Forging Local Connections with Andrew Grace
Andrew Beck Grace is an independent documentary filmmaker born and raised in north Alabama. His films have aired on PBS and at film festivals across the country. At the University of Alabama he teaches and oversees a unique interdisciplinary social justice documentary program called Documenting Justice, and was recently named by The Oxford American one of the “Most Creative Teachers in the South.” He's a past fellow of the CPB/PBS Producers Academy at WGBH and he's also a writer whose nonfiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Farming is a difficult lifestyle on many levels and eating locally is easier said than done. Grace describes the challenges faced by farmers in Alabama and explains ways that we can work towards local eating habits despite the many barriers.
Douglas Gayeton: When making your film, Eating Alabama, did you find that one can one eat locally?
Andrew Grace: Yes. Certainly we all could eat locally if we had enough money and desire to drive around the state. That's something that I didn't fully understand when we started the project. My assumption was that there would be farmers everywhere throughout the state. I thought this film would be a wonderful way to explore the state and to encourage people to eat locally.
When I got into the state and started meeting these farmers, I realized that their lives are under extreme pressure from a variety of different fronts and that there are very few of them left. So the story turned into a story about what happened to the farming economy and how we got to this place where we could not all choose to eat locally and feed ourselves.
Douglas Gayeton: What are some of the challenges that farmers face?
Andrew Grace: I can describe two different kinds of farmers that I encountered. On the one hand there are the farmers who are growing all that food I see when I drive through rural Alabama. Those are the farmers that are in big contracts with corporations and that farm GMOs and row crops. They are really working in a system where profits decrease as the technology increases.
The corporate control of the systems, pesticides, equipment prices and the expansion of land are elements that make it very difficult for these farmers to make a living. Even in the life span of some of these farmers that I interviewed, they’ve seen a significant change in the past forty years. Changes in the amount of land they have to farm, the profit margins, and how many employees they need. All of these things force more and more people off the land.
Then the small-scale farmers who are trying to farm sustainably and organically face another set of stress. I think in a lot of ways they’re in a better position, but they still face problems of access to land. It’s very expensive to lease land to farm on, and find access to labor.
Douglas Gayeton: What do you see happening in Alabama to rebuild distribution mechanisms in order to reintroduce food locally?
Andrew Grace: Frankly there's not enough being done to rebuild local distribution mechanisms. In a lot of ways they have to be reconceived from the ground up, because the systems that we have in place to get food from a field to the grocery store don't take into account local sources.
The solutions seem to be happening most often in Alabama’s farmers’ market as a kind of direct to consumer market opportunity.
There are other ways for direct to consumer marketing. There's a guy in Georgia who started an online farmers market. During the week the farmers say what they have in their field and then customers sign up for what they need. The farmer only harvests exactly what that consumer wants, takes it to a drop off spot, and the consumer comes and picks it up. That seems to be a really radical and unique way to combine the kind of direct to consumer thing at the farmers market, with online purchasing, which a lot of consumers love.
I hope that the more connectivity we have as a culture the more we'll be able to subvert some of the systems that are in place and go technologically forward to get back to a more sustainable, local economy.