SCOTT SIMON, host:
"Food Inc.," a documentary film about the modern agriculture industry, has hit with big city movie reviewers, small organic farmers, and vegetarians. It's filled with disturbing scenes of chickens, hogs, and cattle being crowded into confined areas. The premise is that large-scale agriculture produces inexpensive meat and vegetables, but imposes high costs on the environment and Americans' health.
Now, ordinary farmers have largely been left out of the mainstream debate over the movie. For one thing, it was released in mid-June and still isn't playing in rural areas. But thanks to the Internet, many farmers are aware of it.
Frank Morris of member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri reports.
FRANK MORRIS: On a broad green hill, here in the northwest tip of Missouri, corn that should be up to Brandon Oswald's knee by now is in fact over his head.
Mr. OSWALD: Rain makes green, they say. And we've had good rains, haven't had hail.
MORRIS: But with all the rain, weeds are choking his soybean fields. So Oswald will soon spray them with Roundup, a herbicide that kills just about anything green. One thing it won't kill are his soybeans. They're genetically modified to withstand it. The seed for such miraculous plants was created by Monsanto, the agricultural biotech giant.
"Food Inc." argues that Monsanto uses its tight control of high-tech seeds to turn farmers like Oswald almost into sharecroppers. Oswald is the sixth generation on this land. He doesn't particularly like dealing with Monsanto or paying the high cost of Roundup-ready seed but feels he has to to compete.
Mr. OSWALD: Just things like with the genetically modified crops, you may not like it, but you got to roll with it or you're going to get rolled aside.
MORRIS: Farmers can get kind of touchy when movies like "Food Inc." fail to appreciate how they roll.
Mr. TRENT LEWIS (Rancher): It is a direct slap in the face to every farmer and ranch family in this country that have been involved, dedicated to finding a way to produce sustainable, reasonably priced, safe food.
MORRIS: Trent Lewis(ph) a rancher and blogger from Central Nebraska says debates about "Food Inc." have lit up the Internet, with most farmers defending what they do.
Mr. LEWIS: Farmers are beginning to realize that, you know what, there is a concerted effort to mislead the American public about what is happening in American agriculture.
MORRIS: Brandon Oswald's father, Richard, sits on the front porch of the house where he was born and has lived all his life, watching the "Food Inc." trailer on his laptop computer.
(Soundbite of trailer)
Unidentified Man #1: We've never had food companies this powerful in our history.
Unidentified Man #2: Everything we've done in modern agriculture is to grow it faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper.
MORRIS: Like lots of guys around here, Oswald was forced out of the hog business in the 1980s. He's seen many neighboring farms go under as they struggled to adapt to a marketplace increasingly shaped by the very corporations skewered in "Food Inc." It seems like he'd be a natural fan of the movie. But Oswald bristles when it criticizes one of two moneymakers he's got left: corn.
Mr. RICHARD OSWALD (Farmer): If you attack the things that are paying our living, that are paying, that we earn a just return for, and you say that's no good, you do away with it, you're going to do away with the last generation of independent farmers on the land.
Mr. WALLY RIBESIL(ph) (Mo Valley Ag): We're an easy target.
MORRIS: Wally Ribesil(ph) sells farm chemicals and genetically modified seeds here at Mo Valley Ag, in tiny Rock Port, Missouri. He's seen his customer base dwindle over the years as farms consolidate. He says big city dwellers don't understand what's happened to agriculture. They want a romanticized version of rural life. But they also demand cheap food.
Mr. RIBESIL: They like small town America with small businesses and mom and dad running it, but how much money are we spending on food?
MORRIS: Not much compared to other countries. And Ribesil says genetically modified crops have a lot to do with that.
Mr. RIBESIL: But it takes new techniques to grow the volumes of grain to feed the country, and America feeds the world.
MORRIS: So while critics on the East and West Coasts continue to raise questions about today's large scale farming practices, Richard Oswald and his son will work to bring in a good crop. They need one lucrative enough to pay the bills, sustain their families, and to help keep this farm going for a seventh generation.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.
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