Small farmers have their moment in this film about industrial farming

 
 Frank Reese, the heritage poultry farmer from Kansas who challenges factory farming by demonstrating a better way, captivates film viewers' attention in "Eating Animals." Photo from  IFC Films

Frank Reese, the heritage poultry farmer from Kansas who challenges factory farming by demonstrating a better way, captivates film viewers' attention in "Eating Animals." Photo from IFC Films

 
 

There is a breathtaking moment in the final scene of the film “Eating Animals” when Frank R. Reese, a Kansas poultry farmer, is walking through his sun-dappled farm. It comes after viewing predictably brutal footage of animals being mistreated and witnessing the environmental degradation that is a ghastly given with modern-day factory farming. But this scene, with Reese, offers us reason to hope.

Directed by Christopher Quinn and co-produced by actress Natalie Portman and author Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote the book of the same title, “Eating Animals” gives us a view of agricultural life as it is and as it should be, by finding farmers like Reese to focus on. The soft-spoken, gentle owner of the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch talks about his lifelong crusade to preserve heritage turkeys and chickens and revitalize old-style farming. It’s David fighting the industrial animal processing machine’s Goliath, and listening to him I was grateful he has found a platform here.

Then we see them. Dozens of gorgeous turkeys following closely behind Reese looking like so many fantastically feathered Monty Python silly walkers. The turkeys cackle, dart after each other in play, and occasionally spring a foot or two into the air because, well, they can. These are birds who seem utterly delighted to be who they are - turkeys. Reese, the very good shepherd, is leading his enthusiastic flock and, by the end of the movie, the audience is following him, too.

 
 
 The film "Eating Animals" doesn't pull any punches when it comes to discussing the horrors of factory farming. But it does so in a way that's hopeful and suggests a happier alternative. Photo from LA Times

The film "Eating Animals" doesn't pull any punches when it comes to discussing the horrors of factory farming. But it does so in a way that's hopeful and suggests a happier alternative. Photo from LA Times

 
 

I was, anyway. Having watched plenty of documentaries that show cows, pigs, and chickens suffering at the hands of our industrial food complex, I was prepared to shield my eyes throughout most of the movie. Certainly there were times I gasped as animals are beaten, dragged, and prodded inside the squalid metal factories efficiently built for billions of beasts of burden. That includes, by the way, “cage-free, free-range” poultry farms where a shocking number of chickens die every day from living in never-ending misery.

We also bear witness to aerial footage of Pepto Bismol-colored hog lagoons that sit next to the massive pig farms. Along with a sickening stench, local townspeople show us the red sores sprouting on their skin because their water supply is contaminated by these feces-infused pink pools. In no uncertain terms, we see that industrial animal farming is a horror show, for the environment, for the animals, and for us.

the heroism of small farmers 

The takeaway from the movie, however, is that there is hope, beginning with the fact that industrialized farming is fairly recent. Only 50 years ago animals were used for their meat, milk, and eggs, but in a way that allowed them to coexist with farmers instead of being treated as "protein units." Given that roughly 99 percent of chickens and pigs and 78 percent of the cattle we eat are now raised in dim, miserable warehouses and feedlots, these smaller, more sustainably oriented farmers are a rare breed, but they're still out there. The movie suggests that their very existence offers a way out of factory farming, by suggesting an alternative.

"Industrialized farming is a recent phenomenon. Only 50 years ago animals were used for their meat, milk, and eggs, but in a way that allowed them to coexist with farmers instead of being raised as "protein unit."

While the current reality is truly terrible, the movie lays a path forward that’s better for animals and for humans, too. The first step is to recognize the horror of our current industrialized system. The second is to reject it by cutting back on eating meat and dairy, and sourcing food humanely from farmers like Reese. The third is to support technical advances in developing meat and dairy without the suffering and emotional baggage.

Because when yet another beleaguered chicken farmer in “Eating Animals” finally gives up on industrialized farming, saying, “There is no future in this method of raising food,” we want, and need, so very much to believe him.

 
 

Leslie Crawford is the author of Sprig the Rescue Pig and Gwen the Rescue Hen, two bedtime stories that highlight the many wonderful qualities of farm animals. Both are published by Stone Pier Press, an environmental publishing company with a food focus.