a few. We interviewed regular people about their eating and purchasing habits as well as leaders in the movement for sustainability in farming. Finally, we visited Washington, DC to talk with important political figures, such as Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly, and representatives from groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition about food policy. By the sixth week in the semester, we were overwhelmed by the complexity and depth of the problems in our current food system and wondered how we would ever make a difference in the area of sustainable agriculture through a student film and other related projects.
After some floundering, the group decided to focus the film on the first farm that we visited together, Becker Farms. The students believed that they could use Kyle’s story to convince consumers to exercise the considerable power that they possess to drive a national movement for a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable local foods system. Down to Earth: Small Farm Issues in a Big Farm World follows Kyle through a week of life on the farm, at the farmers market, and on veterinary calls. At the same time, it presents commentary from leading figures in the local foods movement, such as Joel Salatin and Will Allen, to explore the importance of growing and selling food locally. The film shows that farming methods like those that Kyle employs are environmentally and socially advantageous, unlike many that are used in conventional agriculture. Ultimately, Down to Earth asks consumers to buy their food locally in order to advance the movement toward sustainable agriculture. Besides the importance of its message, the film is worth watching because it is beautiful! Its cinematography and color are truly stunning.
As is the case for all students who participate in VBC seminars, the students in my class received up to 15 credits in courses that they needed for graduation. They also gained a deep understanding of many issues related to sustainable agriculture, something that matters to each of us since we all eat and we all live on this planet. The students were also given the opportunity to develop professional skills, through the completion of project-related tasks suited to their individual career goals. Finally, all of us learned about teamwork, as we worked together to create a film and related products that far exceed our early expectations for this project.