By Marcello Iaia
RENSSELAERVILLE — Seventy people sitting in a darkened theater Saturday looked up at the large face of director Micha X. Peled. He told the audience of farmers, photographers, gardeners, and supporters of local food, how he was not hopeful for the future of agriculture.
“Most of the farmers are not the type of person that could carry the film, because they are too depressed,” said Peled through an online video call.
Bitter Seeds, presented by the Carey Center Film Forum, follows Ram Krishna, a farmer in India, as he borrows money to use genetically modified Bt cotton seeds, which require more irrigation and expensive fertilizer than his money or land can provide. He wagers, and seed salesmen tell him, that the added Bollgard trait in the new seeds can improve insect resistance. Weighing on his wager is a dowry he must pay for his eldest daughter’s marriage.
This leads to the depression Peled described, and, according to the film, the suicide of an Indian farmer every 30 minutes.
A 2008 discussion paper, “Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India: Reviewing the Evidence,” produced by the International Food Policy Research Institute compared data on the use of Bt Cotton and the trend in farmer suicides.
“Overall, at this level of analysis, all other things being equal, it is clear that the overall
adoption of this technology was not a driver of suicide growth; in fact it may even have helped slow the process,” wrote the authors on data from Maharashtra, the Indian state where the film is set.
The IFPRI receives funding from a mix of both governments that ban and those that use genetically modified organisms, including the United States, where Monsanto, the company that created Bt cotton, is headquartered.
Peled pointed out that many countries around the globe have banned or placed strict authorizations on genetically modified organisms. Small, family farming done for millennia, he said, is being squeezed to extinction.
“In this country [U.S.], we have already gone through that transition,” said Peled.
Food products using genetically modified ingredients in the European Union are labeled, and GMO cultivation is banned in some member states. California’s Proposition 37 to require labeling of GM foods was defeated this past November, with opponents outspending advocates 5 to 1.
The wide-angle view
The Saturday night audience had just viewed “Surviving the Dust Bowl,” an exhibition featuring photographs taken during the Great Depression by Dorthea Lange, Russell Lee, and Arthur Rothstein printed by Hans Soderquist, who moved to Medusa from New York City four years ago.
“Being in an agricultural area reminds you of how life works,” Soderquist said on Friday at the Medusa General Store, where his prints are being displayed through December.
He said he wanted the selection to display the “strength and hope” of people living with natural and economic extremes in an agricultural area, using lesser-known negatives from the well-known collection taken for the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration from 1935 to 1942.
The PBS synopsis of The Dust Bowl, a Ken Burns documentary released this November, describes the event as “the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history,” attributed to the application of gas-powered farm equipment to land “unsuitable for standard agriculture.”
In order to make up for falling prices during the Great Depression, wheat farmers in the southern Great Plains area harvested more, increasing the land’s susceptibility to drought.
These 20th- and 21st- century stories of technological progress tempered by ecological and economic realities rang true for the Hilltown audience, whose members are murmuring about the future of their food and farms.
A scene in Bitter Seeds where Krishna prays for rain, the linchpin to the success of his Bt cotton seeds, was hard for Preston Hollow livestock farmer Carol Clement to see.
“We have to always hope and assume,” Clement said, speaking Sunday about the film and farming. “There’s so many things that are not under our control. You just have to believe that next year’s going to be better.”
Hot and dry weather this past summer forced Clement and her husband, John Harrison, to briefly halt the intensive rotational grazing of their animals, a method for which they are known. After feeding them hay, her animals don’t have the weight they normally gain by this time of year.
Clement, who has over a thousand animals at Heather Ridge Farm, sat at the front of the Carey Center theater to discuss local agriculture after the film. With her was George Weld, owner of two Brooklyn restaurants, Egg and Parish Hall. Clement said most of the meat her farm produces could be certified organic, but so many local customers buy directly from her, at her on-site store and café, that the process of certification holds little value.
She told the audience that she cannot be certain the grain used to supplement her chickens and pigs is genetically modified.
“We don’t grow enough corn here locally,” said Clement.
Her local feed distributor buys corn on the commodity market when local sources run out, and, without labeling, he can’t tell Clement what seeds it came from.
The native grasses on Celement’s hilly land, she says, can sustain extremes of weather, like Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, because of their diversity. The hills and thin topsoil of the area are better suited to raising animals, so grain feed has to be sourced partly from other areas.
Schoharie farmer Martin Tessarzik said during the film forum discussion that he has trouble finding organic seeds that he can harvest with moisture content low enough for storage and transport.
“I have to dry mine. It falls apart. I’m looking at it from a different perspective as living it,” said Tessarzik.
Tessarzik owns Wrighteous Organics, which has increased its conventional beef production in recent years. His wheat and barely crops are organic, and his corn is conventional. He says he looks for volume of feed for his beef cattle, but he is also committed to his 250 acres of organic crops. His clover and alfalfa are fermented in plastic-wrapped baleage, which, Tessarzik said, is not efficient, but it sets his meat apart in a market dominated by larger-scale farms in the Midwest.
“On a small scale, you’ve got to stick out of the crowd,” Tessarzik said before the film.
Clement was one of a handful of farmers at the film Saturday who are wagering small-scale agriculture integrated with the land is a solution for this part of the state, where family dairy farms used to flourish and hops were a major crop.
The town of Rensselaerville and the Carey Center were awarded a $5,000 grant from the state-sponsored Hudson River Valley Greenway to create a farm brewery learning co-operative, which will include a pilot farm brewery at the center where workshops can be hosted for interested farmers and landowners. The project is aided by recent state legislation protecting tax exemptions and creating a Farm Brewery license.
Program Specialist Rebecca Platel said visitors to the first brewing workshop on Nov. 27 were “interested in everything.” Workshops are scheduled for hard cider, on Dec. 8, and introduction to brewing, on Dec. 12.