‘Common Ground’ For Us All

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Tompkins Weekly       10-11-23

By Cathleen and Eric Banford

A new documentary called “Common Ground” is coming to Cinemapolis Oct. 13 to 19, and based on its Oct. 1 screening, it is a must see film. It’s the sequel to “Kiss the Ground,” which has been seen by over 1 billion people globally and inspired the United States Department of Agriculture to put $20 billion toward soil health. The hope is that this new film will have an even greater impact.

The film starts as a letter to the next generation, narrated by Laura Dern, Jason Momoa, Rosario Dawson, Ian Somerhalder, and Woody Harrelson. As any film with an environmental message must do, it outlines the many overwhelming problems caused by our current food system. Where this film differs is where it goes from there: solutions. Inspiring, achievable, common-sense solutions.

This is a really well researched, well thought out film. The problems are made clear. The history of corruption and mismanagement involving “Big AG” laid bare. And then we get interviews with experts in regenerative farming, with people doing the work of transforming their own farms and seeing amazing results. And by results we don’t just mean ecological improvements; we mean savings and profits! It means transforming farms from struggling enterprises with poor, exhausted soil into profitable ventures that also transform the landscape into a thriving ecosystem. The proof is in the doing.

Image provided.

The October 1st local screening was followed by a lively Q&A session with a panel consisting of Yao Foli, an activist and educator; Tina Nilson-Hodges, founder and principal of New Roots Charter School; Christa Nunez, co-founder of the Learning Farm and Director of Khuba International; and Ryland Engelhart (who grew up in Danby), executive producer of the film and co-founder of Kiss The Ground.

“It feels good to come back to my home town after 25 years to share something beautiful,” said Engelhart as he introduced the film. “We (with Ryan Makepeace, another Ithacan who co-founded Kiss the Ground) have been working for ten years on awakening the world that regeneration is possible, that there’s a way forward, and it starts with taking care of our soil,” he shared.

In the film, regenerative farmer Gabe Brown, who has transformed a 5,000 acre farm and ranch near Bismarck, North Dakota, said, “We can go down the regenerative path, heal our soil, our rivers and streams, heal communities, heal people. Or we can continue down the path we are on, a path of degradation, more violent weather events, weather extremes, flooding, drought, food shortages, health issues. We have a choice to make. Which path do we want to go on?”

During the Q&A some great questions and challenges came up, such as: What about land access for those who can’t afford it? What’s Cornell’s role in all of this? Shouldn’t we be more focused on getting off fossil fuels?

An audience member asked, “Is capitalism inherently antithetical to regenerative agriculture, and if so, is it time to create regenerative economics?”

Engelhart replied, “I love how Gabe Brown said it pretty practically. ‘Regenerative Agriculture is working on stewarding land in a way that produces profit while enhancing the ecosystems for generations to come.’ That is still within capitalism but is not the extractive capitalism that we are often appalled by,” he said.

Someone asked, “If there’s a more profitable future for farmers in regenerative farming, why hasn’t there been a bigger adoption?”

Gabe Brown talked about saving a million dollars just by shifting away from expensive fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. But the payback from this shift takes time, and in the meantime your profits likely go down while your soil is being built back up. How does a farmer afford this shift? Shouldn’t the farm bill support this?

Engelhart explained, “You can’t get crop insurance if you aren’t on the standard program, so there is not that security blanket for going in this new direction. What we are working on as far as farm bill legislation is to cover that startup gap.”

Another question wondered how audience members could directly help the panelists in the work that they are doing.

Foli responded that, “It’s all about education. That is the first tool to decolonize the mind. You need healthy soil to make food into medicine. What can we do to plant the seed of consciousness in the grownups, and even the young ones? What forum can we organize to talk about regenerative agriculture?”

And Nunuz challenged the audience to, “think about getting back on the land. I think about the systems that have globally pushed us off of the land, and I would challenge us all to remember our ancestors, and remember where we came from. Remember that you belong to the land and it to you. My husband and I were harvesting this morning and it was a relationship builder. This is not just food, it’s a marriage. This is parenting. This is a relationship with animals. It was just a beautiful experience going out on the land together,” she said.

Nilson-Hodges noted that she is, “going to talk to Kate (Donohue at Cinemapolis) about bringing the entire New Roots student body to a showing, and to encourage LACS and IHS to do the same.”

After the Q&A, when asked why it’s important for people to see this film, Engleheart responded that, “When we look to the future of life here on planet earth, there isn’t a pathway of hope given the information that most of us are holding. When we understand regeneration and regenerative agriculture, we can actually see healthy food, healthy communities, healthy farmers, healthy climate, healthy water and air; and regenerative agriculture is the mechanism that provides us a hopeful, viable future like nothing else does.”

Currently the majority of federal agricultural subsidies go to gigantic, corporate farms, and very little goes to small, family farms. Together we can improve the whole system. It’s vital that more people understand the real cost of conventional food production and empower themselves to make more informed choices. Education about food systems at all levels prepares us to elect officials who will serve our best interests as they promote, establish, and subsidize food systems policies that keep our soil, our farmers, and our families healthy.

Nunez shared that, “I think it’s a combination of policy and community agricultural change through cooperation.” This happens through empowering farmers that grow nutritious food while simultaneously regenerating soil. Together we can prevent another dire situation such as the dust bowl. Food systems are what we make them.

The film sadly notes that Gabe Brown has been diagnosed with ALS disease, likely the result of his early farming experience with the same highly toxic chemicals he is advocating against now. “To be just a small part of such meaningful change makes life worthwhile,” Brown shared. The film is dedicated to him.

Viewers at the initial showing walked away hopeful and inspired. We encourage you to watch too.

The Common Ground website has more info on ways to help: commongroundfilm.org

The Film will screen at Cinemapolis from Oct. 13 to 19: www.cinemapolis.org/movie/common-ground

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