How Common Ground Is Bringing Regenerative Farming To The Masses

Food & Drink

Common Ground is a new documentary film on the regenerative farming movement. The star-studded feature is narrated by a gravel-throated Jason Momoa, and features Laura Dern, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Farmers Leah Penniman and Gabe Brown, Senator Cory Booker and more.

Common Ground is a compelling story of this diverse group of farmers and advocates who are working on creating a new food system. Their goal is to produce nutritionally dense foods while balancing the climate and human health,and bringing ecosystems back to life. Directors/Writers/Producers Rebecca and Josh Tickell are a filmmaking couple who have focused on environmental films tackling big problems, including “Fuel”, “The Big Fix”, “Pump”, and “Kiss the Ground” (Netflix
NFLX
/ Woody Harrelson). Kiss the Ground won over 75 major film festival awards, was seen by over 100 million viewers and may have inspired the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to put $20 billion toward soil health.

While “Kiss The Ground” was a rose-hued, optimistic take, the new sequel tackles harder issues, including agrochemicals, political corruption and food justice. The film is the most comprehensive feature to date on the subject and is hoping to stir up a movement around regenerating the food system. While Common Ground touches too lightly on the role of food and farm workers in food systems change, and leans too heavily on its star power, it is a brisk, accessible and worthwhile watch.

We spoke to Rebecca and Josh Tickell about what inspired and influenced their new film.

Errol Schweizer: What got you interested in this topic? At least a decade of your lives have been spent on making films about the food system.

Rebecca Tickell: All of the films that we’ve made led us to making films about soil, because we realized even if we took all of the emissions that we have today and we stopped, it still wasn’t going to be enough to get that the carbon that we’ve emitted into the atmosphere out of the atmosphere and into the ground where it belongs. And so when we came across this idea of regenerative agriculture, which takes the carbon that’s in the air and draws it down through bio-sequestration, which is basically a fancy word for plants breathing in that carbon and then putting it down into their roots. And through that, we could stabilize the climate, we could help farmers make a profit, we can create nutrient dense food, and we could stop wars and fighting over resources. We knew that we had to take our storytelling techniques and do everything that we could to get this message out into the mainstream so that people can take action immediately.

I come from a legacy farming family from the Midwest that farmed conventionally and really paid the price in terms of their health. And I think many farmers are starting to realize, well, maybe we don’t all agree on the climate, but we can all talk about the weather and that’s affecting how we’re growing food.

ES: What were some of the motivations around talking to a wider, more diverse array of farmers?

Josh Tickell: We in the United States have less black farmers today than we did 50 years ago. The number of indigenous farmers is trivial when you consider indigenous lands in the United States comprises 55 million acres. That’s the largest single landholding in the country, right? We Europeans were the ones that killed the buffalo and essentially decimated the food supply of the indigenous population of this continent. So I think there has to be not just a recognition, but a reckoning that if we’re going to have a safe and just food supply, this has to also be an inclusive food supply. It’s got to be diverse,

Indigenous people were doing low, slow burns for 10,000 years. Part of that knowledge is still encoded in their language, in their culture, in their traditions. That’s really valuable as we enter a time of hotter and hotter climatic conditions. George Washington Carver basically pioneered regenerative row crop agriculture, because that’s the knowledge that black farmers used to survive for hundreds of years in this country.

ES: I noticed the film was a little punchier and really spoke to my own interests and motivations coming out of the organic and regenerative food industry. It is a very direct critique of chemical intensive agriculture. What got you going to actually do that?

Rebecca: With Kiss the Ground, our previous film, we were really gentle around it. We really just focused on solutions. But with Common Ground, we really wanted to show this sort of dark and light. We didn’t want to just focus on the solution. We wanted to give that solution a sense of urgency by showing what’s holding us back from really taking action around this. And you can’t talk about what’s holding us back without talking about chemical companies. And I want to be really clear we are not critical of farmers. This film is very friendly to farmers. Farmers are the heroes and a lot of farmers take it personally when we call out the destructive nature of chemical agriculture. But the fact is it’s the farmers who are paying the highest price. And when we back the curtain and we look at what is actually keeping us locked into this broken system, we have to follow how that money has influenced our policies, how that money has influenced the science and the education at land grant universities that these farmers go to. And the giant myth that in order to feed the world, you have to farm in this very extractive and linear fashion that is destructive on every single level.

We realized the playbook of how these chemical companies are getting away with it. They’re saying one thing to the public, but then on their internal documents, they’re telling people, be safe, cover up, wear protective gear. Then meanwhile, they’re planning into their business model how much more chemicals they have to continue to sell so that they can make a profit on those chemicals while paying out people who are getting sick and dying from using them. So it’s really a much more balanced film in terms of showing what’s holding us back. And I think an even more motivating film, because it shows how we can change the way that the system is going and have it work in our favor. And each one of us has a role that we can play in that.

Josh: And I just want to add one thing, which is, the simple question is this. Does it make sense to subsidize a system that feeds us poison and poisons farmers and kills the soil and destroys the climate? Or would it make sense to put that money toward a system that produces just as much food but it makes healthy food. It doesn’t poison farmers and it balances the climate. What do we want? Do we want poisonous food and climate chaos, or do we want healthy food and a balanced climate? The choice is that simple. And I think the reason why we go into the mechanisms of chemical agriculture and chemical foods in Common Ground is because the planet is boiling, your children are sick. Nine out of ten Americans are metabolically unhealthy. Let’s get real. We are literally paying for a system that is making us sick with our tax dollars. That is stupid. And we need to stop it. And we need to switch to regenerative agriculture. It’s just that clear. You ask, what was the motivation to go deeper in Common Ground? Frustration. Everyone’s frustrated. Frustrated with the lack of movement around the issues that are endemic in our country. Broken economy. Broken health system. Broken food system. The solution is so elegant, it’s so easy to fix the soil, fix farming practices, and everything else flows.

ES: Any closing thoughts that you’d like to share?

Rebecca: Whether we live in a city, whether we have a backyard, we can all be farmers, each one of us. Whether you’re planting a window box or you’re putting food in between the sidewalk and the street and that little stretch of grass, we can create urban gardens, food forests in our cities. And this really is an opportunity for each one of us to participate in the regenerative food movement. And I encourage everyone to get their hands dirty.

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