New doc explores what it takes to farm, fish, graze sustainably

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A new documentary made by Santa Barbara filmmaker Chris Malloy examines the role food will play in our future.

Unbroken Ground follows growers, ranchers and fishermen as they try to find a balance between making a paycheck and preserving the earth for the next generation.

KCRW’s Larry Perel spoke with Malloy about the people and concepts that make his film unique.

KCRW: In a lot of ways this is a story we’ve heard before – commercial farming is destroying our land. How do the characters in your film offer a new approach?

Malloy: This is about a deeper analysis of what’s really happening. It’s really easy to demonize the agricultural families who are out there doing what they’re doing. I didn’t want to do that. This film is pro-grazing, pro-farming, pro-fishing. But, the folks in this film are thinking decades ahead. Most of them are a little bit crazy, unapologetic and not afraid to fail.

Give us an example of restorative grazing.

Two characters in the film are Jill and Dan O’Brien from South Dakota. They had raised cattle for decades, and were having trouble getting by. When you’re out in South Dakota for a winter, you’ve got time to think, so they thought about what was there originally. Bison had been on those prairies for thousands and thousands of years. They got made fun of by other ranchers, but they went for it. Now they’ve shown there’s a viable market for bison, and the pastures are looking great.


If the process of restorative grazing is working with bison in South Dakota, why aren’t more people doing it?

Agriculture is always a precarious industry, financially. If people see something that’s already working, you’re going to do it because, if it doesn’t work, you’re probably losing your home. It takes somebody with conviction and a little craziness to say, ‘I’m going to start a new way of producing this product, and hope that the world buys in.’ That takes a lot of guts.

Early in the film, Dr. Wes Jackson from The Land Institute says we characterize wilderness as sacred and agricultural land as profane. He calls this a disconnect. Why?

We have this notion that agricultural land is being ruined. Then we have the national parks, where you pay your fee and feel good about your communion with nature. Wes, who’s 80 and has been farming his whole life, says if you treat your farm fields and your wide open spaces with the same mindset, they’re not as different in the way we use them as people perceive.

Presented by Ventura-based outdoor retailer Patagonia, the film screens in Los Alamos on August 10th and Santa Barbara on August 17th. Or, watch it here: