A Review of the Polyfaces Film

Wendell Berry wrote an essay in 1986 called "In Defense of the Family Farm." The core of his argument is that generational stewardship of land is the basis of ecologically, economically and communally sustainable agriculture. The gutting of rural economies and the mining of soil to the point of utter depletion is directly connected to our lack of long term stewardship of land, which results in a loss of memory. The indigenous relationship to the land that we in the Permaculture and Regenerative Ag world aspire to is what develops when we take a long view of land stewardship. 

This insight, maybe more than any other, is what jumped out at me as I watched Polyfaces: A world of many choices. I've been following Joel for a few years now (he's hard to miss if you're just now getting into farming) and I've been a fan, especially as Allison and I have been moving more and more toward growing livestock. What you don't see on the surface if you encounter Joel in public is that his knowledge and insight come from a spirit inherited from his father and now passed down to his children, and grandchildren. 

Joel recounts a conversation with his father, who upon realizing that his land was now worth a packet, was considering selling and buying more land. But he asked Joel if he wanted this land. Joel said yes, he did. With tears in his eyes Joel says that His father promised the topic of selling up would never be brought up again. 

The idea that we must always have more land has disconnected us from our stewardship of the bit of earth we stand on. Our perspective is constricted and our methods are shaped by how best to use the land, rather than how to steward the land for indefinite increasing fertility. 

In his essay, Berry suggests that the definition of a "family farm" is, quite simply, a farm that can be worked by a family. The Salatins embody this in a traditional sense but also extend the notion of family to include a wider community of employees and interns that has at its heart a family principle: reproduction. In order to take the knowledge of ecologically grounded and economically viable land stewardship to a new (and old) generation of farmers, it has to be birthed - so to speak - in others. 


Lisa Heenan says near the beginning of the film that the climate of the mind is the hardest to change. One of the things that makes farming regeneratively so difficult is a lack of defining narratives. 

Stories are the framework by which we interpret our world. What seems impossible can all of a sudden feel completely doable when we here of or see somebody doing it. This is true of all genuine movements. They consist in and persist by the stories that define them. 

If you are passionate about Permaculture and Regenerative Agriculture, you have found yourself trying your best to explain it to other people, trying to help them "get it." Stories help us "get it" better than anything else possibly can. In this sense it is not only a quality film - interesting, emotive and informative - but an important film. It adds to the slowly growing library of stories that are subverting the agricultural assumptions of the last few generations. It humanizes and normalizes a movement that is still on the fringes. 

Joel's profound ability to articulate and demonstrate a different way has made him and his family feel strange among the local farmers, their church and the broader agricultural world. But watching the film can give you the strong conviction that they aren't strange, or new, or even revolutionary. They are profoundly normal in a world that has become increasingly odd. 

Movements of substance are this way. They have a prophetic character. They aren't somehow calling us to some radical new perspective, but lead us to the most basic and primal truths. Like, we should be eating real food (the story of Richard and his family is profound on this point), or animals should be able to act like themselves, or the created world works in a certain way and maybe that should teach us something. None of these regenerative pathways are new, but watching this story gives you a sense that they are real, that they work and that they are desperately needed. 


My only wish after watching the film is that there were more stories like it. Joel is asked in the film how he feels about being a celebrity farmer. He says that he wishes there were more celebrity farmers. He believes that he should not be an anomaly. 

I agree. And my hope is that as the library of defining narratives grows, it includes an increasing diversity of voices. In order for an agricultural enterprise of any kind to be sustainable it has to be ecologically sound, economically viable and socially just. Social justice comes as a diversity of voices interact, learn from each other and grow together. That's where the stories really gain their power, in the dynamic of their relationship with each other.

Sounds almost Permaculture doesn't it? 


You can purchase the film here, on DVD or to stream forever, which we would highly recommend you do.