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Of the Earth: Where farming meets filming

  • “Root, Hog or Die” by Bernardston filmmaker Rawn Fulton was one of the films screened at Saturday’s Up Up! Farm Film Festival. Contributed photo

  • April Nugent of Warner Farm stands ready to dole out the last of the asparagus at Saturday’s Greenfield Farmers Market. For the Recorder/Wesley Blixt

  • BLIXT



For the Recorder
Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Saturday’s Up, Up! Farm Film Festival was planned to run in conjunction with the Just Roots Spring Fest — which was then postponed until June 24. The film festival, however, went on as planned at the Pushkin Gallery in Greenfield like the proverbial tree that drops in the forest when no one is around.

Which is a shame, because the 17 hours of films by 13 filmmakers proved to be a reminder of two things: that farming can be just as riveting and moving on film as any other cinematic focus; and that our own farming culture, with its deep roots, remains rich and vibrant.

The highlight of the series undoubtedly was “Root Hog or Die,” an hour-long documentary made in 1973 by Bernardston filmmaker Rawn Fulton, who profiled old-school Franklin and Windham County farmers, most of whom wore the furrows of their fields in the worry lines on their faces.

“We raised our own pork, beef, potatoes,” Louis Black of Leyden tells the camera. “There was no welfare business then. It was either ‘Root, hog or die.’ You had to work for a living. You couldn’t ask the town for any help. You wouldn’t get it.”

The title phrase — invoking hardscrabble survival and self-reliance — hearkens back to the early 1800s, and refers to the practice of turning pigs loose in the woods to fend for themselves. The title of an early song by June Carter Cash and an even earlier song by Woody Guthrie, the phrase has been attributed to Davy Crockett’s memoirs.

In contrast to “Root Hog or Die” was “The Greenhorns,” directed by Severine von Tscharner Fleming, which explores the agriculture community to which many of this area’s young farmers happily belong, those who have inherited the ageless spirit of the old school and are applying it to newly-reinterpreted principles of sustainability. Fleming interviewed young farmers across the country who have dared to start farming in some of the unlikeliest places, and who seem uniformly and profoundly handsome, healthy and happy.

“It is the filmmaker’s hope that by broadcasting the stories and voices of these young farmers, we can build the case for those considering a career in agriculture — to embolden them, to entice them and to recruit them into farming,” producers Storey wrote of the film on the company’s website.

“The Greenhorns” is also the national grassroots non-profit that assembled and helped sponsor the film series, along with the Franklin Community Co-op, the Just Roots CSA and community garden, and Greenfield’s Progress Partnership.

Word has it that since the organizers bought a one-year license for the series, it may be presented again later this summer, perhaps on the rescheduled Just Roots Spring Fest date.

A much-anticipated arrival

In the meantime, there is asparagus. It is, after all, the height of the season for the herbaceous perennial. Or slightly past the height, depending on who you talk to. Most asparagus growers at the Greenfield Farmers Market were already sold out as the rain began in earnest just after noon on Saturday. April Nugent, however, (preferred preparation: sautéed with a little garlic) of Warner Farm in Sunderland had several bunches left ... for the moment.

Inevitably, that’s where the discussion turned among the remnant of film festival organizers including Linda McInerney and Sarah Kanabay of the Progress Partnership, a nonprofit that promotes a progressive vision of downtown business development, and Rachel Katz of Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center.

“Asparagus, how do I love thee, let me count the ways,” mused Katz, lapsing into what Elizabeth Barrett Browning would have written had she been writing in the Pioneer Valley in asparagus season. It turns out that No. 1 among those ways for Katz is a simple sautée in a frying pan with little oil.

For Kanabay, a writer and producer who is the community co-op’s acting outreach and communications coordinator, asparagus is a stand-out when shaved-thin as a pizza topping along with some ricotta and pecorino. Perhaps the most alluring, and ambitious treatment, however, came from McInerney, who recalled attending a recent wedding featuring parboiled asparagus topped with crumbled egg, crème fraiche and (drum-roll, please) caviar.

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and is the author of “SKATERS: A Novel.” Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at wesleyblixt@me.com.