Road Trip Review: Madison, Milbank, and Food, Inc.

It was a wild weekend (at least by South Dakota farmer standards)–H., my fellow farmer, and I all hit the road for the South Dakota Blogger Picnic hosted by our friend and ally in the blogosphere, Cory Heidelberger and his gracious wife and fellow blogger Erin.

There were other bloggers there besides me and Prairie Highway author Kelly Fuller–Matthew “Hubba” Trask was there (a more complete list of attendees is available from our host), as well as a few MSM folks–real, live honest-to-goodness print journalists–including one who served as a delegate to the SD Dem Convention with H way back when I was just a babe.

Lively discussion was had about the roles of bloggers and the importance of actual paid investigative journalists (I just read somewhere that publicists now outnumber them 4:1).

Yes, it’s true–even us independent-minded bloggers care about the state of the dead-tree (and radio, and TV) press–we all get ideas for posts there, and journalists’ paid positions give them the ability to pursue stories we might not have the capacity to cover.

Another part of the conversation revolved around the best and most effective uses of Twitter and peripheral applications. I should give a hat tip, by the way, to Todd Epp for bringing Twitter to the forefront of our blogger consciousness at last year’s blognic, though he was conspicuously absent from this year’s event after the Babe War kerfuffle.

After good food and brain-pickin’ on the shores of Lake Herman, our little Vermillion crew headed north again to the little town of Milbank for the South Dakota debut of the documentary film, Food Inc. We pulled into a parking spot just across from Mill Theatres 1-2-3 just about two minutes to show time, bought our five dollar tickets, and sat down to enjoy the film.

Food Inc. is an important movie.  Everyone’s been saying that, but I’ll say it again because it’s true. It hits the center of a bullseye other books and films have been circling around for the past few years.

Food Inc.  takes some of the messages of films such as The Future of Food, Fast Food Nation, and King Corn, along with books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The End of Food, and (again, because it’s nothing like the film so-named) Fast Food Nation, and rolls it together with additional information and great cinematography.

In fact, the visuals are so good and so clever (especially in the beginning of the film), I found myself ooh-ing and ahhing over them.  It’s a great tactic to pull you in for a sometimes rough, sometimes outrageous, sometimes stomach-turning ride.

While I won’t do a full critical review here, I will say that the thing that scared me most–the thing that made me cry– the thing that froze my guts into a hard little ball was the segment on Moe Parr, a custom seed cleaner who was sued and put out of business by Monsanto–not for saving seed, but for providing a way for others to–that is, by “encouraging” farmers to break patent law.

There is a segment where Moe is being questioned by Monsanto’s attorney about all his business dealings–they’ve seized his records, his computer, and they’re running through a list of names–asking him about all his customers, his neighbors–figuring out who they’ll investigate, sue, and ruin next. It’s a killer.

Luckily, the film ends on positive words about what consumers can do to make change.  If it didn’t, it’d be hard to recommend the film without the warning, “prepare to be depressed.” You still might be, but at least there’s some hopeful and sound advice about local food, farmers markets, and supporting farmers through CSA and the like.

After the film, the six or eight of us who’d watched then adjourned to the lobby with our gracious hosts and settled down for a good discussion of the film, food activism, coal plants and CAFOs, and all manner of other concerns on both sides of the western MN/eastern SD border, as well as issues without such tight borders.

The thing about rural activists of all stripes is this–you tend to make friends fast, and you tend to stick together and offer help whenever you can. Realizing that we hadn’t gotten dinner nor arranged a place to stay, the owners of the theatre not only offered dinner, but beds and breakfast as well.

And what great local food it was–a relief after seeing that film, and worrying that Taco John’s might be the only dinner we’d find. Instead we feasted on locally raised meats, vegetables, and homemade bread while chatting amiably around the farmhouse table. Breakfast was eggs, sausage, fruit, and toast slathered with organic butter–oh, my-my good.

After hugs and handshakes all around (plus making sure we’d got all the farm cats out of the car), we hit the road south again–stopping to check out the tiny town of Twin Brooks (where, we learned, the Gunslinger Bar–now for sale!–hosted their annual “Coon Pecker” contest) and pausing to view the lovely Blue Cloud Abbey–whence you can just make out Big Stone Coal Plant on the horizon.

All in all, the trip–even with the somewhat scary and depressing film–had a definite uplifting feel.  There’s so much on the broader stage of state, national, and global affairs to be reckoned with–to be fought against or preserved from or simply to shake one’s head in wonder at–that it was a real treat to meet up with passionate and hopeful people working to make things better.


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