A new documentary series called “Carbon Cowboys” is the kind of filmmaking that those in agriculture will probably approach with some hesitancy — but that’s largely because of the marketing of the film rather than the reality of the efforts of the farmers who are featured. Filmmaker Peter Byck promotes his 10 short films as featuring farmers who turned away from “industrial farming” (a non-specific and derogatory term that runs aggravatingly close to “factory farming”) and farmers who have chosen “to work with nature instead of against it” (suggesting that most modern agriculturalists are anti-environment). It’s a lot to unpack in an era where we are handed food and farming documentaries on a regular basis, and few of those have the perspective to be innovative, open, and insightful about what is being done in today’s agricultural sectors.
But, again, that’s the marketing, and that’s what “sells” to the public. The “Carbon Cowboys” farmers themselves are largely implementing a cattle-and-crop system that, in their own words, uses rotational grazing and other regenerative strategies, such as no-till, on the land. They’re striving to be innovative and are discovering what works best on their lands and for their situations — a characteristic that is a cornerstone of modern agriculture. We applaud innovation and stepping outside one’s comfort zone; few in agriculture think otherwise.
Yet in a news release, Byck and his “Carbon Cowboys” are said to take a look at farmers who are at the forefront of a new era of agriculture. Made in collaboration with Arizona State University (where Byck is a professor) and The World Bank, the series of 10 short films range from 8 to 23 minutes and were shot over the span of six years. They follow the journeys of farmers in the U.S., Canada and the UK, many of whom faced bankruptcy and the threat of losing their homes.
The short films can all be found online for free here. Here is trailer for the series:
“Rearing cattle has long been vilified as an environmental, ethical and nutritional conundrum, however, ‘Carbon Cowboys’ shows how agricultural practices can be adapted to benefit people, planet, and profits,” the news release said. “Each short film explores how agricultural practices such as regenerative grazing and removing chemical fertilizers and pesticides can restore carbon to soil, the foundation for all life above ground. Excess carbon in the soil has the potential to cool the planet, combat drought and prevent flooding.”
We could go on about the marketing for this film, including its efforts to pit conventional producers against the featured direct-sales ranchers, but those tactics are a common complaint from those of us in ag, and you’re surely heard a version of it before.
Make your movie, tell an honest story, spotlight farmers who are working hard and being innovative, and show where ag is headed in the future. But Byck et al., not every project that’s made about the modern food system needs to be promoted as an “us vs. them” piece. It takes away from our industry, and from our community, when that kind of thing is done. Byck may not believe it, but it is possible to promote innovation and send a unifying and motivational message in the process.
Bottom line, it’s up to you whether you want to watch the films or not — and take from them what you can.