By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff
Instead of subjects, they are called “protagonists,” and they are featured in a new documentary film project as a group of local young farmers who are changing the world of food production, one growing season at a time.
The documentary, entitled “How We Grow,” is in the post-production phase, according to co-director Tom Zuccareno, and has been submitted to the prestigious Sundance Film Festival even as Zuccareno and his partner in film, co-editor Haley Thompson, were busy raising money at an event at the Batch tasting room on Main Street in Carbondale on Sept. 6.
Zuccareno, 49, who lives in the Missouri Heights area north of Carbondale, grew up on a small family farm in New Hampshire, while Thompson, in her mid-30s, is the daughter of architect Michael Thompson, who has gained some fame in farming circles for building “climate-battery greenhouses,” which Zuccareno described as “a way of maintaining a more steady temperature and humidity inside a greenhouse, greatly extending our season here in Colorado.”
Zuccareno explained to The Sopris Sun that the documentary “is a story of how this community, the Roaring Fork Valley, has built systems that support young people making the decision to become farmers,” despite the well documented obstacles facing anyone who wants to farm in a high-altitude, resort-oriented region where land values generally have outstripped the financial wherewithal of the agriculture industry.
Aside from the financially shaky status of farming and ranching, Zuccareno said, there is the fact that “the average age of a farmer is 58 in this country. Many of those farmers’ children are not following in their parents’ footsteps, because “big agriculture” is really tough on the family groups, their health, finances etc. People who own 4,000 acres of soybeans are not convincing their children to get into it.”
And as the young get out of farming, and the industry becomes more mechanized and heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other influences that some say are ruining the food we eat, the prospects can look bleak for our nation’s food supply, according to Zuccareno and others.
But, he said, the stories of the “protagonists” in the documentary have given him hope that the current trends can be reversed.
“We, as a culture, are really disconnected from where our food comes from,” Zuccareno declared, noting that this realization was a big part of the making of the movie.
“When we understand that our food comes from healthy soil, clean air and clean water, we can’t deny how important a healthy planet is,” he continued, predicting that it is precisely these kinds of concepts that can lead to reform and improvement of the agriculture industry.
In the meantime, he said, a group of local farmers already have begun taking steps to revolutionize agriculture.
An April 23 article in the Aspen Sojourner magazine listed a dozen or so small farms whose work is mentioned or described in the documentary — Two Roots Farm, Wild Mountain Seeds, Erin’s Acres, Roaring Gardens at TCI Lane, The Heritage Fruit Tree Project, Merrill’s Family Farm, Aspen T.R.E.E., Sustainable Settings, ACES at Rock Bottom Ranch, Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, Eco Systems Design, and Roaring Fork Farmers and Ranchers.
Zuccareno, however, focused on just three in an interview with The Sun:
• Two Roots Farm, run by Harper Kaufman and Christian LeBar, on Missouri Heights;
• Wild Mountain Seeds, operated by Casey Piscura and Kirsten Keenan on the Sewell ranch just south of Carbondale;
• and Erin’s Acres, run by Erin Cuseo and Jimmy Dula on a midvalley parcel of land owned by Pitkin County Open Space & Trails.
“How come they’re winning here?” asked Zuccareno rhetorically. “Farmers all over the country are losing money, and six farmers and three farms that we picked are crushing it,” meaning they are turning a profit, regardless of how small it is, against high odds.
For instance, in a recent story about Wild Mountain Seeds, Piscura told The Sopris Sun that the farm is in its fourth season of profitability.
While the profits are slim compared to the amount of work that goes into the operation, “Profitability to me is a sign of your value to the community,” Piscura said. “We can still do what a nonprofit does, we’re just not asking for donations.”
One reason for the success of local small farms, Zuccareno said, is that local governments have taken steps to make it easier for young farmers to stay on the land, as highlighted by the fact that Pitkin County leases some of its open spaces to small farming operations.
Plus, a financing organization known as the 2Forks Club, which operates both in the North Fork Valley and the Roaring Fork Valley, makes interest-free loans to operators who meet the 2Forks conditions, and is working on putting together a co-op funding plan to help small farmers lease farm equipment that they otherwise would not be able to afford.
“It’s not free money,” stressed Zuccareno, “you have to pay it back,” and the repaid amount goes back into a revolving fund to be loaned out to other farmers.
In addition, he said local restaurants are shifting over to use of locally produced farm products to make their meals, such as town restaurant in Carbondale, which Zuccareno said “plans their menus according to what local farms have available.
And there have been efforts by legislators to craft laws in support of local farming, he said, specifically mentioning former Colorado State Sen. Gail Schwartz and current State Rep. Diane Mitch Bush (both Democrats). Mitch Bush, incidentally, has announced she is running for the Colorado Dist. 3 Congressional seat currently held by Rep. Scott Tipton in the 2018 midterm election.
As the Sopris Sun went to press the evening of Sept 6, Zuccareno informed a reporter that his team had achieved their Kickstarter goal of $20,000 to cover the post-production costs of making the film, a day in advance of the deadline set for midnight between Sept. 7 and 8.
Now that the first goal has been met, Zuccareno said, “We will continue to raise money for marketing and distribution, so we can get this in front of audiences all over the world.”
He said the total budget of the documentary, including everything from shooting the film to post production, marketing and distribution costs, is estimated at about $280,000.
Prior to the Kickstarter campaign, he said the team had raised $50,000, and reaching the Kickstarter target brings that to $70,000, leaving a lot yet to be raised as Zuccareno and Thompson reach for their ultimate goal — getting the documentary into film festivals around the country and, ultimately, into educational programs where the film can inspire more young people to take a chance on farming as a way of life in the 21st Century.
“You don’t make a million bucks selling a nonfiction documentary,” Zuzzareno said with some chagrin, “you make $20,000 or $30,000,” selling it to cable channels or other outlets once it has made the rounds of the film festivals.
But money is not the object, he said: “I work in a space that tries to move the needle” and improve the world for the future in big or little ways.