Ball State's "Down to Earth" documentary examines the world of sustainable farming

Topic: Sustainability/Environment

January 21, 2014

Joel Salatin
Included in the film are dozens of interviews the students conducted with prominent players in the national sustainability movement, including Joel Saltain, whose Polyface Farms was featured in both Michael Pollen's best-selling book "Omnivore's Dilemma" and the 2008 documentary "Food Inc."

Small-farm issues in a big-farm world are the central theme of a new documentary created by Ball State University students focused on promoting a more sustainable and locally based food system for our country.

Fourteen students spent the fall creating "Down to Earth" as part of a semester-long immersive learning experience at the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry. The 35-minute film spotlights east central Indiana farmer Kyle Becker and his passion to implement sustainable farming methods to help heal his land in Mooreland, Ind., while providing healthy food to people throughout the region. Included in the film are dozens of interviews the students conducted with prominent players in the national sustainability movement, including Will Allen, CEO of Growing Power, Juli Obudzinski of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and Joel Saltain, whose Polyface Farms was featured in both Michael Pollen's best-selling book "Omnivore's Dilemma" and the 2008 documentary "Food Inc."

Making a difference with small changes

The project was led by Andrea Wolfe, assistant professor of English, who said the idea for the course stemmed from her own interest in making changes to her diet and learning about the condition of the national food system. "I think when people see the film, they'll understand small changes can make a big difference," she said. "Buying a pound of ground beef from a local farmer or visiting a farmer's market is something everyone can take part in."

The nature of a Virginia Ball Center seminar allows an interdisciplinary team of students to dedicate an entire semester to the project. For the "Down to Earth" group, this meant conducting extensive research, visiting local farms as well as the nation's capital, shooting hundreds of hours of footage, building a companion website with healthy recipes and related information and creating a curriculum to teach local children about sustainable agriculture.

"I think our film has a great message for the community," said telecommunications major Garret Brubaker. "It's important to know where your food comes from and to appreciate the work these farmers put in to make sure there are healthier options available locally."

Experiencing life 'on the county roads'

The farmers who participated in "Down to Earth" speak extensively about the challenges faced by the more than 350,000 U.S. small-scale farms in operation today. These farms exist to support the local economy with meat and produce, as opposed to industrial agriculture and its focus on commodity-based crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat.

Becker, who is a full-time veterinarian in addition to owning Becker Farms, said he was more than willing to expose the students to life "on the county roads."

"There are so many misconceptions about agriculture in this country," he explained. "The information people get is usually slanted politically. I told the students I wanted to show them the good and bad of this enterprise so they could make a film allowing people to better understand the work that goes into what we do. I think they've done a wonderful job with it."

Delivering a message of hope

While "Down to Earth" deals extensively with the hardships of small-scale farmers who are trying to make a living while up against federal regulations that favor industrial-style farms, the students say the overall message of the film is one of hope.

"Traveling the country and interviewing people like Joel Salatin and Sarah Hackney and Juli Obudzinski and Senator Joe Donnelly was incredible," said journalism major Sara Dreibelbis. "Seeing how hopeful they were about the future of sustainable farming made me want to work that much harder to ensure the success of our project because I knew I wasn't only promoting my own dreams but the dreams of everyone we collaborated with on this project."

Wolfe said the students are submitting "Down to Earth" for consideration in the Midwest regional Emmy competition as well as to film festivals across the country. The documentary is available for viewing at http://www.downtoearthfarming.org/film.html.

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