Film screening to depict the plight of farmers, promise of regenerative agriculture

For the Gazette
Published: 8/8/2022 10:59:49 AM
Modified: 8/8/2022 10:56:32 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The face of sustainable agriculture in western Massachusetts is that of small-scale farmers distributing their crop yield among local shareholders, advocates recruiting volunteers to till community gardens, and populating outdoor markets with recent harvests.

Organizations like Grow Food Northampton, a nonprofit promoting food access in the Valley, understand the life-sustaining appeal of collaborative local farms.

An upcoming film screening sponsored by the group highlights what executive director Alisa Klein calls its “bottom line mission: the idea that everybody needs food, whether you’re rich or poor, and regenerative agriculture is the answer.”

But the future of sustainable agriculture, and of its potential for curbing food insecurity and salvaging an injured planet, hinges on the fate of regenerative farming in the American heartland — on large-scale farmers’ eschewal or embrace of regenerative farming practices that sequester carbon from the atmosphere into the soil.

Florence documentarian Roger Sorkin, whose film “Farm Free or Die” will screen publicly on the Florence Civic Center Lawn on Friday, believes these are the farmers on the front lines of the climate crisis, and that legislative action to support them is urgent.

“This is the most local screening I’ve ever done — it’s a story that I couldn’t resist the urge to tell, it needed to be told. The goal is not to win any awards at film festivals, but it’s to use these stories as a policy tool, as a tool for cultural change,” Sorkin said.

The film’s production, ongoing for two years, was interrupted by the pandemic. Some of the footage seen in the final cut of the film was gathered by farmers’ spouses and colleagues to whom Sorkin shipped camera packages in April 2020, and trained through Zoom to properly use.

Most of the farmers featured in the film, he said, own thousands of acres of land on generational farms. Despite their nearly unanimous conservatism, they’re pushed to contemplate sustainable farming practices by a documentarian who lays out the threat of a future where family farms are erased from the fabric of American agriculture.

“They’re fifth-generation farmers who take pride in what they’re doing and don’t want to be the first to fail,” said Sorkin. “But they’re up against big corporate power that sets agricultural policy and works against legislating regenerative agriculture as a real policy priority.”

Without the financial incentive of a legislative mandate to do otherwise, large-scale farmers often resort to monocropping, whereby the same crop, most commonly corn and soybeans, are farmed on the same piece of land year after year.

The film’s mobilizing call to action, Sorkin said, is to galvanize constituent support for reshaping the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Bill to favor regenerative agriculture.

The bill is a legislative package passed every five years that sets federal agricultural policy and allocates massive amounts of federal funding to farms nationwide. The next iteration of the bill, slated for 2023, could cement a more sustainable farming future — or succumb to corporate overreach and sink the ambitions of regenerative farming advocates.

“If we don’t have healthy soil, we have nothing, we don’t have life or food or a sustainable economy — that’s what we’re fighting for,” said Sorkin, whose film was released in February.

“Farm Free or Die” will be screened on the Florence Civic Center Lawn on Friday from 7:30 to 9:15 p.m. The screening will be followed by a panel including state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. 

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