Why does someone become a farmer? For Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Market & Mill, the only ones who choose the job are those who "have a screw loose or can't follow directions well." For others, like Annie Keegan of Keegan-Filion Farms, a pork, poultry, and grass-fed beef operation, her motivation is more mission driven. "We started off doing this because one of our friends had daughters who were starting their [menstrual] cycles at ... nine years old and a pediatrician in Charleston was like they see that all the time now and it's because of the food they're eating," she says. "The cows and chickens are pumped full of hormones and that's kind of why we do what we do, to just have a better quality of food."
This quote is from the yet-to-be-released film Overalls & Aprons by director, producer, and editor Thibaut Fagonde. A native of France who moved to Charleston in 2010, Fagonde seeks to answer the question: "Is sustainability sustainable?" To do so, he interviews farmers, chefs, nutritionists, doctors, and economists, examining the idea of sustainability through the lens of the local Charleston food scene. While the big names in the movie such as Chef Mike Lata of FIG and The Ordinary and Chef Sean Brock from Husk and McCrady's, are the ones most likely to be recognized, it's farmers and purveyors who tell the most riveting stories and the people Fagonde calls modern-day heroes.
"The film looks at localized food systems from a radius of 100 miles, a community," says Fagonde. "It's a story where it — a nucleus of farmers — is a dying art and asks 'What we are doing to make them sustainable and viable?'"
After attending a 2011 fundraiser in Charleston for a local farmer whose barn burned down, Fagonde became intrigued with the local attempt to truly make farm-to-table viable. "I asked [the chefs and farmers] if I could tell this story about local food systems. I said 'Let me follow you — and visually show this relationship,'" he recalls. Now with his movie complete, Fagonde is preparing to submit the film to the Sundance Film Festival.
It's an ambitious endeavor, one other filmmakers have attempted before with films like Food Inc. to King Corn to The Future of Food. But Fagonde says his feature is different as he narrows the discussion to one single location: the Lowcountry.
For most consumers, there's a half-ass attempt at being sustainable. Perhaps you shop of Whole Foods, buy your meats sans hormones, even subscribe to a CSA, but it's a rare breed who dedicates all of their purchasing decisions to the over-arching concept of sustainability.
For Fagonde, he doesn't think this is an unreasonable request. "Let's eat less and eat better. It doesn't have to be a 7 oz. steak. Eat less meat and eat more greens. That's a choice," he says.
Fagonde feels our economy treats quality local food as a luxury item. "An iPhone is a luxury item, a sports car is a luxury item, cigarettes and alcohol are luxury items, gas-guzzling vehicles are luxury items, yet huge populations in our country that can't afford these items still sacrifice to get them. Quality food with a current higher price tag should not be perceived in the same vein," he says. "Quality food is a necessity for a healthy body. The return on your investment on purchasing quality food is much more beneficial for a healthier life. The up-front costs of quality food items will not only have immediate returns for your health, local economy, and healthy ecology of your community, but it also has long-term benefits. I think we need to re-evaluate the true cost of quality in our local food system."
To do so he gathered more than eight chefs and 17 farmers for three years worth of interviews. An interesting twist on the typical director-based question-and-answer, Fagonde often just sent out the chefs to the farms and filmed them interactig with the farmers. The Grocery's Kevin Johnson goes on the now closed Kimberly's Crabs boat in one scene while Chef Mike Lata takes a walk with Jeff Allen on his farm.
"So much attention is on the chefs but not on the farmer side as who needs more attention and financial support," says Fagonde. "Farmers don't get the monetary value that they truly deserve for their crafted work, and yet they persist out of pure passion and love for the land and water with the purpose of growing, raising, fishing a quality product that has real value which is nutritional. Yes, it's currently more expensive for a local product, but it also costs a lot more to raise and grow this type of quality product.
Don't believe him? Just ask one of Overalls & Aprons subjects, Clammer Dave, a.k.a. Dave Belanger.
"Basically, our product is the single-on-the-half-shell market, eaten raw. So if it's in the best restaurants, it has to be the best oyster. It becomes a premium product. Our aim is to produce high-quality shellfish with labor intensive management practices producing a clean and predictable product, which the chefs like and what they want in a shellfish," he says.
For Belanger hours are spent getting his products from muddy clusters to white tablecloth-ready singles. "We're dealing on a higher plane here when comparing to other products — very few process like we do. No one else in the state does something like that," he says.
It's not just the quality product that the chefs benefit from, it's expertise as well. Belanger says, "Since I deliver myself, I can see how they're cooked and speak to everyone from dishwasher on up."
The chef's aren't blind to the issue of valuing quality produce. Chef Frank Lee, who is interviewed in Overalls & Aprons, says, "Like most Americans, I've come to expect food in the grocery store to be inexpensive. Now as more information on food additives, preservatives, hormones, antibiotics, and ecological concerns with mega-animal farms and mono-crops becomes part of the national dialogue, I've become again more discerning in our purchasing." He adds, "We as a nation are out of balance in our food chain. We have almost lost our local farmers in a generation. Fagonde's film helps place an emphasis on restoring that balance."
Mark Marhefka from Abundant Seafood is equally aware of the imbalance. "Some chefs talk the talk but not walk the walk, purchasing from someone else who can provide everything they need — 'I can get you want when you want it.' It's not that way in this industry," says Marhefka. "I call them Walmart chefs. They want to pull it off the shelves. It's like tomatoes, you can't do it year-round if it's local. We can't do that in our local community and be sustainable."
Like everyone else interviewed, Marhefka wants to produce the best final product that is dependent on a number of factors. As for Marhefka's prices being more than the supermarket or a megastore, he scoffs, "You can't even compare me to Costco, or my closest comparison like Whole Foods, because my product was 45 miles away from land. There's no comparison unless you went and caught it yourself. As far as prices, there's a value to the quality. How many people touch Costco's fish before it gets to the person eating it. I don't freeze any of my fish. How many carbon miles are on that fish? How many days is that, how many bumps on the road on 95? Our mission was to minimize the amount of emissions it takes to get the fish to the plate. All my fish stay in state of South Carolina. We want that fish to be in the most pristine it possibly can get by the time it can get to the plate."
It's a lot of effort for a reward that isn't always guaranteed. "You gotta be nuts. No really. Nuts. Fishing is a lifestyle, not a job. It's the last frontier of being independent," Marhefka says.
The insanity isn't limited to the water. On land, the challenges are equally acute. Jeff Allen, owner of Rebellion Farm and a CP writer, says, "Most people who think they want to be farmers, don't really want to be farmers. They want to be what they hold as the idea of a farmer. People who want to farm should walk a half-mile through a Lowcountry salt marsh at noon on a typical July day in long pants and no bug spray. If you find that the beauty of the marsh overcomes the discomfort of the heat, mud, bugs, and thirst — and such experiences justify a certain level of guaranteed poverty — then you might want to be a farmer."
Even though the farmers aren't rolling in cash, they do add wealth to a region, at least more than any big-name corporation. Harry Crissy, a Clemson Extension Agent explains, "From every square foot of business space occupied by local farm, $179 of economic activity was generated versus if it was a chain, $105. That's pretty significant." And that's a rough estimate, he says. "If you buy from chains, the local multiplier, which is how many times the dollar is re-spent in the local community ... is $1.40 for every dollar spent. If you're supporting the local industry, you'll see a multiplier of $2.60 for every dollar spent. You're basically creating about 100 percent gain in local employment for the dollars you spent locally."
It's not just financial gains. Local produce is the way to eat healthier. Dr. Ann Kulze, another film subject, expounds on why veggies are so much better for you when they're from a nearby farm, "Local foods, especially in terms of produce, they are more nutritious. They [growers] can allow it to go to a greater degree of ripeness. In the last week of ripening, there's a significant uptick in important nutrients, especially those phytochemicals," Kulze says. "In some studies, a four-fold increase in the last week of ripening in these wonderful, health-boosting, disease-busting chemical. The second produce is picked, there immediately begins degradation of some of the nutrients. The closer we can get from the field to the mouth ... the higher the nutrients are going to be."
From an economic and health standpoint, buying locally makes sense. But having this wealth of local producers might not always be an option if farmers can't make ends meet. From oysters being stolen to fish being over-harvested, from poor weather to increased gas prices, local food producers are not in it for the money but for the love.
Whether driven by insanity or passion, Fagonde says the farmers, clammers, fishermen, and millers in the film have a strong work ethic and dedication that fuels them. And because of that, Fagonde is trying to rectify the situation and give a little love back to the them. He piggybacks on the popularity of certain restaurants and the celebrity chef to highlight what he believes. "I took on this project, because I want this to be viable," he says. "I want it to continue by creating demand through education. It has the momentum to be sustainable. Quality real food — I want it to work. There is a cost but its fully justified."
For Clammer Dave, the need for a better understanding of what Charleston's farmers are trying to do is a long time coming. "I definitely think there should be more public focus on sustainability — the farmers can't bear all the burden and can't do it all by themselves." If this is a call to arms, then Overalls & Aprons is the response.
Fagonde hopes to have a soft screening of Overalls & Aprons in October.