Evolution of Organic:
Mark Kitchell’s Sexy New Film About Farmers
By Haley Nagasaki
Falling under the category of Impact Films, director Mark Kitchell’s fourth documentary film entitled Evolution of Organic will be featured at the Vancouver International Film Festival this fall. Kitchell’s latest piece riffs off a similar vibe created by his previous political, environmental, and social commentary films, including Oscar Nominee and Sundance Film Festival winner Berkeley in the Sixties, and a gripping film about the rise of environmentalism called A Fierce Green Fire.
Written, produced, and directed by the seasoned talent Mark Kitchell, Evolution of Organic follows the tale, since inception, of the compelling organic farming movement. The documentary captures in real time the insights of the “rebellious pioneers” who refused chemical farming after World War II, and initiated alternatives for conventional subsistence that would change their professions, their interactions and their lives. The backlash of this inspiring movement led to the breakthrough of organics into mainstream industrial agriculture, and shifted the way human beings interact with the natural world.
Mark Kitchell was born into an artistic family in San Francisco, California and grew up in the era of the San Francisco hippie, considering them his “collective older brothers and sisters”. When asked if he’d always been politically motivated, Kitchell expressed that he saw himself as both a “political participant and spectator”. In 1976 Kitchell took off for the east coast where he discovered his passion for documentary film making at NYU.
The Broadcast for A Fierce Green Fire was Earth Day of April 2014. Immediately after which Mark began research and development for Evolution of Organic. Kitchell broke his land speed record with this endeavor, clocking in at two years of production time unlike A Fierce Green Fire, which took six, and Berkeley in the Sixties at ten whole years. In January 2015, Mark came back to the Eco Farm Conference prepared to make the film. He had raised enough money and by July 2015 announced that they were going forward with the project. Kitchell conducted the majority of the interviews the following fall, and had a rough cut of by May 2016. The fine cut phase began in the fall of 2016, only to invest six more months of hard work, barely making an April 20th premiere.
I asked Mark what inspired him to create this particular film, and if he’d always been an organic aficionado: “I considered myself a starving artist too poor for organic, you know, but it’s been a transition; I’ve really gotten into it. I’ve met the greatest people too. How lucky to get to meet all those people. They are an extraordinary bunch”.
Working along side Editor Robert Dalva in what became his most collaborative piece yet, Kitchell’s film features thirty individuals involved in the organic farming movement, from a variety of backgrounds.
After VIFF, Mark Kitchell will travel both nationally and internationally for a total of 300 screenings, including the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC. Evolution of Organic will go on to certain private screenings as well, directed exclusively towards the education of young farmers, like Stone Barn Centre for Food & Agriculture and the Farmer’s Guild Conference.
That’s one of the beautiful things about the versatility of this film, I think. Viewer’s can take away from it whatever it is they perceive. Whether it’s a historical narrative of an engaging practice, a folksy documentary for the passionate organic foodie, or a piece of classroom material for farmers and gardeners alike, providing them with the tools for getting back to nature. It really solidifies for me the concept of how the “cash register becomes the ballot box for the food that people want to eat”.
The film expands on various practices used within the organic farming industry that have the ability to address carbon emissions, invasive species and natural pest management, creating compost-rich soil, even such ingenuitive solutions as fostering runs of salmon in flooded rice fields.
Naturally one third of the documentary’s screenings will take place in California, such is the location where all of the interviews and shooting for the film took place. Similar to the idea of the A Fierce Green Fire, and Berkeley’s renowned demonstrations during the 1960s, Kitchell recognized the power of a microcosm; the focus. “I knew the California story was great and besides” he says “I didn’t want to get on an airplane”.
I asked Mark: “what did you hope to achieve through the making of the film? Does it have to do with consumer awareness, or climate change?”
“I think by now I’m not so much out with an agenda. I trust that telling the story of the organic movement will be valuable and will educate and inspire a lot of people on different levels. I’m not ending the film with a call to charge into the streets, it’s not that kind of subject anyway, it’s about the microbes”, he says laughing.
“That’s what I love about organic farming: it’s genderless, there’s no discrimination, anyone can do it, and it’s honest work. There’s a huge range of people that this film can speak to and I guess that’s the point, which is so fantastic.”
Some of Mark’s most remarkable experiences while working on the film include his time with Zen farmer Wendy Johnson from Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. “There’s some marvelous moments there on film, you know when she talks about listening to the plants”. These plants talk to you; they tell you what to do and how to care for them. “At Camp Joy”, he continues, “we went to interview Beth Benjamin, it was her ex Jim Nelson you see in the film talking about how gardening puts you in a meditative state”. It’s about finding Kinship in the Plant Kingdom, “and the bee buzzes by bzzzz… Moments like that were like ahhh” he sighs, “it’s like getting back to the consciousness part of this”.
“Yeah I love the connections you made there in the film with spirituality and consciousness. From discussing the physical tasks, the literal fruits of one’s labour, then bridging it to the essential parts of Being – shared by human beings but also the plant community”.
Apart from a few prior acquaintances, Mark did not know any of the wonderful people in the production of this film personally. “It’s one of the real pleasures of making a film. It’s getting to wade in and you’ve got a license to be curious. You cold call and you start talking, and people will lead you from one to another; then you make discoveries. It’s just fabulous, it’s creative, and I love it.”
Mark and I discussed the background of industrial farming, and what was occurring prior to the organic movement. Fertilizers, he said, came out of World War I from mustard gas and other chemicals being used in the trenches, and out of World War II came the pesticides. Izzy Martin plays an integral role in the film, the manifestation of which can be found in her statement question: “How many people need to be poisoned before we start investing money into finding alternatives for these chemicals?” This I believe is an interesting commentary on what’s still happening all over the globe, whether it’s food we’re talking about, or social justice.
“Where do you think people stand today when it comes to organics?” I asked. “In the film it says that only 1% of US land is in cultivation for organics, yet 70% of Americans say they buy organics occasionally. There seems to be a discrepancy there. How do you think the public receives organic these days?
“The 1% sure, but in California it’s 4%. And in British Columbia, there are a lot of people growing organically. It’s really impressive to me how much organic is growing, and expanding into different markets. Even conventional farmers, Steve Pavich found that more than 50% of their practices are based on organic. So conventional agriculture is still being hugely impacted”.
“One of the first things I saw when I started the film was that soil microbiology is the frontier. I could hardly believe that nobody had really investigated the soil. And so Brian Leahy, who is the head of California Department of Pesticide Regulation, is pushing soil microbiology as a topic in need of further research. They found that broccoli would rid the soil of harmful microbes after strawberries had been planted there. So they developed a rotation of strawberries and broccoli as a natural pest control.”
“Another great character in the film” Mark continues, “is Jacob Katz who is growing those ‘floodplain fatties’ – the little salmon in the flooded rice fields. That’s a brilliant example of working with nature. I think that’s a frontier of organic. It’s about biology, it’s about life, and don’t think we really plumbed the depths of that yet in a modern scientific way; I think there’s still a lot to be learned”.
“I see a lot of progress and growth, I’m impressed because I’m used to films like Berkeley in the Sixties, and sure there was lots of outgrowth but then it ends. Here this is a growing movement, and your generation is coming in a big important way. The consumers too, it’s amazing how many people really care about where their food comes from”.
“There was a spotlight in the film on carbon farming”. I said. “Is it a widely used practice in all organic farming?” Carbon faming being a ‘practice about sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, where it is a problem, into the soil, where it is beneficial.’
“I consider it the best news on the planet,” he says, “I consider it one of the important solutions to climate change. But it’s been slow on the uptake and most people are like you, they haven’t heard of it. I hadn’t heard of it. It’s complicated it turns out once you start digging into it. It’s simple on its basis, photosynthesis: the plants take in the carbon and send it down to their roots to feed the microbes that build soil. Tillage is also a big debate”.
From the film: “Carbon Farming has become an important new addition to organic farming, which is the creation of carbon-rich soil. It is taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back in the earth where it belongs”.
“I feel privileged to be bringing this film out while it’s still a big breaking issue, and we’re going to do all we can to spread the news. California’s out front again, it’s the only place where they’re taking cap and trade money from polluters and putting it into agricultural solutions, and paying farmers to sequester carbon. It’s going to take a long time and there’s a lot of public education to be done on it. Although that’s a new way to keep our farmers farming – pay them to put the carbon back into the ground!” says Mark.
“Yeah it’s true it’s true! And I just loved the diversity of the different companies and the people you spoke with. One that I really liked was the Sole Food Project. I thought that was fantastic because you’re giving people who might have lost their way a new purpose. Have you heard of other organizations like this?”
“Did you know that that’s a Vancouver project? It is it’s in Vancouver. Yeah there are lots of projects around which are community gardens, urban gardens and prison gardens. Michael Ableman has always been a visionary and Sole Food Street Farms was his baby. Imperfect Produce is a company here in San Francisco that is trying to sell less than perfect produce, because mostly it’s just cosmetic”.
On a final word, Mark tells me that he’s “excited to be taking the film to the world. But you know”, he says, “It didn’t get into some festivals because, well, it’s not sexy enough. It’s about farmers after all. And so I’m hoping that it is sexy enough that people come and discover what a wonderful film, and movement this is”.
“You know this film, in a lot of important ways, it made itself; it’s just such a natural story”. Says Mark.
“It is. It’s organic!”
“Right” he says chuckling, “it happened organically”.