American Meat

Throwing conventions aside and bringing the farmer back to the table

Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms
Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms

Tales of regret and debt are commonplace in the world of factory farming. In the land of Tyson, Perdue, and Pilgrim’s Pride, conventional farmers are often lured into a so-called deal with the devil in an attempt to keep their family farms afloat.

Hosted at the University of Texas as part of a nation-wide, 10-state Young Farmer Screening Series, American Meat, directed by Graham Meriwether, aims to dispel the notion of individual farmers as either “good” or “evil.” Instead, the documentary takes an even-handed approach, characterizing all farms as “family farms” struggling to achieve economic stability while preserving their autonomy. In an effort to secure a steady stream of revenue, farmers sign contracts with large integrators. Under the pretense of forthcoming profit and a ready market, farmers take out massive loans in order to develop an infrastructure which adheres to standards imposed by their corporate dictator. In this scenario, agribusinesses become the providers/owners of the livestock, while farmers, having assumed the risk of their investment, operate as a cog in the wheel of the large-scale industrialized food complex. Many of these farmers struggle to keep up with the rising cost of new technologies, and as a result, face mounting pressure to take out additional loans.

Set for a theatrical release in April 2013, the solutions-based film explores the complexities of meat production in the United States. American Meat documents both conventional and organic farming methods. Not for the faint of heart, the film not only depicts the conditions in concentrated animal feeding operations, the dreaded CAFOs, but also the ritual of slaughter. Reminding us how far removed Americans are from the farming, production, and slaughtering of the animals they eat, the film operates with transparency in reconnecting producer to consumer and ultimately, eater.

The film also highlights Joel Salatin’s method of grass-based farming, elucidating the benefits and efficiencies of a sustainable production system. Filmed at Polyface Farms periodically over the course of 3 years, Salatin’s model utilizes a paddock system, which involves rotating livestock from one paddock to another to prevent overgrazing, while enhancing the biodiversity of the soil. Polyface Farms serves as a replicable archetype of a system that is economically profitable, energy efficient, and environmentally sound, and unlike its conventional counterparts, a contributor to the overall health of our ecosystem.

The screening concluded with a panel comprised of director Graham Meriwether, Erin Flynn and Skip Connett of Green Gate Farms and the New Farm Institute, Jim Richardson of Richardson Farms, and the Food Lab’s Robyn Metcalfe. Panelists discussed barriers to entering farming such as land and equipment costs, as well as the challenges of operating small family farms. Ultimately, the evening paid tribute to America’s farmers, underscoring the conversations and innovations needed to reshape our food system.

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