“Unbroken Ground,” a new film screening at Patagonia Santa Monica, explores the promise of regenerative agriculture

By Dave Randall

Cara Blake of the Lummi Island Wild Salmon Cooperative

Cara Blake of the Lummi Island Wild Salmon Cooperative

To say we are what we eat invokes a time-worn cliché. Considering, though, how our food is mass produced, chemically engineered and not always prepared with an eye toward purity, being what we eat is not just cliché, it’s downright scary.

Forgive the pun, but in California, with its vast, agrarian economy, this is powerful food for thought (ouch!) — and the subject of a new documentary, “Unbroken Ground: Revolutions Start from the Bottom.”

Directed by Chris Malloy for Patagonia Provisions, this nicely produced 25-minute film has a main thrust that’s put into perspective during its opening sequences by Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard: “If you want to feed your family healthy food, you’ve gotta ask a lotta questions.”

As consumers, we usually don’t ask at all. The film does, though, and a dedicated group of longtime organic growers, PhDs, grad students and Native Americans offer answers, alternatives and methods that show that what we eat, from soil or sea, can be grown to benefit our health and combat climate change. The stars are farmers and fishermen, willing to start from the bottom up to change the paradigm of crop commercialization.

“Unbroken Ground” screens at Patagonia Santa Monica on Tuesday, July 5. Malloy is giving a talk after the screening.

“Unbroken Ground” profiles the restorative practices of four groups working with land, wildlife, crops and fishing.

The first section demonstrates how “regenerative farming” as practiced by Wes Jackson’s Land Institute can rebuild topsoil and save it from being lost or poisoned.

That’s followed by a trip to Cheyenne River Ranch in South Dakota, where Dan and Jill O’Brien practice “regenerative grazing.” They reintroduce bison to their indigenous land to naturally consume then fertilize grass, and they employ many Native American dances and customs to enhance their unadulterated approach to farming. The results are healthier soil and crop production, and a vastly better ecosystem. As Dan says, “Plants are better than anything we (humans) ever conceived of.”

The third section zeroes in specifically on diversified crop development. The Bread Lab is concerned with the variety of wheat grown from soil improved by natural compost, with one result being the return of “original” flavor to our food. Bread Lab director Stephen Jones intimates that their goal is to “… make what we do work for the farmer,” through grains created the way they’ve been created for thousands of years.

The fresh water of Puget Sound is the final destination, where the Lummi Island Wild Salmon Cooperative exercises selective harvest fishing. If our agriculture has been adversely affected by pesticides, loss of topsoil and chemical engineering, what’s been fished from the water has been devastated by all manner of pollution. Here, Malloy shows the Lummi tribe of Washington applying time-tested practices. Restoring Puget Sound and its salmon can’t happen through technology: It takes nature itself. That seems more than logical, and the Lummi theories are posited that way, with their surroundings stunningly captured by director of photography August Thurmer.

That a thoughtful documentary of this sort should come from Patagonia, a clothing manufacturer, is not at all far-fetched. According to Malloy (who in addition to being the director is also a Patagonia Ambassador), Chouinard is “content taking risks for what he believes in.” That means using natural cotton, a considerable gamble that worked, and being intellectually invested in growing a healthier food supply.

Malloy, an avid surfer who’s directed more than 20 films on the sport, is also a rancher. He says he found his most recent effort behind the camera inspiring.

“The people in this film have gone about their work for decades, developing a better way food should be made. It was humbling to be around them,” he says.

We live with dire realities about what’s in our air, seas and soil and how that affects us. “Unbroken Ground” presents a case for healthy alternatives to the methods of commercial agriculture. The ultimate goal should be to profit while leaving the world a better place. If indeed we are what we eat, this documentary shows us we can be exceptional.

“Unbroken Ground: Revolutions Start From the Bottom” screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 5, at Patagonia Santa Monica, 1344 4th St., Santa Monica. To RSVP for the screening, visit patagonia.com/us/unbroken-ground-film-tour.