Tangible progress at last!

In my last update, I compared editing The Hands that Feed Us to pushing a boulder over a precipice.  I’m happy to say — for the first time since I left Salt Spring Island a year ago — I have a sense of momentum again.  Over the last two months, I’ve continued the slow but steady progress of assembling footage.  In my outline, I’ve broken the film down into about 75-90 sections or scenes, and I’m slowly working my way through them.  There are about a dozen for each farm I visited, plus additional segments that feature outsiders who have had useful things to say.  I’ve finished all the sections for Amara Farm, and I’ve made a good start on Klippers Organics.

Klippers has been a challenge!  The problem is their farm does *everything*.  Because they do so much, I struggled to decide what I needed to focus on while I was filming, and that struggle is now coming back to bite me, because the parts that have ended up being important to the film aren’t the ones I gave the most attention to while I was filming.  I expect I’ll need to spend some more time filming at Klippers to flesh out what I missed.

At this stage, the sections aren’t very impressive; they are cut straight from interviews, with none of the beautiful imagery that I spent so much time collecting.  They also lack pacing, context, and they are probably three to five times longer than they will be in the finished film.  Some of them flat out don’t work (I’ll cut them, but I have to edit them first to discover they don’t work).  Humble as they are, these building blocks are the most critical part of editing the film; they are where the basic structure of the film is being created.  Once I’ve finished creating all the individual sections, everything else is just polish:  Arranging them and cutting them in ways that create a coherent film.

Calling it crazy:  Telling it like it is without losing people

I’m constantly refining how I talk about the thesis of the film, partly because I’m also pitching the film to funders and I need to clearly communicate what the film is about.  One of these funding applications asked a question:  “What might your audience conclude from the film?”  My answer:  “The economics of farming are crazy.”  This sparked a strong pushback from our assistant producer, Erin, who has been helping put the funding applications together.  Her criticism was that the word “crazy” is too emotionally charged, and she wanted me to be more specific about what wasn’t working economically, for example, saying the high cost of farmland makes it difficult to make a living as a farmer.

But I doubled down. It is definitely true that the cost of farmland is a problem for farmers, but that isn’t the heart of the film.  Farming isn’t just difficult — it’s nearly impossible.  The numbers simply don’t add up if you compare the cost of land with the financial return that farmers get from it.  Farming works by purchasing land with debt, farming it under mortgage, and, eventually, selling the land at retirement to pay off the debt.  It is nearly impossible to imagine paying off the debt solely from the proceeds of the farm; the cost of land is too high and the price of food is too low.  While the debt exists, farming happens, but the business itself rarely produces enough money to pay down the debt in full.  If the only way for a farm to pay for land is to sell off the land, that’s not a viable farm; it’s financial speculation on the value of farmland.  There’s no farm left once the land is sold.  The economic story that a farm can pay for all of its costs — including land — and become a profitable business doesn’t match reality.  I think that situation is crazy — and I want to say so in The Hands that Feed Us.

At the same time, Erin is right that “crazy” is a loaded word.  Right now, Putin is crazy because he’s attacking Ukraine (people are apparently calling him “Mad Vlad”).  From our North American perspective, it’s certainly hard to see a rational explanation for what he’s doing.  But, calling him crazy also contributes to that misunderstanding; in doing so, we are basically saying his deeds are beyond explanation and that it’s a fool’s errand to even try.  Which is pretty much a self-fulfilling prophesy.  He’s crazy, therefore not worth trying to understand.  Used in this way, the word becomes a barrier to understanding, which is definitely not what I want for my film!

I believe that the economics of farming really are crazy — that the economic thinking that underpins how we determine land prices is fatally, irrationally flawed and beyond comprehension.  Our economic system envisions a world where the price of farmland reflects its “real” value, but the actual price of farmland in our system has nothing whatsoever to do with the value we get from it.  Food is fundamentally valuable because it keeps us alive, but that value is not reflected in a system where farmers are priced out of the market.  When I say crazy, I mean it doesn’t makes sense that growing food isn’t a viable business, and we need to start thinking in a way that it does.  For me, crazy is a sign we need to think differently, not a reason to avoid thinking!

So this is my struggle:  How do I point out the craziness of the situation without losing the people who are entrenched in that craziness?  How do I advocate for different economic thinking to the farmers who are deeply invested (not to mention indebted) in the current system, and who have their livelihoods on the line if it changes?  There are no simple answers.

One thing that heartens me is knowing that I’m not the only one who trips over this.  While I was thinking about all this, I ran across some words from David Suzuki that offended quite a few economic thinkers when he said it.  He said:  “Conventional economics is a form of brain damage” and “Economics is so fundamentally disconnected from the real world, it’s destructive.”  I happen to agree with those statements; I think I’m saying something similar in The Hands that Feed Us.  I’m also conscious that, for those who disagree, those comments come across as hostile.  Knowing that, I hope I’ll be able to say it in a way that is clear and cogent, even — especially — for people who don’t immediately grasp a problem with the way things are.

Up next:  Wearing too many hats

Finding a balance between fundraising and editing has been an ongoing challenge for me.  Too often, I’ve pushed editing out of the way to do a funding application, and I’ve lost momentum on the edit as a consequence.  That challenge is about to get harder.  Ironically, the challenge comes from seeing some fundraising success:  The Bell Fund has agreed to fund a slate of films from my producer, Walter, and The Hands that Feed Us will receive a portion of it.  That means, in addition to editing and fundraising, I now have a new task to juggle:  Filming the interviews that we promised when we applied to the Bell Fund.

This is a good thing.  Bell has committed money to the project, and the interviews will help flesh out the theoretical side of the film.  Funding means I can afford to travel, which means I can approach subjects like Charles Eisenstein who would have been too far out of the way when I was travelling across Canada.  I feel like I’m not ready — I have a loose shortlist of people who might have useful things to say, but I wish I was farther along so I could see more clearly what gaps are left.  We have promised to spend the money and produce a new teaser for the film by the end of August, which means there is a deadline.  August isn’t that close, but it does mean I’ll need to make some critical decisions about who to talk to in the next few months.

The interviews will give us footage of experts who can give theoretical context and credibility to the first-hand economic realities that I have already filmed.  I need people who can show how the immediate experiences of the farmers I visited fit in to the big picture.  Most of all, I need to speak to people who are already thinking about different forms of land tenure, and ways of owning farmland that don’t require taking on a lifetime of debt.  I’m not sure if these people exist.  There are lots of economists out there.  Thanks to the crisis in urban home prices, there are lots of pundits who can speak to how urban land pricing works.  And I already have lots of farmers on camera!  But, I haven’t found many farming economists who specialize in land prices.

So, I want to put it out to you:  Who do you think I should interview for the film?  Here’s the top of my shortlist so far:

  • David Suzuki (Environmental scientist.  Useful for his brain damage comment)
  • Mark Carney (Former central banker.  Wrote a book about the disconnect between price and value)
  • Joseph Stiglitz (Economist.  Known for viewing land as different from capital)
  • Charles Eisenstein (Author of Sacred Economics.  Helped popularize ideas that came out of the Occupy movement)
  • J.P. Gervais (Chief Economist at Farm Credit Canada.  Carrys a mandate to give loans to farmers, often for land)

What’s next?

Lots of hats (see above).  I need to maintain momentum on the edit, while balancing fundraising and also filming more interviews.  My savings are also running low, so, even though it’s not related to The Hands that Feed Us, I’ll take a couple weeks off to earn some money … at least until my fundraising efforts pay off!

  • Finish the initial edit of all the segments from Klippers.  Figure out how to best focus the existing footage from Klippers, and decide what additional footage I need.  Then, on to editing The Eshpeter Farm.
  • I’m in the process of finishing a funding application at the Canada Council, and then we’ll pitch Telus Originals.  I’m also looking into the future and seeking funds to take the film on tour when it’s done.
  • I need to find, schedule, and shoot interviews with experts who can give the film credibility and expertise.

How can I help?

  • Suggestions for experts to interview for the film.  See the section above for the type of people I’m looking for.  Send suggestions to devon@thehandsthatfeedus.ca.
  • Keep reading these newsletters.  I’m painfully aware that my project was probably a lot more interesting when I was posting weekly videos about what I was learning on the farm.  Editing is an internal process with much less to share.  But, knowing I have people reading and watching helps me keep moving forward, and there will be another big payoff (the film) when I’m done!