Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, by Mat Bradley-Tschirgi
The organic food industry has grown on average 19% per year from 2002 to 2011. The hipster down the street might be bragging about how delicious his $2.99 organic apple tastes, but is he concerned about how it was grown? Were the farming methods to grow that apple as environmentally sound as the inflated price tag? In the documentary Symphony of the Soil, director Deborah Koons of The Future of Food fame takes a look at geologically responsible farming methods for organic farming. Factoids abound, but the whole presentation can’t help but come across as a glorified educational video a lazy substitute teacher might slap on the TV during a tepid Biology 101 class.
This film features a gaggle of professors, authors, and farmers discussing their views on geology as it relates to nutrient-rich soil. Scientific names of different soil types are rattled off in quick succession as pastoral piano music tinkles in the background. Plenty of information is presented in a workmanlike manner. Although a primer of the biologic makeup of soil is important, Symphony of the Soil could have benefitted from digging into the dirt a little quicker. The agenda this film is attempting to get across is that homemade organic compost over time can create less erosion and superior soil foundation than fertilized soil alone. The science on display is most convincing, but nearly half of the running time is devoted to the chemical makeup of soil itself. The pacing would have been much improved if more time was spent on the root of the matter. The diverse discussion on farming techniques in the second half of the film are more engaging than the academic science lecture in the first.
At least Symphony of the Soil isn’t all talking heads. There are some lovely animated sequences illustrated in a watercolor style that liven up the dull first half of the film. The high-definition cinematography by John Chater and Nancy Schiesari bring out the rich detail of the micronutrients in the soil to good effect. By talking to farmers in the United States, England, and India, Koons brings a nice worldview to retro farming techniques used in a modern way. There is a bounty of knowledge to be gained from this documentary, but it’s too much information delivered in too dry a fashion. Perhaps a miniseries format could have given the topics a little more room to breathe.
Symphony of the Soil is a stellar example of a good idea with a bad execution. It ends right as it starts to get interesting. Better suited for a high school classroom on a rainy day, there’s little to recommend here.