Anyone who’s ever slogged through an American supermarket probably has experienced it before. A little wave of panic. A sense of being overwhelmed by choices — and the consequences of those choices.
That’s what the twitchy opening sequence of the documentary, Unbroken Ground, evokes. The music is ominous and pulsing. The towering store shelves, stacked with techni-colored products, almost intimidate. But by the film’s end, any residual dread morphs into something else: a feeling that an overly commodified, often inhumane, environmentally damaging food system actually can be fixed. There’s hope.
The documentary, released earlier this summer and produced by Patagonia Provisions, aims to tell the story of a few food industry mavericks. Or, as Patagonia Provisions’ director, Birgit Cameron, puts it, “Unbroken Ground is about highlighting entities that are changing agriculture.” In 2012, when Patagonia launched the new business, the move surprised a lot of people who wondered why the outdoor apparel giant wanted to venture into food. But Patagonia has built a reputation for taking unusual paths, sherpa’d by an idiosyncratic founder. It’s long put social and environmental welfare first — even urged customers not to buy Patagonia clothes — and managed to wrap millions of people in cozy fleece on its way to tallying $800 million in sales a year.
Patagonia Provisions continues in that ethos. It aims to stock larders and backpacks with products that tweak the prevailing food paradigm— one built on efficiency — and to right an imbalanced food system by producing food with a deeper connection to the earth. The film chronicles the efforts of a handful of food producers, each with a new vision of yielding sustenance that’s better for humans, animals and the planet. In some cases those new visions look a lot like old ones. “Agricultural revolution is not going to come through technology,” says Yvon Chouinard, who founded Patagonia in the early 1970s with a line of canvas shorts and rugby shirts. “It’s going to come through, in a lot of cases, the old ways of doing things.”
As its name suggests it might, the film trains its attention on the foundation of agriculture, the soil, and stresses that conventional agriculture, with its annual crops and tilling, has exhausted agricultural land in swaths of the country, especially the Midwest. The film begins there, at the Kansas-based Land Institute, which is working on developing a form of wheat that can be grown year after year, a perennial grain that forms a soil strengthening, carbon-storing root system. “Every time you grow cotton or corn or whatever, you’re losing topsoil, and you can’t do that forever,” Chouinard says. “Regenerative agriculture actually builds top soil.”
From the heart of the Midwest, the film travels northward to the plains of South Dakota where viewers are introduced to a soulful pair of bison ranchers named Dan and Jill O’Brien. The couple started ranching buffalo, not for the meat, but to help restore the area’s native grasslands. “The bison are awesome, but it really starts with the land,” says Jill O’Brien. “We’re really just grass farmers, and bison are one of the tools that help manage it. And, of course, the meat is just a byproduct.” In fact, Patagonia is taking a stand on resource-intensive, “high-carbon” meat, like beef, just as it has on broader environmental issues. (The company has waged campaigns to persuade shoppers to vote green, taking political positions that most companies wouldn’t.)
The film heads west next, to The Bread Lab at Washington State University, where plant breeders are trying to develop new forms of wheat for organic bakers, millers and booze-makers. “We have never specifically bred for organic farmers, so we’ve never bred for farmers who, instead of using chemical fertilizer are using organic fertilizers, are using compost,” explains Bethany Econopouly, a graduate student at the Bread Lab. “We’ve never done that before.” The film concludes in Washington’s San Juan Islands, where a cooperative called Lummi Island Wild runs a sustainable, wild salmon fishery with an almost spiritual sense of mission. “The miracle of salmon. Where to begin?” says Ian Kirouac, one of the cooperative’s partners. “Salmon are amazing creatures. As close to medicine as food gets, and a wonderful resource.” In fact, the film’s stars share Kirouac’s reverence for the resources they manage, a trait that likely brought them to Patagonia Provisions in the first place. And, like Chouinard, they share a farmer-like streak of pragmatism. “These farmers that we’re working with, these fishermen,” Chouinard says, “their eyes are wide open.”
They are also optimists. As Dan O’Brien, the bison rancher, puts it: “I feel the earth moving here, a little bit.”
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