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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

My Father's Garden

Air Date: Week of

A new award-winning movie, "My Father's Garden", documents two different farmers relationships to the land. Becky Rumsey has a review of the film currently on view on the Sundance cable channel.


CURWOOD: One of the most acclaimed environmental films of last year was My Father's Garden. It's a documentary that weaves together the stories of 2 sharply different American farmers and their relationships with the land. As producer Becky Rumsey reports, the film takes a hard and personal look at the history of American agriculture.

RUMSEY: In one scene of My Father's Garden, a child stands in the produce section of a grocery store, trying to choose the best zucchini.

CHILD: Eenie meenie miney -- ketchup?

RUMSEY: The film makes the point that food and the way it's grown is everyone's concern. That in making decisions in the marketplace today, we are choosing between 2 very different agricultural futures. One that's increasingly technological, and another, which tries to be more in balance with nature.

(A woman sings: "On the edge of your cities, see me and then I come with the dust and I'm gone with the wind." Fade into an auctioneer calling out numbers.)

RUMSEY: One story line takes us to present day North Dakota, where more and more farmers are losing their farms. Here, we meet Fred Kirchenmann. Twenty years ago he gave up a career as a college professor and returned to his family's 3,000-acre farm near Medina. At the time, North Dakota farmers were lining up for food stamps. And as Kirchenmann explains in the film, there was also mounting evidence of topsoil erosion and environmental damage caused by farming with chemicals.

KIRCHENMANN: When I got back here I discovered that the problems that we were having on our farm are problems that agriculture is having throughout North America. And if we don't do something about those problems, we're simply not going to have enough food to eat.

RUMSEY: So Kirchenmann converted to organic methods. He recycled animal and plant nutrients on his farm and he planted a greater variety of crops and rotated them. Over the years, he's been able to produce higher yields and rebuild his soils at the same time.

KIRCHENMAN: Conventional agriculture is based on the belief that nature is flawed, and that we cannot rely on nature to produce the food that we need. Organic farming operates out of a belief that nature is our partner. That the farm is not a factory and that all that we need to do is to learn from nature and cooperate with nature. So instead of the farm being a factory, it's a garden.

(A film projector runs; piano music plays)

SMITH: I grew up on a farm in Florida. There were mosquitoes and snakes and alligators and poisonous spiders. And I loved it.

RUMSEY: The second story woven throughout My Father's Garden is told by filmmaker Miranda Smith.

SMITH: My dad had big dreams for this place. It took a lot of sweat and ingenuity to turn that jungle of scrub brush and palmettos into orange groves, but he didn't seem to mind. He was devoted to his work, and to our family.

RUMSEY: In 1960 Miranda's father, Herbert Smith, died mysteriously, possibly from chemical poisoning. He was 40 years old.

(Music continues)

SMITH: The farm still haunts me, and I had to make this film.

RUMSEY: Miranda was just one when her father died, but his loss inspired her to make this film. When she read about Fred Kirchenmann, she went to North Dakota to document his large-scale organic success. Around that same time, her sister found some old home movies in a closet and asked Miranda to transfer them to video.

SMITH: When we transferred them we saw all this footage that my father had taken of farming, planting, harvesting, spraying, all the different aspects of it. As well as images of our family and my sisters growing up.

RUMSEY: When the film's producer, Abigail Wright, saw the home movies, she urged Miranda to blend the 2 stories together.

WRIGHT: We were trying to deal with a massive amount of factual material about farming. Trying to convey to people in the least amount of words what it is, because most people grow up very far from the farm. And then when we saw the material from Miranda's family, you know, Miranda's dad was a very handsome man. You see him working in the field and there's all this wonderful, hopeful energy. This was shot in the 1950s; it's a very different era than our own. And it communicates, it just jumps across time.

RUMSEY: There's a strong dose of compassionate hindsight to My Father's Garden. The film uses historical footage to take us from the prairie sod busters to the dust bowl era and then onto the green revolution, when new chemicals turned our farms into the world's most efficient food factories.

(Swing music. Male announcer: "Meanwhile, the years following World War II brought great changes to the farm. Industry discovered that chemicals manufactured for battle could be converted for use in agriculture. Defoliants became weed killers." Music continues with the sounds of bombing and weapons.) "Chemical weapons became insecticides.")

RUMSEY: My Father's Garden has no villains. Its two narratives document both the promise and the tragedy of industrial farming. Ultimately, it's the odd interplay of the documentary scenes of Fred Kirchenmann in North Dakota and the very personal images of the Smith family in their Florida orange groves that makes the film so moving.

(Piano music; the sound of film running)

SMITH: Dad had a lot of faith in technology. Everybody did back then. Technology was going to turn the farm into paradise.

RUMSEY: For Living on Earth, I'm Becky Rumsey.

(Music and film continue)

SMITH: He was determined never to let those pests get a toehold again. Daddy was always thinking, always planning...

CURWOOD: My Father's Garden has won several awards, including the 1997 Earth Watch Film Award for outstanding documentary. The film is currently showing on the Sundance cable channel.



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