Trying to find the trouble in Troubled Waters

Why all the trouble?

MPR reporter Tim Post and I just got out of a screening of Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story, the environmental documentary that recently had its premiere cancelled by the University of Minnesota for reasons that haven’t been entirely explained. The university was one of several financial backers of the documentary.

Last week, Al Levine, dean of the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, told MPR reporter Stephanie Hemphill that the film “vilifies” agriculture. (Levine, however, says he did not ask to have the film’s premiere canceled.)

We’re not agriculture experts, but it wasn’t obvious to us as lay viewers how this film vilifies agriculture.

Here are the obvious impressions we left with:

  • We have some of the most productive farmland in the world. Thanks in large part to fertilizer, farmers can feed more mouths than ever before — and are better equipped to face even greater demand in the future. But that success has come with unintended consequences.
  • Standard farming methods — especially the use of nitrogen-rich fertilizer — in the Farm Belt have contributed to erosion and allowed massive amounts of nutrients to run off into the Mississippi and regional lakes.
  • Sedimentation is causing lakes to fill in, and has created a massive “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, where nothing can live, and which threatens the livelihood of shrimpers. Minnesota farmers are also affected by nitrogen seepage into water wells, which has been linked to elevated cancer rates.
  • The Federal Farm Bill, along with the national push for ethanol, rewards farmers for maximizing production of crops such as corn and soybeans. Growers have incentives to maximize their cultivation through overuse of fertilizer. The crops also contribute to erosion, because their short cultivation cycle leaves fields bare much of the year.
  • Agriculture, however, is only one cause. As Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak explains in the film, runoff from cities, lawns and golf courses plays a large part.
  • There is hope and optimism, however. A number of Minnesota farmers are developing promising new methods to decrease the use of fertilizer, better manage their fields, control drainage and decrease erosion. The farmers profiled include: Dick and Jack Gerhardt of Fairmont, Dan Coughlin and Todd Churchill of Lonsdale, Jack Hedin of Rushford, and Tony Thompson of Windom.
  • But fixing the problem requires a variety of solutions. The government, for example, needs to reallocate Farm Bill incentives to encourage more sustainable farming practices. As the film states: “Farmers can’t do this all alone.”

After the screening at the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, Director Susan Thornton said, “The film does not vilify agriculture.”

Post later called Levine from the U’s ag college to get some clarity on what parts vilified agriculture. Levine, however, referred us to University spokesman Dan Wolter, who declined to comment.

That brings up one other point: It wasn’t obvious what new ground was broken that would have stirred anyone up. A number of the issues mentioned have already been in the news media.

At MPR alone, in August 2009, reporter Mark Steil reported on a controlled drainage system on the farm of southwest Minnesota farmer Brian Hicks that could help curb the runoff causing the Dead Zone.

In June of this year, Dan Gunderson reported on how farmers and scientists were struggling with phosphorous runoff into the Red River.

And in October 2005, Post wrote about the mounting cost of cleaning up lakes and rivers polluted by all sorts of runoff – and whether the state was able to pay it.

All in all, I can’t speak about the scientific accuracy of the film. And I might not know enough to say much about the film’s balance, either. Still, I’m trying to figure out what has prompted the U’s handling of this film.

I’ve seen a number of movies by Michael Moore, the documentary film maker known for his polemics and his grandstanding. Even when I understand some of the points he’s trying to make, I know when he’s going over the top. I know when he’s being lopsided.

I just didn’t get that Michael Moore feeling when I walked out.