The film consists of 4 acts.
Act 1: Origins
It’s no accident that California, home of the world’s most industrialized agriculture, gives rise to its opposite: organic agriculture. The ‘60s counter-culture heads back to the land. Few have any farming experience; but they experiment and learn and in time become good farmers. A metaphysical aspect emerges when Alan Chadwick, eccentric master gardener, appears at U.C. Santa Cruz just as students start a garden; he teaches a generation Rudolf Steiner’s Biodynamic philosophy. The third strand is home-grown: sons and daughters of farmers who reject modern chemical farming. Paul Muller says it arose “organically.” Izzy Martin weaves in politics, the square tomato and Vietnam vets turning against herbicides. Sibella Kraus, Chez Panisse forager, brings together farmers and chefs. Veritable Vegetable’s Bu Nygrens and Mary Jane Evans give us a wide view of organic as distributors. Stephen Pavich and Tonya Antle, Delano grape grower and cheerleading marketer, are the first to take organic to commercial scale. Rice growers Brian Leahy and Allen Garcia introduce us to wildlife-friendly farming. Michael Ableman explores organic’s peasant roots. By the end of the ‘70s the first wave consists of sixty to eighty organic farms from Sonoma to Santa Cruz.
Act 2: Building Organic
Central themes – the soil and the importance of microbial life in it -- emerge here. We explore organic techniques: making compost; growing your own fertilizer; and natural pest control using beneficial insects. Biodynamic preparations include putting manure in a cow’s horn and burying it for six months. Warren Weber tells of gnarly potatoes that customers loved because they were organic. Bu & Mary Jane relate early mishaps. Amigo Bob starts Peaceful Valley Farm Supply and helps write the first law. From being dismissed as frauds to accused of a Communist conspiracy, from USDA hostility to turning to the marketplace, the interviewees explore ideas and attitudes. Izzy Martin spends twenty years battling pesticides, tells horrifying tales of poisoning and how she pointed to organic farming as a safe alternative. Sibella Kraus and Julie Guthman lead us through the foodie revolution and the baby lettuce boom that launched it. Warren Weber has a hilarious tale of not getting the idea of baby lettuce. Steve Pavich and Tonya keep pushing through ten years of no, no, no -- and finally break the supermarket barrier. Michael Funk’s mother tells him to get a real job in ’83; the next year organic takes off and Mountain Peoples Warehouse grows 50% annually for a decade.
Act 3: Mainstreaming Organic
The Alar crisis in ’89 sets off a huge jump in demand for safe and healthy food. Organic booms, growing 20% annually for two decades. The arc of the Paviches curves up until they rep 75 growers. Izzy Martin tells how conventional farmers converted. Brian Leahy believes it was a two way street, that organic and conventional ag impacted each other. Julie Guthman explains her bifurcation thesis – that organic split into an industry and a movement. Warren Weber straddles the boom, rides it to the desert where he meets success, then collapse as big growers move in. The Paviches fall too; El Nino rains wipe out their grapes; and when Tonya’s marriage hits the rocks, she does it again even bigger at Earthbound Farm. USDA Organic rules take ten years to implement; the organic community wins the battle to ban GMO’s, sewage sludge and irradiation. That’s when organic moves into the mainstream. Megaplayers turn it into an industry oriented toward bringing organic to all people. The other half is a movement that matures into a sustainable alternative vision of agriculture. It is a cultural transformation in the way we grow and eat food – people creating a new food system.
Act 4: Expanding Organic
The Next Generation. Severine Fleming of the Greenhorns leads a tour, including: Paul & Elizabeth Kaiser, no-till farmers who are dedicated to building soil; and Ruthie King of Grange Farm School, in dialogue with Severine about generational succession and keeping organic land organic. ALBA trains farmworkers to become farmers; we meet star student Javier Zamora, who grows the best strawberries. We also visit Sunol Ag Park, an urban edge farm with restaurant gardens, ethnic specialties and a scientist-turned-breeder; and Willow Rosenthal at City Slickers Farm.
Next comes Fibershed broadening organic to include wool and natural dyes; followed by Marci Zaroff, eco-fashion pioneer, who develops organic cotton, builds factories and bridges “ecology and sustainability and natural with fashion… people thought I was absolutely crazy.” The coolest expansion of organic has to be Project Nigiri. Jacob Katz is raising salmon in flooded rice fields. It’s emblematic of larger currents to work with nature and restore biological systems, how to create sustainable agriculture.
Then comes Soil Will Save Us, about carbon farming and sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, where it is a problem, into the soil, where it is beneficial. This is a big breaking story, as yet unknown to most of the public. It is potentially transformative, not only as a solution to climate change. It gives organic agriculture new purpose, and brings two themes full circle: carbon as the original problem of organic; and compost as the key. John Wick and Jeffrey Creque of the Marin Carbon Project, who did the first scientific study, explain their experiments and the exciting results. Joe Morris of Morris Grassfed and Kelly Mulville of Paicines Ranch add grazing and rangeland components.
It’s an amazing story, a fitting climax for the film, and we’re thrilled at the chance to tell it.