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Published June 24, 2013, 09:36 AM

Inner workings

Deborah Koons Garcia’s feature film, “Symphony of the Soil,” attracted about 200 people for its North Dakota premiere on June 18 at the historic Fargo Theatre.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Deborah Koons Garcia’s feature film, “Symphony of the Soil,” attracted about 200 people for its North Dakota premiere on June 18 at the historic Fargo Theatre.

The showing of the 2012 film was a fundraiser for the Foundation for Agricultural and Rural Resource Management and Sustainability of Medina, N.D. Garcia was accompanied by Fred Kirschenmann of Ames, Iowa, who started organic farming at Kirschenmann Farms of Medina, which he still operates. He also founded FARRMS and organic certification companies.

“Soil is the protagonist of our planetary story,” Garcia tells Agweek. “Soil is a living organism. It’s resilient up to a point, but you can kill it and it won’t come back. We have abused it, and have lost a lot of topsoil. If we continue farming the way we are, we’ll be out of topsoil in 30 years. That’s the scary message.”

The movie uses watercolor animation and some purchased microphotography to bring soil alive. The film drew applause from an audience that included a variety of ages and farmers, including some organic and some conventional farmers and scientists.

First, a primer

Garcia created a 104-minute movie that is a combination of fact and emotion — experts offering a primer on soil science in an exotic Norway glacier and in explosive Hawaii volcanic locations. It ends by connecting the soil to “big ideas” — climate change, water, feeding the world and its spiritual aspect.

The movie treats such practices as genetic modification, herbicides and tillage — all of the standards of conventional agriculture — with suspicion. It elevates practices such as no-till farming, which has been aided by herbicides. Garcia never interviews experts from the conventional side of agriculture, which she says was her choice.

Kirschenmann, sometimes referred to as the “father of sustainability” for U.S. agriculture, is often a national speaker on organic farming and sustainability and played a prominent commentary role in the film.

Garcia says she met Kirschenmann in 2001, when Garcia was making an earlier movie, “The Future of Food,” which was released in 2004. Garcia describes it as the “go-to film” that “explains what genetic engineering is, patenting, patenting life.” She says the issues about “super weeds and using more chemicals than less” are still developing.

It was very clear “The Future of Food” was “pro-organic, or pro-sustainable and pro ‘as few chemicals as possible,’” Garcia says. She says she could have tried to balance the ideas and cleverly come out on her side of the issue, but she decided to be an advocate straight-away.

“Everybody said I should interview Fred about agriculture in general, and how things are working — corporate versus more independent agriculture,” Garcia says. “They said he was a national treasure.”

Praise for NRCS

Kirschenmann says the agricultural industry has done “what we told them to do,” to produce food fast, efficiently and cheap, and for maximum economic return. He praised the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for recent initiatives to shift farmers toward more sustainable practices.

Kirschenmann says the arts — including Garcia’s new movie — could help people imagine a future in which agriculture will have to change. “You can’t see the ‘Symphony of Soil’ and continue to see soil as just dirt,” Kirschenmann says.