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Film portrays, betrays modern animal agriculture

It is not going to get easier for agriculture if there is not more open engagement with the public.

Cheryl Day

July 8, 2016

9 Min Read
Film portrays, betrays modern animal agriculture

Consumers are asking more questions about how food is raised on the farm. Farmers and ranchers are encouraged to step up to be more real and open about exactly what happens on the farm. So, when a meat-eating documentary filmmaker and his vegetarian wife approach livestock producers to spend a day on their farm, engage in dialogue and film it for the big screen; it can create an uncomfortable interaction with an uncertain outcome.

Exploring food animal production and the morality of eating meat is a popular subject among non-fiction filmmakers. In the film “At the Fork”, John Papola and his wife, Lisa, set out to settle a household argument over the ethics of meat eating.

Still, Papola says, “It is something that Lisa has always wanted to do. I thought by doing this together and my more conflicted approach would make it a more honest and open exploration. It was really collaboration.”

Beyond the comfort zone

Papola and his team approach livestock producers raising different species on diverse sized operations with varied management practices to participate in the film. Agriculture economists Jayson Lusk and livestock behavior expert Temple Grandin also contribute to the conversation along with Wayne Pacelle, CEO and president of the Humane Society of United States and Mark Bittman, former New York Times columnist.

Upon invitation, all participants were told the project was a personal exploration of the way animals are raised for food and the impact of consumers’ choices. He says, “We did not share any other details on the project because everyone brings their own particular experiences and baggage. If someone asked we never lied or we never misrepresented who was involved in the project.”

Lisa and I have a very personal stake in the movie. “It is our film. It is our tone of voice, our ideas and interpretation of things. I hope people in industry will give it a shot or nothing less see a different tone than Food Inc.”

Overall, Lusk says “in my opinion they went to lot of effort to talk to real live hog farmers, chicken producers and ranchers to get their perspective on why they are using the technology they do. And let them say it in their own words without over talking them or putting fancy graphics over them.”

While members of the agriculture community agreed to participate, it did not mean they completely see eye-to-eye with the film. Just like daily conversations over food, the movie was going to happen whether actual livestock producers participate or not.

So, four hog farmers from diverse operations – ranging from modern large-scale commercial production to hogs raised on pasture – bravely accepted the invitation to show how pigs are raised on their farm and discuss food animal production with a vegetarian while the cameras were rolling: Malcom DeKryger and Jon Hoek from Legacy Farms; David Struthers from Struthers Farm; Jude Becker from Becker Lane Organic and Will Harris from White Oak Pasture.

One obvious stop was visiting the pig farm operating under full visibility at Fair Oaks Farm Pig Adventure. Belstra Milling in concert with Belstra Group Farms is the largest family owned hog farm in northwest Indiana and its team also is the caretakers of the pigs on full display at Pig Adventure.

DeKryger, president of Belstra Milling and Legacy Farm, says “when we were offered the opportunity to build a pig farm (Legacy Farm) in affiliation with Fair Oaks Farms, we knew we had to be big enough that it is not a petting zoo, be willing to wrestle with the issues of the day and be willing to reach out to the world.”

Iowa pork producer David Struthers has raised hogs in dirt and huts to gestation stalls and co-confinement to now raising hogs more natural in hoop buildings and some on bedding. He says, “it was not wrong to participate. I am willing to be open and transparent.”

Struthers encourages pig farmers to follow the We Care principles and communicate. He says, “Hog producers need to continue best practices and maintain good communication with neighbors and media. The more people know about you the better decisions they can make about you, your character and what you do.”

Papola openly admits some producers who were approached did pass on the opportunity to participate in the film. He views the livestock producers who took on the challenge to go on camera as courageous. He says, “They had more to lose than to gain by participating in this movie, but made a decision to engage the public. I celebrate them as courageous people.”

Papola adds, “it is not going to get easier for agriculture if there is not a more open engagement with the public.”

DeKryger, Struthers and Lusk all agree that someone from the pork industry needs to speak out or face the alternative.

DeKryger says, “Someone had to do this. I thought if I said nothing then someone is going to have the opportunity to fill in the blanks and it is probably not going to be the way I see it.”

Struthers does not regret participating in the movie. From the first discussion with the film crew, he was a little leery how the footage would be used, but it did not discourage him from speaking up. He says, “I do not think I got burned by this movie but I got crisp around the edges.”

Takes a wrong turn

As Jayson Lusk, Oklahoma State University food and agriculture economist, points out if you take two people from the middle of New Your City or Chicago who knew nothing about production agriculture and gave them the task to make a documentary about animal welfare how did you expect it to turn out?

From the beginning Struthers and DeKryger knew it would not be a balanced look at food animal production. However, each participant did not feel the filmmakers tried to discredit them. In general, the small segment shown on each operation was shown fairly.

Papola says, “Everything in the movie is intentional including adding the sequence of Lisa and me arguing.”

Struthers explains the examination of the different production methods was a positive. However, the line of questions was trying to convince all producers to raise organic pigs. He says, “If it could play out where it is just showing true production methods and let people decide then I am ok with it. If they want to pay more for food than mine because your costs are higher then I have no problem with that.”

As DeKryger points out, the film never showed pigs being raised in the elements. The only really bad weather was walking into the Iowa Capitol to speak with Gov. Terry Branstad. For the organic hog operation of Jude Becker, it never showed the pigs bearing an Iowa snowstorm.

Struthers, the Iowa hog producer who raises hogs in hoop buildings, agrees that pigs were never shown enduring 20 degrees below and freezing rain. “I never start a group of young pigs in the hoop buildings from November to March. Pig farmers can keep hogs more comfortable in buildings with a controlled environment.”

Moreover, the film did not show enough large-scale operations, especially a finishing barn. DeKryger says the 90-minute film failed to demonstrate that the inconsistency that occurs from a health and labor standpoint on small operations. In larger operations, the pigs are always in buildings in regulated environment with enough labor to monitor animal health.

More importantly, the economics was not a large part of the conversation even though the film was looking at the different production methods. Lusk would like to see the economics brought into the discussion more. He says, “It helps explain why we see the sort of production we see and why we do not see many more pasture systems because of economics. It uses more resources and tends to make meat prices more expensive.”

Disappointing ending

The film is a tilted look at food animal production with a growing crescendo that leads to Papola eating a veggie burger and a challenge for viewers to eat less meat. It clearly takes a quick turn towards an opinion piece. In spite of this, there are parts of the film that will give agriculture items to ponder; the end was a huge letdown for animal agriculture.

Each individual appearing in the film did receive a private screening of the final movie. At that point the farmers, ranchers and other participants learned the tone of the film and the monetary backers. Struthers says he was told the project was self-funded, but as he viewed the film he soon learned the true financial supporters of the project – HSUS and Whole Foods. He says, “When it gets to the end about you can be involve in meatless Monday, then I realize it was just propaganda. It totally blew the documentary out of the water and made it a biased piece.”

DeKryger adds, “You can’t get HSUS or Whole Foods to put up the million dollars that it is going to take to put this out without it going beyond a documentary into a very steep opinion.”

Papola confirms he had financial support from Humane Society of United States and Whole Foods from the beginning. He says, “In working together with them, we said this is a very personal film. They were really just supportive of us as independent filmmakers telling the story we wanted to tell as best as we could.”

The film does not forget the “eat less meat” challenge. Papola claims this evolved after viewing groups screened the film along the way. It only offers a way to change if a viewer wants to.

Papola explains, “the movie is putting forward to people these are the standard practices that producers were willing to show us at different skills and different levels. What as a viewer is your comfort level with these things? You can make a choice for yourself as consumer.”

He adds, “I can’t have any control over how people interpret the film beyond what I made. I think there are practices that are very difficult for some people to see.”

The film does not push for regulation or legislative change. Lusk says, “Whatever motivation they have they are trying to promote it through the market system.”

One thing Papola, DeKryger and Struthers agree on is people are going to eat meat. Papola says, “most people are going to keep eating meat and to believe otherwise is to live in a fantasy world.”

Struthers and DeKryger do not think it will change the minds of the consumer. A few may choose to pay more for food raised in alternative settings, however most will not. It still comes down to taste and affording the food for the family, says Lusk.

As DeKryger eloquently says “we are feeding NASCAR Nation.” It is a good cross-section of the average consumer. NASCAR Nation is not paying $10 for a burger or looking for an emotional discussion about food. He says, “It comes down to who you want to target for your business model.”

“At the Fork” premieres July 8 in New York City and Los Angeles. Community screenings are scheduled for July 13 nationwide.

About the Author(s)

Cheryl Day

Former Editor, National Hog Farmer

Cheryl Day is a former editor of National Hog Farmer.

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