HERE IN SYDNEY at the Randwick Sustainability Hub we showed the Doherty’s Polyfaces, the movie, to wind up our International Permaculture Day 2016 celebration.

The Doherty’s are an innovative Australian farming family from Victoria, Australia’s southernmost mainland state. They are instrumental in the regenerative agriculture movement and in recent times have been offering farm education, planning and design services in the US.

The Hub, where Polyfaces was shown, is the community resilience educational overlay of the Randwick Community Centre. It is a local government initiative and the day’s events were the council’s participation in International Permaculture Day through its sustainability unit and its sustainability educator, Fiona Campbell.

A show of hands before the film as Fiona was introducing it disclosed that a small number of people had been to one of Joel Salatin’s appearances in Australia. Many in the audience were aware of the issues around food and some were home or community garden food growers.

Video hiring costs becoming a barrier

This was the first and only showing of Polyfaces in Sydney at the time. It was something one of the leaders of a Sydney permaculture association, who had travelled from the more distant suburbs to see it, privately suggested was due to the licencing fee asked for a single screening. That put it out of the financial reach of community organisations, he suggested. On learning the cost of a single-showing he had second thoughts about hiring it to show in his part of the city. Maybe he would buy the DVD and view it with a bunch of friends at home.

Later, Transition Bondi found the money to buy the single-showing licence. A conversation at the time with someone from a community association that hires and shows videos around farming, food and environmental issues revealed that the cost of buying a single-screening licence is becoming something of a barrier for the community organisations that engage with the issues raised by those videos.

An interesting dilemma, perhaps.

Salatin a controversial figure

Joel Salatin’s story inspires people around the world. His fresh approach to farm production demonstrates that regenerative agriculture can be financially rewarding.

Like any new approach that claims to be able to do it better, its mere existence is a criticism of existing methods. This is what makes Salatin a controversial farming figure.

Salatin is a charismatic figure. I have attended a couple of his public presentations where his ability to deliver serious messages about farming and farmland management have held the close attention of big city audiences in which many attending probably never have set foot on a farm. He presents a down-to-earth self-image, offers clear explanations and adds a touch of humour, a blend that keeps peoples’ attention.

Part of his appeal to those working for a better food future is his reputation for developing his own farm in the eastern United States as a workable solution to some of the food and farming challenges small scale farmers face. It is this that is promoted by his Australian hosts and that has influenced small scale Australian family farmers.

At the talks I attended, Salatin described himself as a Christian libertarian, however the libertarianism he follows seems to the the US variety rather than the community-focused or municipal libertrianism that is also popular. This was discovered by a leading Australian fair food advocate who took him to task at a conference for his reportedly poor attitudes on social issues and advertising products like tobacco. We should think carefully about those we position as our heroes, the advocate said.

None of this personal attitude comes across in the film and it is something of a side issue to Salatin’s exemplary role in developing a better farming system.

Well received, with questions

A couple people who spoke with me after watching Polyfaces said they would have liked more details in the film. The food Joel Salatin feeds his chooks, for example – was it grown on the farm, bought in, and what was it?

Other comments were that Polyfaces was an introduction to the Salatin’s farm, or, contradictorily, that it was a film for people who already had some knowledge of his approach to farming.

The narrative in the film reports that the Polyface open day shown was to be the last, the last-ever is how it came across, or was it the last for the year? There was no explanation to situate this in the priorities of the farm’s operations.

Small group discussions after the film were the opportunity for people to have a conversation about ideas raised in it. Some noted that it showed what seemed to be a lot of killing of farm animals. This resonated with comments made when I spoke at the Sydney University showing of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance’s film, Fair Food.

Although the comments made at the Polyfaces showing did not come from people from the animals lobby (those at the Sydney University showing did; they came from known vegans) they indicated that how animals are kept on farms and how they are treated is important to people, including those that eat them. That in itself indicates something of a division within the fair food movement between an omnivore and a vegetarian/vegan school of thought.

Another comment was that Polyfaces showed a lot about the Salatin family. This is understandable as Joel’s is a family farm and is the focus of the video.

One woman, who already has or is to start a farm on the NSW south coast, said she found it an inspiring film. That is what people have said about Joel Salatin’s Australian appearances, however Joel is a bit of a showman and this might play a significant part in the positive reception of his messages.

Overall reaction to the film was positive. I thought it good that towards the end of Polyfaces Darren Dougherty relates the issues raised by the film to what eaters can do, which is to use their spending power to buy food that is produced in a sustainable manner. This is probably the most effective strategy for urban people interested in supporting small scale family farmers and the hybrid-CSAs (community supported agriculture schemes which aggregate the production of multiple farmers and distribute it to urban subscribers) found in Australian cities and some regional towns provide the links between regional farmers and urban eaters.

I found Polyfaces a professionally produced film with good image composition.

Postscript — March 2017…

First and last showings

So far, the showing of Polyfaces at the Randwick Sustainability Hub and at Transition Bondi have been the only showings in Sydney. This could have something to do with the cost of licencing a single showing, mentioned above.

This stands in contrast to many of the food-related documentaries that did the rounds a few years ago as the fair food movement was getting underway in this country. Some of those highlighted the work of a younger generation experimenting with the farming life, usually as market gardeners. The videos were valuable for city audiences as they made farming look cool and built the impetus for using consumer dollars as de facto votes to support these new farmers. Some of those videos did the rounds of community organisations, resulting in their being shown multiple times.

In February 2017, advocacy organisation, the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, brought Joe Salatin to Australia as main attraction for a workshop to raise funds for their farmer legal defence fund. The event was hosted on a family pig farm in the inland south east. The aim of the fund is to enable small farmers to challenge and defend themselves against restrictive and unfair legislation and government regulation. According to social media reports, the event seems to have been successful, attesting to Salatin’s persistent pulling power in this country.

His Australian appearances over recent years, popular they might be, has been accompanied by a question seldom publicly, but more often privately, voiced: why do Salatin’s Australian promoters not highlight the work of innovative Australian farmers, of which there are a number?