Hollywood's Love for Regenerative Ag

Looking for 'Common Ground,' New Documentary Criticizes Production Ag Practices

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown is featured on the movie posters for the documentary "Common Ground" as he contrasts the bare, eroded soils of his neighbors' fields to his own where he plants a variety of multi-species cover crops and uses windbreaks to protect the fields from erosion. (Image courtesy of Common Ground)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- At a reception Monday evening on Capitol Hill, a small group of actors, a farmer from Indiana and an upstart whiskey distiller were all championing a new documentary on farming, "Common Ground," and their drive to promote regenerative farming practices on 100 million acres by the end of the decade.

"Common Ground" is a sequel to the movie "Kiss the Ground," a 2020 movie that started down the path of similar themes of challenging current agricultural practices. "Common Ground" was spotlighted in June at the Tribeca Film Festival, which recognized the film with its 2023 Human/Nature Award. The documentary is now getting limited showings at events around the country and will start to hit more movie screens in the week of Oct. 6.

The overall theme of the movie is that soil might help save the planet from climate change, but we have to save soils first.

The producers and a Los Angeles-based group created with ties to the movie's producers, Regenerate America, want several small pieces of conservation and local-foods legislation added to the next farm bill with a goal of having "100 million more acres under regeneration by 2030." They also want to protect the $19.5 billion USDA received for conservation funding in the Inflation Reduction Act tied to programs that sequester carbon in the soil or reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farms.

"We're trying to impact the farm bill, so that means now," said actress Rosario Dawson, one of the producers and one of the narrators in the documentary.

The film levels several criticisms of the farm bill as well. One point highlights the influence of lobbyists for agrochemical giants "who wield unprecedented influence over the policies that guide our food system." The film also contrasts subsidies to commodity farmers versus the foods championed in dietary guidelines.

"Our nation right now in your name, your federal government is subsidizing the foods that another part of your federal government is telling you to eat very little or none of," one of the nutrition experts said in the film.

The film includes a focus on North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown's farm and the contrast between his regenerative practices and soil erosion on one of his neighbor's farms. In one scene, Brown stands on a bare, brown field where both wind and rain erosion have taken their toll.

"They had tilled their field, then they had planted soybeans. Then we had 50-mile-an-hour winds for three days because they had nothing growing there except the soybeans," Brown said. "The wind caused that soil -- because it was powder-fine due to the tillage -- it blew away. There's literally 18 inches of topsoil, blown off the field onto my land onto my fence row. Plus, we're only seeing a small fraction -- most of it went up into the air and was carried who knows for how many miles. Unfortunately, you see the same type of agriculture not only in the U.S., but worldwide. Tillage, monocultures, high use of synthetics (fertilizer), not sequestering carbon, degrading the soil. That's common."

The film notes Brown became famous for his regenerative practice on his own operation. At their event Monday, organizers also handed out copies of Brown's book, "Dirt to Soil: One Family's Journey into Regenerative Agriculture."

"Common Ground" delves into criticisms of modern fertilizer and chemical inputs for producers, as well as historical discrimination against minority farmers. The film maintains that farmers would save on average $484 an acre by using regenerative practices and ending their use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The University of Illinois listed fertilizer and chemical input costs at an average of $350 an acre this year. The film did not examine how a dramatic change in farm practices would affect yield or overall crop production nationally.

Talking about how one of the livestock producers in the film said he could see changes in the way his cattle graze by putting them on more diverse pastures, Dawson related that back to challenges with human nutrition.

"When we talk about empty calories, that's exactly what we're talking about -- that we are eating food that is grown in soil, that is microbiome deficit, that has a deficit," Dawson said. "And so, the nutrients are not there. You're needing to consume more in order for your body to get the nutrients that it needs. And so that's the thing that triggers obesity rates and diabetes, and all of these things cascade from that one thing, but when you have nutrient-dense foods, you can rest, and I think that's something a lot of people like.

Along with Brown, several other farmers and livestock producers are highlighted in the documentary, including Rick Clark, a farmer from Williamsport, Indiana; Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm in Petersburgh, New York; Roy Thompson, owner of Triple T Ranch near Akaska, South Dakota; as well as the Ioway Tribe near White Cloud, Kansas. Another rancher in the film is Glenn Elzinga of Alderspring Ranch near May, Idaho.

The movie introduces Clark talking about his decision to stop tilling his soil and the purchase of his roller crimper for cover crops.

"This is our roller crimper. This is what I call my baby. A roller crimper is like a steamroller. It smashes the cover crop down. The dead cover crop protects against weeds and becomes food for the microbes. That's our mat to suppress weeds so we no longer need to spray Roundup," Clark said.

In the movie, Clark explains how he's improved his soil health, including water infiltration and organic matter, as well as how he's drawing more of his phosphorus and potassium directly from the soil. He also talks about his savings on input costs. "We've eliminated seed treatments, we've eliminated insecticides, we've eliminated pesticides, herbicides," Clark said. "We're saving upwards of $400 an acre on input costs. It works out to be about $2 million a year in sales. That is serious cash."

Clark had testified at a House hearing a year ago on regenerative agriculture, the first hearing the committee has ever held on that subject. The film highlights that point and includes interviews with other soil and Native American activists who participated in that hearing.

The movie comes out as USDA is incentivizing more farmers to plant cover crops and adapt more climate-smart farming practices. There are 141 climate-smart pilot projects meant to reach as many as 60,000 farmers and livestock producers as well as 25 million acres. DTN is involved in one of the largest such projects called Farmers for Soil Health. That project includes the National Corn Growers, United Soybean Board, National Pork Board, National Center for Appropriate Technology, National Association of Conservation Districts, Soil Health Institute, University of Missouri, Sustainability Consortium, and The Walton Family Foundation. The project is led by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation.

The Des Moines Register last week also reported on research showing Iowa is losing an average of 12 million tons per year of soil organic carbon, according to retired USDA soil scientist Jerry Hatfield, who is leading the research. While wind and soil erosion are key factors in that erosion, Hatfield said tillage and a constant rotation of corn and soybeans also contribute to the loss of soil organic carbon. That loss of soil organic carbon leaves farmers to rely more heavily on fertilizers and chemicals as a result, the Register reported. Hatfield's work is meant to help quantify the gains that can be made in soil carbon from climate-smart farming practices.

"We've made our soils dependent upon external inputs," Hatfield told the Register. "And when we make them dependent on external inputs, we have increased risk of things leaking out of the system because the soil doesn't have the capacity to hold onto them."

"Common Ground" also spotlights what its filmmakers see as undue influence of agrochemical and fertilizer companies on USDA and the department's role in supporting agriculture. The film highlights lobbying efforts and the amount of money spent in Washington, D.C., to maintain the status quo.

After the film's showing near the Capitol on Monday night, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa., spoke early Tuesday morning about the farm bill at an event hosted by the media outlet Axios. That event was sponsored by the fertilizer company Mosaic.

For more on the film "Common Ground," visit https://commongroundfilm.org/….

Also see "Trying to Craft a Farm Bill, IRA Climate-Smart Dollars Are Object of GOP Affection" here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @ChrisClaytonDTN

Chris Clayton