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The Organic Life
As The Organic Life opens, it has been a long, cold Spring with late rains, but young farmer Austin Blair isn't phased. He has just begun his first season at Paul's Produce in Sonoma, California and is excited to begin learning and working with master farmer Paul Wirtz. At the heart of his enthusiasm lies the desire to learn one farmer's system - how one man can take thousands of working parts in hopes of turning them into a profitable organic vegetable farm.
Austin and his girlfriend, filmmaker Casey Beck, have let their passion for sustainable living and fresh, seasonal produce lead them to Sonoma. The year is a testing ground to determine whether or not such a life is financially and emotionally sustainable. The quest to earn a living from one's passion is not unique to farming, but striving to survive from a traditional lifestyle in modern-day America is both poignant and revealing, as the film opens a window into the truth behind increasingly popular quixotic ideals. The long hours of summer, filled with manual labor, take a toll on everyone - the filmmaker included - and seem to bring little reward.
The film chronicles the couple's steps towards building a more organic life. From building a coop and raising chickens with the hope of fresh eggs in the Fall, to Austin planting his own dry corn and beans to produce a larger portion of the protein in the couple's diet, to attempting to sell the pickled and canned goods they made with excess from the farm - the question of whether financial feasibility perpetually looms over Austin and Casey, unrelenting.
As the summer wears on, the viewer experiences the rise and fall of the tomato crop, the hopes put into this hallmark of organic, heirloom produce and the subsequent failure when the prolonged Spring delays their maturation. By the time the crew at Paul's Produce gets their tomatoes to the market, other sellers from the South have been selling theirs for over a month, and the jaded customers means hundreds of tomatoes go to waste.
More challenges abound as the idealistic young couple discover that living organically isn't always easy from a personal standpoint either. When one of their beloved young "hens" turns out to be male, and the suburban proximity to their neighbors won't allow a noisy rooster, Austin and Casey must take matters into their own hands, resulting in a messy, backyard slaughter of their chicken Pepe. Home-made corn-meal sounds like a fantastic idea, until the back-breaking labor results in tension and bickering. And, an ever-diminishing amount of free time to spend with friends, family, and each other begins to show its wear on their relationship.
The bounty of Fall provides an emotional respite for the couple, as they begin to harvest Austin's decidedly different green corn experiment and plan their first Thanksgiving together. The bounty of the season seems to justify the long, hot days of Summer and as the weather cools, so do their tempers. The change in weather also sparks epiphanies about the reasons why this lifestyle might actually be worth it, as Austin begins to understand Casey's reason for making the film and Casey begins to grasp the profundity of Austin's commitment to both her and the land.
Thus, the year is ultimately a success and both the farmer and the filmmaker learn that the most rewarding upsides of this organic life are simply the daily pleasures - cold mornings giving way to the California sun, hands in the earth, freshly-laid eggs, a crop of delicious corn, a myriad of seasonal vegetables on the kitchen table. And, despite the hurdles, the changing seasons see the couple's commitment to Austin being a full-time farmer deepen. The Organic Life provides an inside peak into the little-seen world of organic farming and examines how what appears to be a step backwards might be one of the most sustainable roads into the future.
"Despite unpredictable weather, backbreaking work and scant financial margins, Austin Blair remains passionate about providing good food to his family and community. Casey Beck offers an intimate look at what keeps her man devoted to the hard life of an organic farmer. As assistant farmer at Paul's Produce in Sonoma, Austin learns from Paul Wirtz about traditional, sustainable ways of working with the soil as a living organism within a greater ecosystem. This feast for the senses takes us through four seasons on the farm, following the rhythms of nature and revealing the attendant challenges and joys of locally oriented, sustainable agriculture. Austin's satisfaction in doing what he loves every day, collaborating with the earth by leading a life more fully connected to it, becomes a teaching on true abundance."
Best Documentary Feature, Santa Cruz Film Festival
Mill Valley Film Festival, October 2013
Santa Cruz Film Festival, November 2013
Sonoma International Film Festival, April 2014
Oakland International Film Festival, April 2014
Minneapolis International Film Festival, April 2014