Eating Alabama—A New Food Film
24 Mar, 2012
It seems like every month someone launches a new eating experiment. Whether it’s eating only food grown within 100 miles for a year, growing an entire family’s food supply on an acre in Appalachia, or raising corn in the Midwest, the modern food movement has been shaped around many such specific, time-bound efforts.
The new film Eating Alabama starts out along similar lines, as filmmaker Andrew Beck Grace and his wife Rashmi return to their home state of Alabama to film a yearlong attempt to eat locally and seasonally. In the process, Andrew sifts through family photos of farms long buried under suburbia, and travels the state interviewing the farmers scraping by in present day Alabama. The result is a film that artfully combines one family’s story with an in-depth look at a group of small farmers committed to rebuilding the local food system in the South.
In addition to “plantation crops” like cotton and peanuts, Alabama is a major meat producer. The state has the third-largest broiler (chicken) industry in the nation, with over 1 billion birds and 2 billion eggs sold annually and livestock and poultry combined accounting for four-fifths of the commodities sold in the state. Many of the small farmers shown in the film are diversifying, and moving away from this model — raising livestock with alternative methods, but also growing greens and cultivating orchards.
We caught up with Grace to discuss the film, the story it sheds light on, and the way Alabama fits into the larger picture of today’s agriculture.
Q. How long did you spend filming Eating Alabama?
A. We started April 1, 2008 with the intention to film this story about a year of local eating. The problem was that about halfway through the year I realized that the story was a lot more complicated than just young folks looking for local food. The interesting story was all these related issues about how much we’ve changed, how far away from the land we’ve gotten, and how little we actually know about where the food comes from.
Q. Over the past four years, many areas have seen a rise in community-supported agriculture programs and farmers markets. Were you seeing any of those changes while you were filming?
A. We’re seeing that local food economies are starting to happen and make sense for larger cities. But it’s ironic because the rural areas that used to produce so much food are now the slowest to adopt these local food pursuits. I think a lot of it has to do with money and a lot of it has to do with people wanting to get off the land. Having had conversations with rural folks, I found that if you grew up on a farm then your ambition is to go off and make money, not to come back to the farm.
A lot of the growth in farming and sustainable growers around the country comes from college-educated people who have been off the land for a couple of generations and want to come back to the place, to try to start something completely different from the world they grew up in.
Q. What has triggered this wave of college graduates returning to the land?
A. We have this significant disconnect from actual process, from making things and having tactile interactions with the stuff of our lives. So I think that partly it’s people looking to find a more meaningful life through hard work.
Q. You’ve described yourself as a “Southerner with reservations” and in the movie you struggle against a nostalgic vision of Alabama’s history. How do you see Alabama and the South fitting into the larger agricultural context of the U.S.?
A. The form of agriculture that existed in the South for most of our history has been one of exploitation — exploitation of the land and exploitation of the people. That’s nothing to glorify, that’s nothing to long for or to want to go back to. As a filmmaker I had to reconcile the parts of an agrarian life that I do think were meaningful and valuable with the realities of the way that system and economy worked.
I see in the work [Alabama small farmers] are doing now a real harmony between the land and the people who work it, one that has really never existed in Alabama agriculture until recently. And I really am hopeful that … a more equitable situation for farmers will be the end result of a growing movement towards local food economies.