From Soil to Dirt and Back Again
Rob Herring in conversation with Mathew Bate
Photos supplied by Rob Herring and courtesy of Transitions Film Festival
‘The Need To Grow’ is a compelling film about the desperate state of our farmable soil. Ahead of its Australian premier at Transitions Film Festival this year, we speak to director Rob Herring about the implications of an industrial food system that is turning our precious topsoil into its lifeless shadow, dirt.
Mathew Bate: So for people reading this, most of whom probably haven't seen the film, it’s called ‘The Need To Grow’ and it’s all about soil and soil health and there's essentially three major narratives that we follow and they sort of intersect each other. The film starts off with a quote from Confucius: "If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for 10 years, plant trees. If you're plan is for 100 years, educate children.” Straight away we are introduced to this young girl, this young activist, that's been on TED.
Rob Herring: Yeah she was seven when she first appeared on the TEDx stage.
Yeah and so there's this young activist that you get introduced to, called Alicia, who is fighting for the removal of GMO's in Girl Scout Cookies and who then travels to Erik Cutter's farm, who we then start following too. What was it like filming Alicia and how did she find out about Erik's farming methods?
Yeah so we knew when we started filming with her that it was an important piece of the story. She is wise beyond her years but you know she's still a kid. The footage you see in the film is curated from a lot of footage. I say that to recognise that she's also got the carefree kid life going on, you know. But to have the awareness that she did at her age is astounding. It's something that I certainly didn't have and I don't know many kids that do. I want to emphasise that her initiation in a lot of these things is very much her own. Her mum definitely brought a lot of these ideas to her kids but we were conscious that people might think that her mother was kind of puppeting her a little bit. The reality is that when she suggested the idea of starting this petition [for the removal of GMOs in Girl Scout Cookies] her mum thought that was a great idea and that maybe she'd get a couple dozen signatures, maybe 100 or 200. She had no idea that it was going to blow up like it did. She continues to do all sorts of activism, not just food related, and she's just this badass kid that knows the difference between right and wrong and stands up for things that she believes in and luckily has a great support system with her mom that shares those values. Alicia really is this great leader and is a role model, I think, for all kids. It still boggles my mind that they were genuinely going to explore farms and happened to go to Erik Cutter's farm, of which I still haven't seen anyone who is doing what he's doing, in terms of growing food and the nutrient density in not just his food but in his soil. So I think the universe just lined up for this one [laughs] and showed us the way.
So you just mentioned Erik Cutter. He's described in the film as a "microfarm master" and it becomes very clear that he kind of is, not that I really know what a microfarm master is [laughs]. Can you describe what he was doing on his little 1/4 acre block?
Yeah so with Erik, he is so advanced in his understanding of the cycle that is important to soil health and optimisation. A lot of people understand some of the inputs that they need to go into soil and conventionally it's a very limited, chemical view and it's very often a synthetic approach to what should go back into our soils. Usually what we refer to is NPK and these three elements [Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium] are used to get a boom in productivity. But the difference is that he has an understanding in the energy systems of plants, their immune systems, their antioxidant systems and how the nutrient profile of soil can supercharge plant growth. We see some of it in the film where you see some of his plants growing to what he calls "Jurassic Park proportions".
His kale! In the film there's this shot of a lady who's like holding this massive trunk from a kale plant and there's hundreds of them growing out of these tiny, tiny sock things.
Right, so he realises the ability to concentrate nutritional support for the soil and then the plants just take off automatically. There's another guy who is featured in the film as a talking head, his name is Larry Santoyo. He's a permaculture designer and he would often say "We're not gardeners, we're soil managers." And Erik says it in the movie as well, that we need to think about feeding the soil not feeding the plant. I think his understanding of the complexity of microbial life led him to certain systems where you can really concentrate that. That's what makes his vertical towers work and the sock systems work so well, because the roots are really being fed. They've got everything they need and more. So what he's able to do is look at it from this kind of renegade urban style, instead of just a large-scale, more conventional land management approach where he's thinking about how do we feed cities and make this as local as possible and get people more engaged and giving an opportunity to come to the farm and taste the food right there. That's the missing piece I think psychologically, that disconnect from how food is actually made. A big part of why food needs to be local I think is to get people to experience it. Not just that it is a shorter distance to get to from point A to point B, which is probably the other major component obviously, as the nutrient density in food starts to deplete and the antioxidants levels drop off quickly when it's not fresh. But one of his his big philosophies and his visions is to get people there because when they taste food that's been grown the way that he grows it and when it's picked right then and there, I mean you have an experience that will change the way you perceive vegetables. You'll never know what celery tastes like until you try celery grown by someone like Erik. The flavor profiles that are in these foods will blow your mind.
What makes him so special is the way that he's able to grow anywhere with this model. Not only can he grow food off grid, which is another bonus, but he can grow really intense production in such a small space, in a way that is not input heavy and and is totally organic. It seems to contradict a lot of what we would assume to get certain types of efficiencies. For him it's about just supporting the natural systems and letting them do their job. So I still think you know it's an untapped model that needs to be replicated and I hope the film can help spawn that. It's such a such a cool model that could be on the side of a restaurant you know, it could be in this in the school system and yeah I'm really excited for what he's doing because of its replicability. His model doesn't rely on needing heaps of soil or land so you can grow food literally on a rooftop and on concrete. That to me is becoming ever increasingly important as our cities become more and more dense, obviously, and we're losing access to land.
Regenerative agriculture is obviously massive in Montana and Northern California, those places are kind of like the heartbeat of the western regenerative agricultural movement at the moment but it and urban agriculture is becoming quite big here in Melbourne. We're dealing an urban population that is expected to double by 2030. Clearly, then, growing food in an urban environment needs to happen and how we will feed everyone is a pressing issue. Agricultural models like Erik's are therefore extremely important. Not to mention that it is actually just the better model anyway for delivering nutritious food to an urban population at scale.
Yeah I'm most excited that, like you say, it's not about sacrificing one thing for the other. These are the models that really jazz me up. Usually we hijack a part or process of nature to get a boost in productivity. These models say no, let's actually return to the wisdom of nature. It becomes this win-win scenario across the board. It's more local, it's fresher, it requires fewer inputs and it's more productive.
We need to start thinking about feeding the soil, not feeding the plant.
These models say no, let's actually return to the wisdom of nature.
Erik's model is a small-scale operation and it seems to me that the whole regenerative movement celebrates doing things on a small scale, relative to industrial methods. There's a disconnect at the moment and a lot of the stuff that we're talking about is reconnecting people with nature, with food, with what nutrition means and feels like and with what soil actually means. In the film you outline the difference between dirt and soil but for a lot of people they're synonyms. I think sometimes we forget that people might have a misguided idea about what things actually are, like what soil is, or even, let's consider what a farm is. When we think about farming food a lot of people think that farms are these big things, that in order to feed the world we need these big plots of land. In Australia some farms are bigger than some European countries. But when go over to Greece or Italy, for example, they will call anything that grows food a farm. That, for them, is a farm. We need to change the way we relate to what we consider as a farm. Is that something that resonates with you?
Yeah that's a great point. There's there's a misconception right now in terms of the necessity of industrial farming or what we call Big Ag. The reality is 70 percent of the food that feeds the world comes from small farms and people don't know that. We think we need genetic engineering, chemical intensive farming and monocultures to feed the world. The fact is that the monocultures in the US are the commodities that we force into our food system and they're all the junk foods anyway. These are the foods that are literally killing us and they're the foods that we subsidise! So [laughs] we have this just completely insane view of the productivity of these monocultures without acknowledging the fact that our tax dollars go to the foods that are also then making us sicker and increasing our health care costs and it's a completely downward spiral, a negative feedback loop. We have to acknowledge the fact that small farms actually are the things that feed the world. There's just a lot of money to be made on the other side, the industrial side, and we have to be aware that a lot of the messaging that has been repeated over and over is because it's an industry that they they want to protect. There's an incentive for them to keep us believing that we need genetically modified foods, monocultures and these large scale intensive input farms.
Really though, the thing that is most important is that at the end of the year do they have more or less soil? If you're looking at what we call an expiration date, a progress trap if you will, if we are in a model that we know has an end point, what level of disconnect and unawareness do we have to continue down a path where know that the cliff is right there? So if we're not rebuilding soil when we know that that there is an end in sight and there are these other ways they can rebuild soil then it's like, you know, you have to question the intention of anybody trying to go down that system. But the beautiful thing is, like I say, it's not this big sacrifice. It's not just like a pretty idea to go organic and it's not this hippie lifestyle thing or whatever, it's not that at all. These are the more financially productive systems, they make more money when people switch to these systems, they grow better food, they regenerate the soil, they store excess atmospheric carbon, there's no trade off. The only thing we need is education, to help people transition into it. That is the hard part and that can be challenging for farmers. I mean we have to acknowledge that in the first year or two of transitioning into a different [farming] style is really daunting and actually can be hard financially in that first year during the transition. These are very real obstacles for people that are used to operating in the status quo, either how their parents did it or how their grandparents managed the land. Shifting that is difficult and these people are not bad people.
We want to be very careful so as to not make this an us versus them scenario, I'm so sick of that sentiment. We're all doing the best we can and so we need to help bring people to the table to share and educate, helping to acknowledge that, like you say, food can come from your backyard. We have to get off of this supermarket thing, the now, now, now I need everything now, even if it's not in season. We've been really shepherded into a instant gratification mindset where we can get any type of food that exists anywhere on the planet in my grocery store at all times, shelves stocked to the max.
There's so much that I want to respond to from what you've just said. Firstly, I think you do a good job in the film of not demonising industrial agriculture, or the people involved in the system. What was popping up for me just then was that there's a man in the film, and I forget his name, and he's sitting in this greenhouse with a cowboy hat on and he says that there's been no proof in the last 14 years that Monsanto's industrial methods are actually producing higher yields. But then he sort of jokes that we get all this junk food – this stuff that has no nutrition and that's destroying our soil – and package it up, where it travels a long way and then we put in the supermarket where we then buy it, put it in our refrigerator and then we just throw it in the bin. And he's like that is almost a cardinal sin. We haven't spoken about it yet but the waste associated with Big Ag is catastrophic. We need to feed the world, yes, but the amount of waste that we're producing just doesn't make sense. In this model we're seeing an overabundance of food in the developed world as billions of people go hungry every day.
In the US, our own government's reports are showing that the yield is is not even outperforming other farming methods and they're their own numbers. Something not to be overlooked is that like all of the claims that everybody's continued to make on this pro-science, pro-GMO mindset, which is that we're supposed to embrace progress and feed the world and all these things. The fact is their own numbers show that it doesn't make a difference. So at what cost are we doing that? In terms of waste, I think this disconnect that we have because if we waste 40 percent of our food, which is possibly a low estimate of how much is actually wasted but let's just say it's 40 percent, most people can visualise 40 percent of a pile of food going to the garbage. But we don't actually realise that's 40 percent of all of the inputs, the energy and the fossil fuels that were used to grow the food, ship the food, the manual labor, the chemical input, the water, even just the water! If you're thinking 40 percent of food is wasted then 40 percent of the water to grow the food was completely used unnecessarily. We've really got to ask ourselves what the true cost of food really is.