A labour of love and pain

Winnipeg Free Press - - ARTS / LIFE / MOVIES - ALI­SON GILLMOR ali­son.gillmor@freep­ress.mb.ca


Di­rected by Katha­rina Sti­ef­fen­hofer

● Cine­math­eque

● Sub­ject to clas­si­fi­ca­tion

● To Sun­day ● 87 min­utes ★★★ out of five AT the end of this in­for­ma­tive, beau­ti­fully shot doc­u­men­tary by Man­i­toba film­maker Katha­rina Sti­ef­fen­hofer, farmer Terry Mierau, mak­ing a bon­fire of tree branches brought down by a wind­storm, throws his wor­ries and re­grets onto the fire and lets them burn, too. Crops lost to bad weather and bad luck, weeks of labour drowned in a down­pour of a few hours — he lets it all go.

Pas­sion­ate, thought­ful, in­formed and com­mit­ted, Mierau and his wife Monique Scholte are or­ganic farm­ers who also hap­pen to be for­mer— and still oc­ca­sional — opera singers. Terry likes to quote Wen­dell Berry, the Amer­i­can poet, en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist and farmer. As doc­u­men­tary sub­jects, they are real finds.

The cou­ple chose to set­tle in Neu­bergthal in south­ern Man­i­toba be­cause it’s a sin­gle-street vil­lage with a close com­mu­nity. Some of the nearby farms still use tra­di­tional house-barns. At their mod­est mixed op­er­a­tion, Monique and Terry have heir­loom-breed pigs, cat­tle, sheep, chick­ens and tur­keys, along with an in­tense bor­der col­lie and a cou­ple of watch­ful cats. They raise pota­toes, as well as veg­eta­bles for a com­mu­nity-sup­ported agri­cul­ture pro­gram, de­liv­er­ing weekly boxes to clients — and friends — in the city.

This gen­tle, quiet ad­vo­cacy doc pos­sesses some of the philo­soph­i­cal pa­tience seen in its sub­jects, who need to fol­low the sea­sonal cy­cles of farm­ing and with­stand the vi­cis­si­tudes of Prairie weather. (Full dis­clo­sure: I saw and com­mented on a rough-cut of the film when it was still in pro­duc­tion.)

Sti­ef­fen­hofer (... And This is My Gar­den) brings in com­men­tary from aca­demics and ac­tivists. She also checks in with some other farm­ers: from a young man, part of the Me­tanoia Farm­er­sWork­ers Co­op­er­a­tive, who is liv­ing in a Win­nebago and try­ing out a sum­mer of small-scale or­ganic farm­ing, to es­tab­lished farm­ing fam­i­lies with huge spreads who are look­ing to tran­si­tion at least part of their op­er­a­tion to or­ganic.

She touches on some larger is­sues — shrink­ing agri­cul­tural lands, the ris­ing me­dian age of farm­ers, the hol­low­ing out of farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties, the grass­roots move­ments pro­mot­ing seed shar­ing and in­creased ge­netic di­ver­sity.

Mostly, though, the film cen­tres on Terry and Monique, fol­low­ing them through a grow­ing sea­son from plant­ing to har­vest. In some way, they farm like the Men­non­ites who farmed the land a hun­dred years ago. They use pigs to break the ground for pota­toes, for ex­am­ple. In other ways, their sus­tain­able or­ganic op­er­a­tion has to be for­ward­look­ing, re­quir­ing as­tute use of in­for­ma­tion, net­work­ing and tech­nol­ogy.

In close prox­im­ity to their lives and labour, we get some sense of the pain and re­wards of the farm­ing year. And it all hap­pens against the back­drop of the Prairie land­scape, with big skies, some­times sunny, some­times threat­en­ing storms, some­times dark un­der an im­prob­a­bly huge har­vest moon.

The film could per­haps be thinned out a lit­tle, but From Seed to Seed of­fers a good, lo­cal­ized look at the much big­ger sub­ject of sus­tain­able or­ganic farm­ing.

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