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American Meat explores alternatives to current commodity system

MASON CITY, Iowa -Graham Meriwether says his goal in making the documentary, "American Meat" is to show there are alternatives to the current commodity system that could provide opportunity for young people to start farming.

MASON CITY, Iowa -Graham Meriwether says his goal in making the documentary, "American Meat" is to show there are alternatives to the current commodity system that could provide opportunity for young people to start farming.

Students at North Iowa Area Community College recently watched American Meat, and screenings also took place with 11 FFA chapters and at Iowa State University. The screenings were sponsored by Applegate Farms Organic and Natural Meats and the Sustainability Research Institute at Fairfield. ISU's Collegiate FFA organized the Ames event.

Meriwether, who grew up in Michigan and majored in poetry at the University of Colorado, has been involved in the documentary film industry in New York City for eight years.

American Meat got its start when Meriwether was inspired to make a documentary about Joel Salatin's grass-based Polyface Farm after reading the "Omnivore's Dilemma."

"I realized there was this whole other type of production, and I decided to spend time with farmers raising chickens, pigs and cows in a commodity setting, and it totally changed my perspective," Meriwether said. "It's not good vs bad, everyone is a family farmer doing what they need to do to keep their family farm alive. As I learned more, I realized there might be this revolution going on in agriculture, which might give farmers more of a fair share of the food dollar and provide jobs for young farmers."

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Among the farmers featured in American Meat is Chuck Wirtz, who has a large commodity farrow to finish operation near West Bend. He also has developed a welfare compassionate system of producing pigs that he sells to Niman Ranch. Meriwether said Wirtz developed the system, which requires more labor but pays a premium, to create opportunity for his son, Carson.

In the film Wirtz says that when he was growing up, it took all day to care for 500 pigs. Today, he can care for 10,000 pigs in two hours, but such a system takes a huge investment and is subject to a volatile global market.

From a business standpoint, Wirtz said he prefers commodity production. The welfare compassionate system is no more profitable and is more work, but he said the pork tastes better.

Meriwether interviewed North Carolina producers Johnny Glosson and Sam Talley, who contract grow chickens in confinement buildings for Pilgrim's Pride. They talked about the pride they have in the birds, but said it's difficult to get ahead because they get less and less of the food dollar.

Fred Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center, said commodity farming takes a lot of fossil fuel, and the time will come when energy will be too expensive to sustain it. That's why it's vital to have alternative models.

Salatin raises pigs, cattle and chickens in a system he says "allows animals to express their physiological distinctiveness." He sells direct to the consumer. Meriwether interviewed other grass-based poultry, swine, dairy and beef farmers who sell to niche markets or direct to consumers.

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