Arts & Events

Farmageddon: America's War Against Small Farmers

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Sunday September 25, 2011 - 11:55:00 AM
The film "Farmageddon" is screening at SF's Roxie Theatre and the Rafael Theatre in San Rafael--see review below in "Arts & Events".
The film "Farmageddon" is screening at SF's Roxie Theatre and the Rafael Theatre in San Rafael--see review below in "Arts & Events".

Farmageddon is screening at SF's Roxie Theatre and the Rafael Theatre in San Rafael

The first-person stories related in Kristin Canty's new documentary, Farmageddon, may sound like people recounting the post-trauma shock of a drug-raid but these "perps" are not pot-growers or drug-smugglers, they are family farmers and members of organic produce buying clubs. 

"I was at the top of the stairs and I saw a man with a gun pointed up at me. All I could see was a black hat and a black jacket. I stood there thinking this was a serial killer." 

"They seized $64,000 worth of food and equipment. They terrorized the children. They took the farmer away in handcuffs." 

"They showed up at 5:30 in the morning in the middle of a blizzard and they had 42 armed federal agents and USDA officials and they cleared out our entire barn." 

Kristin Canty's well-crafted documentary manages to fit more than 30 interviews into a taut, engaging, and ultimately enraging, 90-minute film. Among those interviewed is David Rana of Berkeley's Three Stone Hearth food coop, the operators of Organic Pastures, a grass-fed dairy operation in Fresno, and the owner of Rawesome Foods in Venice, California. Farmageddon takes the big-picture message of the award-winning documentary Food Inc. and brings it closer to home — into the lives of small farmers victimized by government raids. 

Canty, a first-time filmmaker, says she was driven to tell this story after seeing her four-year-old son's "untreatable" allergies disappear once she started feeding him glasses of raw milk (rich with healthy natural bacteria and enzymes). This lead to a search for healthier foods — meat, cheese, eggs and produce. In the process of meeting local farmers and food-coop members, Canty began to hear stories about dairy farms and organic-food-buying clubs that had been disrupted by heavy-handed attacks staged by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and state enforcers. 

Farmageddon explains that there are "two competing food systems" in the US — Big Ag and Small Farms — and the shows how the Federal laws created to help large corporate businesses now are being used to harass and destroy the healthy competition from small sustainable farmers. 

Under the banner of "food safety," burdensome new Federal fees and regulations are being instituted that will drive many small food producers out of business. Proposed laws would give USDA expanded powers to conduct raids on small farms. In chilling detail, Farmageddon documents repeated instances of government agencies resorting to surveillance, intimidation, search warrants, criminal investigations of innocent farmers, confiscations, destruction of property, media distortions and outright lies. 


Pasture-raised vs. Pasteurized 

The pretext for the government's assault on the Homeland, is a "war on raw milk," ostensibly being waged "to protect the public." (This bizarre enforcement obsession seems tragically misplaced given that more than two-thirds of the US population now suffers from obesity, diabetes and heart disease — preventable diseases largely linked to the consumption of processed, industrialized foods.) 

But the supposed risks of consuming natural raw milk from grass-fed cows appear to be wildly inflated. Canty reveals how "raw milk," a human food staple that has been consumed for thousands of years, was demonized with the rise of the "pasteurization" process. (Ironically, pasteurization was popularized in the wake of a deadly mass-poisoning that was triggered not by small traditional dairy farmers but by the industrialized milk production of the mid-1800s. The milk that caused a mass-poisoning came from dairy cows crammed into dirty sheds next to a beer factory. Because their milk had a sickly hue, the owners of the company ordered that the milk be "whitened" —with chalk and flour.) 

But if "protecting the public" is the goal, one organic farmer asks, why is it that the government's armed SWAT teams aren't raiding the large, industrialized meat and dairy operations where most food contamination typically arises? If "preventative action" to protect public health is the goal, why are the same government agencies promoting the use of herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, irradiation, genetically modified organisms and cloning? 

The simple answer is that food laws are largely written to meet the needs of powerful industry lobbyists. Under the banner of "food safety," new regulations and fees are being instituted that could prove such a burden that many small food producers will be driven out of business. As one grower tells Canty: "The people who have the money are the packers and the slaughterhouses and the feedlots and that's who controls the beef industry and that's also who controls the USDA." 

Small farmers complain that filling out the same paperwork required to run a sprawling, industrialized multi-billion-dollar corporate operation can require as much time as farming itself. One beleaguered farmer tells Canty, the paperwork can leave a small, independent grower with "no time left for farming." A seller of organic greens tells Canty that she had to fill out a three-inch stack of forms to win organic certification and adds "I'd like to see chemical farmers forced to deal with this baloney and tell their customers what kind of chemicals are on the food that they are consuming." 

The War on Terra-ism 

Farmageddon visits the home of Larry and Linda Faillace, two Vermont shepherds whose organically raised sheep were placed under quarantine by the USDA, which claimed (falsely, as it turned out) that the animals were suspected carriers of "Mad Sheep Disease." A state official warned the Faillaces that, if they made any complaints or went to the media, "We'll put you out of business. And don't think we haven't done it before." 

Canty visits Steve Smith, New York dairy farmer (and former NASA climate scientist), whose organic yogurt was seized during a raid by state agents. Smith observes ruefully that "the only farm crop that's regulated more than milk is marijuana." 

In Ohio, Jackie Stauer and her children were held at gunpoint for six hours in while a SWAT team of 11 armed police ransacked their home, seizing computers and records. The charge: failure to obtain a "food establishment" permit, even though the organic food at issue was only intended for family consumption. 

In Venice, Rawesome Foods, a private food-buyers club with an unblemished 12-year history, was targeted by SWAT team raid that included agents from the FDA, FBI, California Department of Food and Agriculture, the local health department and a half-dozen sheriffs. Rawsome's workers were lined up against a fence and frisked. Surveillance videos show officers brandishing their weapons at the unarmed employees. Rawesome, which sells raw milk, has been hit with repeated raids. Most recently on August 2, 2011, when the owner, James Stewart, was charged with "conspiracy to commit a crime" and held on $123,000 bail. He was then denied bail. 

The Battle for the Bottle 

California and New York are two of 28 states that permit sales of raw milk. But even in states where it is legal, it is a crime to sell raw milk over state lines. Under this law, a mother in Maryland becomes a criminal if she drives over state lines to buy organic raw milk in Pennsylvania. Like the pasteurization laws, this is a regulation that favors large producers of processed milk. 

When the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund sued FDA over the rule banning the sale of raw milk over state lines, the FDA argued for the dismissal of the suit on the basis that: 

"There is no absolute right to consume or feed children any particular food" and, "There is no generalized right to bodily and physical health." 

As D. Gary Cox, General Counsel of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund tells Canty: "Consumers have a fundamental, inalienable right, to produce and consume food of their own choice. And a consumer has a fundamental right to enter into a one-on-one contract with a farmer or even an agricultural producer to obtain the food that the consumer wants." 

Instead of promoting and protecting consumer choice, the US allows the corporate Food Industry to spend billions of dollars a year on ads that encourage adults and children to eat fast foods (and then instructs them to buy anti-acids to deal with heartburn and "acid-reflux"). But when a family decides to opt for locally grown, organic foods, they risk being placed under a veil of suspicion and suddenly — "freedom to choose" becomes a deviant act. 

One of the last voices in Canty's well-argued documentary that of Libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul who clearly spells out the problem and proposes a remedy. Speaking of the country's big dairy and meat industries, Paul says: "These big companies aren't capitalists. They don't believe in free markets as much as small farmers and small business people do, because they're competitive and they work hard." What's needed to change the situation "is that people are going to have to become so outraged that they get the attention of Congress." 

Farmageddon's revolutionary call is perfectly summed up in a quote from Founding Father (and organic farmer) Thomas Jefferson: 

"Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now." 

Gar Smith is a Project Censored Award-winning journalist, Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journaland co-founder of Environmentalists Against War. He lives in Berkeley.