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"Growing Cities" Starts at Home (a Film Review, and More)

Posted Feb 12 2014 6:50pm
It's hard to think of my garden as ever looking like this photo on the left (and that's just one little part of it), but it did, and it will again, as it does each year. 

Right now, however, it looks like the photo above on the right (that's the same view), a way it has really never looked before here in metro-Atlanta. But winter has been harsh this year and that's how it goes.  I hesitate to even show you those ole' die-hards, the collards, but, well, here they are (photo at right). Dying hard.

And so it was, during this winter slump when not even the plants under the triple-covered hooped bed were alive due to the "night of six degrees" a few weeks ago, that I received an email from a young man named Dan Susman who is knee-deep in film festivals for his new documentary named Growing Cities. "Would you like to review it for your blog?" he asked me.

Would I? Of course! The welcoming thought of basking in the beauty of lush, abundant urban farm and garden visuals caused me to clear my calendar immediately (okay, the truth is I was already iced in). I watched both the 60 and 90-minute versions, and I interviewed Dan via phone at his home in Omaha, Nebraska. I was so inspired by the end of this I headed outside to find some form of life in my garden. I brushed off the snow, tugged back the row covers, and peered into my hooped bed--and there it was. Cilantro. Happy and hopeful. 

Rooftop chicken story worth telling. Editors, please contact me if interested.
Growing Cities will do that to you. Produced by Dan ("the farm guy") and his life-long friend Andrew Monbouquette ("the film guy"), Growing Cities takes you across the country to visit a wide range of thought-provoking urban agriculture projects. For instance, the footage from that rooftop farm in Brooklyn, NY will have you rethinking every rooftop you pass, such as this rooftop I pass every day in Atlanta. The green building on top of it is new. It's a chicken coop that provides a steady supply of fresh, organic eggs to customers at the 56-year-old pub below. It's a story I'd like to write.

Rashid Nuri and Eugene Cook
Duane Marcus of the Funny Farm
Dan and Andrew spent three months in the summer of 2011 traveling more than 13,000 miles to film around 180 hours of footage during visits to about 100 farms and gardens, including those of friends of mine right here in Atlanta: Duane Marcus of The Funny Farm, Eugene Cooke and Rashid Nuri of the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture , and Daron "Farmer D" Joffe of Farmer D Organics (whose soon-to-be-released book I recently reviewed here ).

The fast-paced, up-tempo movie features gorgeous cinematography, fun graphics, an inviting narration, and up-close-and-personal moments with luminaries such as MacArthur "Genius Award" winner Will Allen, who farms more than 100 acres in Milwaukee, and inspirational individuals, such as Jim Montgomery of Green Fairie Farm in Berkeley, California, who cultivates his entire backyard (and takes his goats for a daily walk) despite being born fingerless except for thumbs. You'd be hard-pressed to not feel pride right along with that woman from Big Muddy Urban Farm when she says, "We sell mint to some of the local pubs and it's fun to see it on their bars and say I grew that!"

Growing our own food, of course, used to be what we did as Americans. In fact, my friend Rose Hayden Smith, a noted expert on the U.S. Victory Garden movement, appears prominently in the movie several times. During the World Wars, Americans grew 40% of all their food right in their communities. 

As Eugene says, "We're not asking people to grow everything. Grow something. Grow where you are." (He has a concise book out now by that name to help you get growing, and he's grown in some interesting new directions since Dan and Andrew met him--I hope to bring you that story soon.)

Dan told me he was surprised when he returned to Omaha after his cross-country trip to see it with fresh eyes--and to find so much fresh, local, healthy food now starting to be grown again (in addition to commodity crops to feed animals and to be used in processed foods, as had become the norm in that part of the U.S. due to industrial agriculture driving out small family farms). He told me that: 
"The Atlanta farmers spelled out what the other farmers on our trip had been showing us all along--that every community needs this work and you don't have to leave and go somewhere else to be a part of it. The place that needs you most might just be your own backyard."
screen shot from Growing Cities

Here's the trailer for Growing Cities. See what it inspires in you:

Growing Cities Trailer from Growing Cities Movie on Vimeo .

This movie joins others I've seen and loved, and about which I've written for this blog. They are adding up to tell a bigger story about the changing faces of farming. A Community of Gardeners . Grow!*.  The Garden (featuring the plight of the Farmers of South Central L.A.) And soon, Terra Firma. As the stories become more common and as more diverse voices continually get included, perhaps that just means urban farming and gardening is getting more common and diverse, too.  

Growing Cities, which was originally funded through a Kickstarter campaign, is currently being screened at colleges, food co-ops, Whole Foods locations and other locations nationwide. In fact, Dan says there were more than 100 requests for screenings in just the last month. You can find a screening near you or find out how to screen it for your audiences here . You can also tap in to the growing list of stories, books, how-to's and links that Dan and Andrew are featuring on the Growing Cities website.

Growing Cities will be broadcast on PBS in the fall of 2014, which is when the DVD will be available for home use. In the meantime, when not working on the film's promotion, Dan can no longer be found driving around visiting farms but rather driving around a farm--literally.  He started a "farm" in the back of a '75 Chevy pickup that he takes to schools so that kids can learn how to, well, grow where they are. Andrew is coming at kids from another direction--he is doing a fellowship with Bon Appetit, the food distribution company that delivers healthy food to schools and other institutions. 

As Dan concludes in the movie, "Everyone has a part to play, no matter who you are, where you live, or what kind of space you have. You can make a difference in your community."
Yep, that's my suburban front, back, and side lawns a few years ago

In other words, don't try to change the 35 million acres of lawns in our country. Just change yours.

That's how it starts .

* See Warning: Anthony-Masterson's Award-Winning Movie Grow! May Make You Quit Your Day Job (or Never Get One in the First Place)

And, by the way, here's my favorite story about cilantro
eclectic food-for-thought for a changing world
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