Updated: Oct 30, 2018
A Review of ‘Break From the Herd’ – A Documentary About Regenerative Agriculture
In my work I come across the theme of “emergence” a great deal. This is a fairly broad term and I think it’s worth embracing its breadth right off the top before we dive into a wonderful foray into regenerative agriculture put forth in a new documentary film. Wikipedia, that meta-definer of all things (and a living example of emergence, I might add), describes the term thus:
In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence occurs when “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” meaning the whole has properties its parts do not have. These properties come about because of interactions among the parts.
I love this idea—that a new order is emerging to replace the old one. In a report on sustainable business models I co-authored with John Elkington and Jacqueline Lim of Volans in 2016, we spoke of a U-bend requiring us to let go of what’s not working and to embrace new models, allowing a more sustainable economy to take root. This idea builds explicitly on Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, which he describes in a recent article about the emergent global movement of renewal and regeneration.
But I love evidence of this actually happening even more than I love the idea. It doesn’t just feel warm and fuzzy, it feels like we’re stepping towards a natural, regenerative point in evolution. And I especially love that this regeneration is happening now.
Underscoring the Wikipedia reference to emergence being about philosophy, science and art, as well as whole systems—the documentary Break From the Herd is a case in point.
This is an uplifting and informative journey into the lives of three Americans who have made the transition to regenerative agricultural practices. The film uses the art form of documentary to portray what is equal parts philosophy and a reimagining of our food system. And it’s a joy to watch.
One of the people we meet is Dr. Jonathan Lundgren a former scientist with the USDA in South Dakota who left his politically fraught and obstacle-laden research role to found Blue Dasher Farm. He and his team now combine science and education to demonstrate the power of eco-system restoration through regenerative agriculture. Dr. Lundgren notes that data and science are necessary but insufficient for changing behavior and hence his project takes a “seeing is believing” approach.
The film then introduces us to another farmer who is the third generation in his family to work the same Kansas farmland. He has made the shift away from the teachings of his parents' generation, despite what his neighbors and other “advisors” had to say, to embrace regenerative practices. He takes viewers through the sometimes heart-breaking, always informative journey of challenging the status quo. Practicalities like losing crop insurance as a result of this shift intertwine with the everyday realities of life and death on the farm.
Finally, we meet a contagiously enthusiastic winemaker from Cameron Winery, who puts irrigation in its proper place (which, from his perspective, is simply not in Oregon vineyards). He opens our eyes to the idea of “dry farming” to create the best wines while lessening his impact on the land. His attitude seems to say, “Herd? What herd?” as he follows his bliss, guided by nature and the pursuit of world class winemaking.
The relationship between food systems and politics is a complex topic but commentary from the amazing Wayne Roberts—one of the most seasoned actors in food policy—came to mind as I watched the film. He recently published a brief piece that takes a new look at the roots of democracy and its relationship to food systems. He shares a discovery that the original meaning of the word “democracy” was more about administrative capacity being in the hands of the many, where power comes from the individual as much as the state, and he illustrates how this concept is closely tied to resilience, an important concept for governments and communities alike.
The effects of regenerative agriculture include healthier soils, more nutritious food and increased biodiversity, to name a few, all of which also contribute directly to resilient communities. To follow Roberts’ lead then, it would seem that regenerative agriculture is a form of democracy in action that puts responsibility in the hands of the many who are literally on the ground working the land, shifting away from the top-down approach of industrialized agriculture. And this democratic—distributed, decentralized and emergent—approach has positive side-benefits for the biological systems impacted, of which we humans are one interdependent part.
This is not a political film, rather it’s a film about a better way to farm. Yet one can’t help but notice that the farmers in Break From the Herd had to free themselves from policies and other mainstream forces that run counter to the natural principles that create resilient, healthy communities. In other words, there is an important relationship between a healthy food system and a healthy democracy, and the experiences of these farmers shows this relationship in active evolution.
This film is about hopeful ambition combined with old wisdom and new understanding. And it reveals that the successful elements of a regenerative economy are not just known, they are emerging all around us and taking root.
To learn about an upcoming screenings, or to host a screening of your own, visit https://www.breakfromtheherdfilm.com/ to find out more.
Photo credit: Banner image by ShireShy on Pixabay