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Farmers Take On Food, Inc.


Kansas City, MO – Food, Inc., a documentary film about the modern agricultural industry, is a hit with big-city movie reviewers, small-scale organic farmers and vegetarians. Full of disturbing scenes depicting chickens, hogs and cattle being crowded into confined areas, the movie argues that large-scale agriculture produces inexpensive meat and vegetables at a high cost to the environment - as well as Americans' health.

Ordinary farmers - the people who grow the lion's share of what America eats - have largely been left out of the mainstream media debate over Food, Inc. For one thing, the movie - released in mid-June - still isn't playing in rural areas. But thanks to the Internet, many farmers are aware of it. KCUR'S Frank Morris drove out to hear what they're saying.

On a broad green hill in the northwest tip of Missouri, corn that should come only as high as farmer Brandon Oswald's knee instead towers over his head. He explains the enormous growth this way: "Rain makes grain they say, and we've had good rains, haven't had hail."

But, with all the rain, weeds are choking his soybean fields. So, Oswald will soon spray them with Roundup, a herbicide that kills just about anything green. One thing it won't kill are his soybeans, because they're genetically modified to withstand it. The seeds for such miraculous plants were created by Monsanto, the agricultural biotech giant.

Food, Inc. argues that Monsanto uses its tight control of high-tech seeds to turn farmers like Oswald almost into sharecroppers. Oswald is the sixth generation of his family on this land. He doesn't particularly like dealing with Monsanto, or paying the high cost for the "Roundup Ready" seed, but feels he has no choice if he wants to compete.

"Just seems like, with the genetically modified crops, you may not like it, but you've got to roll with it," he says, "or you're going to get rolled aside."

Farmers get can get kind of touchy when movies like Food, Inc. fail to appreciate how they roll.

"It is a direct slap in the face to every farmer and ranch family that has been involved," says central Nebraska rancher Trent Loos, "dedicated to finding a way to produce sustainable, reasonably priced, safe food."

Loos, who also keeps a blog, says debates about Food, Inc. have lit up the Internet, with farmers defending what they do.

"Farmers are beginning to realize that, You know what? There is a concerted effort to mislead the American public about what actually goes on in American agriculture.'"

Meanwhile, surrounded by the sound of chirping birds, Brandon Oswald's father Richard sits on the front porch of the house where he was born, and where he has lived all of his life. He is watching the Food, Inc. trailer on his laptop computer.

Like a lot of guys around here, Oswald was forced out of the hog business in the 1980s. He's seen many neighboring farms go under as they struggled to adapt to a market place increasingly shaped by the very corporations skewered in Food, Inc. Seems like he'd be a natural fan of the movie, but Oswald bristles when it criticizes one of the two money makers he's got left: Corn.

"If you attack the things that are paying our living, that we earn a just return for, and you say that's no good, and you do away with, you're going to do away with the last generation of independent farmers on the land," he warns.

"We're an easy target," says Wally Riebesell, who sells farm chemicals and genetically modified seeds at MO Valley Ag in tiny Rockport Missouri. He's seen his customer base dwindle over the years as farms consolidate. He says big-city dwellers don't understand what's happened to agriculture. They cling to a romanticized version of rural life - but they also demand cheap food.

"They like small town America, with small businesses and mom and dad running it, but how much are we spending on food?"

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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