Off-again, on-again ag film draws a crowd

By Marlin Levison, Star Tribune
3 October 2010

Mark Schultz, associate director of the Land Stewardship Project, spoke at a news conference before two showings of “Troubled Waters.” The film also will be aired at 8 p.m. Tuesday on public television. 

After weeks of ruckus, a documentary on farming’s role in the Gulf of Mexico’s "dead zone" played to full houses at the U.

Two days before a controversial documentary about Minnesota agriculture is to be aired on public television, more than 600 people turned out at a University of Minnesota campus theater Sunday to see what the fuss was about.

The two full houses — studded with state legislators, university researchers and staff, state government officials and sustainability advocates — applauded "Troubled Waters," a 57-minute documentary detailing Minnesota agriculture’s contribution to the nitrogen-induced "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico and how some farmers are exploring nitrogen-reduction strategies.

The documentary had been temporarily pulled from scheduled screenings by a university vice president without consultation with any of the film’s public or nonprofit funders. That prompted criticism that the university was engaging in censorship and stifling academic freedom.

Sunday’s screening met the original schedule, although the second showing was added, and instead of $10, admission was free.

"I don’t think this would have occurred without the controversy," said Mike Neaton of south Minneapolis, a member of an advocacy group who said he and his wife, Mary Langfield, probably would have come to see the film anyway.

Susan Weller, director of the Bell Museum of Natural History, which produced the documentary and housed the showing, said she "couldn’t be happier" that the piece went before the public.

"I really think the film deserves to be seen," she said. "What was accomplished here was the launch of a conversation that needs to happen."

Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, co-chairwoman of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, said she thought the film, which will be aired at 8 p.m. Tuesday on Twin Cities Public Television, was well worth the $349,000 the commission contributed to the project, although she said she was surprised it hadn’t included more advocacy for alternatives to nitrogen-heavy farming.

After the first screening, the film’s director, two farmers and a researcher who appeared in it, and John Foley, director of the university’s Institute on the Environment, took the stage to answer audience questions. Weller told the audience that questions should focus on the film and farm issues, and not on the controversy.

Nevertheless, Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, who is also on the Legislative-Citizen Commission, said the turn of events "establishes that the university should and will be the center of debate on key scientific and political issues in our state."

"I’m happy the forum occurred," Anderson said. "I hope everybody has learned from this."

At a news conference before the first screening, the Land Stewardship Project and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy renewed their call for the university to fire Karen Himle, the vice president who had previously blocked the documentary’s showings. They also criticized corporate-underwritten research, while calling for an overhaul of the university’s policies on conflict of interest, and for increased research and education on sustainable and organic agriculture.

Several university researchers are prominent in the documentary as advocates for alternatives to high-nitrogen, fence-row-to-fence-row commodity farming.

University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks issued a statement Sept. 28 describing Himle’s role as having "raised questions and concerns about

[the documentary] in her capacity as vice president of university relations."

"I have confidence in her leadership and integrity," Bruininks added.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646