The Troubling Facts Surrounding “Troubled Waters”

A locally-produced film has been stirring up plenty of controversy in Minnesota’s agricultural and education communities. “Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story” is a documentary produced by the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum about pollution and water contamination in the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. Documentaries like this one usually make their debut on TPT without much of a splash, but the University’s decision in early September to pull the film from broadcast and cancel its premiere at the Bell drew the attention of local journalists. A story soon emerged of University administrators blocking the release of the film over concern with industrial agriculture’s response. Vice President of University Relations Karen Himle said the film didn’t meet academic standards and called it propaganda. The Land Stewardship Project fingered her ties with agribusiness and demanded that the film be made publicly available, also asking for her resignation.

Needless to say, I was eager to check this film out for myself and see what the whole to-do was about. I got my chance when the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and three other partners hosted a free screening and forum at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis this past Monday night. The auditorium filled nearly to the brim, and I settled into my seat with a bag of popcorn, wondering if I would soon feel guilty about making that food choice.

“Troubled Waters” opens with images of shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico, trying to maintain their livelihoods in the face of a growing dead zone “as lifeless and alien as the moon.” Phosphorous and nitrogen fertilizers, we are told, are running off of corn and soybean fields in the Midwest and moving downstream, compromising water quality and killing off plant and animal along the way. We’re introduced to corn farmer Dick Gerhardt, who uses chemical fertilizer, but has been successfully experimenting with using less in a more concentrated manner. We also hear from an organic dairy farmer who has seen the amount of nitrates in his well water rise to 40 times the federally safe limit. We don’t, however, hear from a farmer unconcerned with chemical fertilizer use.

The film tell us that ground water contamination isn’t just an agricultural problem. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak tells us how cities, lawns, and golf courses contribute. “We ought to own what we’re doing in our own yard,” he says. But while agriculture isn’t the only practice indicted in the film, it certainly is the central one. Filmmakers point to the Farm Bill as our best hope to halt this escalation of contamination. The conclusion is clear: farmers shouldn’t just be rewarded for the number of bushels of corn they produce, but also for farming the land in a way that avoids soil erosion and ground water contamination.

Some prominent local foods figures make appearances in the film. Todd Churchill of Thousand Hills Cattle Company warns of rich topsoil floating down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, as the deep roots of prairie grasses have been replaced by commodity crops that can’t hold the soil in place. (“Imagine how expensive it’s going to be to bring that topsoil back,” he says.) Chef Scott Pampuch explains how consumer concerns over these issues are influencing the way people eat. And Jack Hedin of Featherstone Farm describes how he was penalized $9,000 for growing vegetables on land that should have been growing annual crops, according to the Farm Bill. The message I saw ultimately emerging is that runoff and water contamination is not farmers’ faults, but rather the fault of an agricultural policy that prioritizes present yields over long-term sustainability.

Was the documentary fair and balanced? It’s hard to say. While the arguments seem logical, consistent with what I already knew to be true, and presented in a relatively objective manner, I didn’t feel I heard the perspective of those who might find fault with the film. I was hoping the counter arguments would arise in the following discussion, but the panelists from Friends of the Mississippi River, IATP, Twin Cities Daily Planet, and Land Stewardship Project clearly held the same conclusions as the film. Perhaps this is because they’re the only reasonable conclusions that can be drawn, but I wish I had a better understanding of why the University was so hesitant to release this film in the first place.

Among the panel there seemed to be a general consensus that the University of Minnesota should be a partner, if not world leader, in research and education in sustainable and organic agriculture. In following the administration’s handling of this controversy, however, it’s unclear how they will maneuver the tension between existing agricultural policy and emerging practices which may have more long-term viability, even though they are well-positioned to do so. IATP’s Julia Olmstead said that the University “has riches right now” in their staff and resources, and can provide us with direction in how to maintain Minnesota’s agricultural stronghold. “But (the University) is not going to do this without really good leadership, and we need people who won’t do things like pull this movie.”


Leslie Kruempel likes bringing people together to talk about real food, whether it's through the Real Food Minnesota gathering, Twin Cities Crop Mob, or on Twitter. Follow her at @realfoodmn.