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Asparagus: Stalking the American Life. 53 minutes, 2008. Spargel Productions . $19.99.


REVIEW of Asparagus: Stalking the American Life.

This film is set in Oceana County, Michigan, the self-proclaimed “asparagus capital of the world!” Oceana County is home to just under 27,000 residents who live on the west central coastline of beautiful Lake Michigan. A thriving economy in lumber milling in the 1800s has given way to tourism, fruit orchards, and asparagus production. But when U.S. federal drug policy changed directions in the early 1990s and began to encourage Peruvian farmers to get in the asparagus business in an effort to give up cocoa (cocaine) production, the reverberations were felt all the way back to this small coastal community.

In “Asparagus: Stalking the American Life” filmmakers attempt to chronicle the connections between free trade, the U.S. war on drugs and rural community well-being through the lens of one commodity – asparagus. Given that one of the filmmakers is a native of Oceana County, this provides a particularly unique look at the role of culture in agriculture – or how production practices can fashion a community’s identity. Whether it be the pride that asparagus-producing families display when they are lobbying Congress for supportive legislation, electing a new “Mrs. Asparagus” queen, or local 4:H’ers demonstrating the “asparagus dance” (yes, there is a dance!), the unique culture of asparagus is one of the primary actors in this video. While the spotlight is shown on many of the problems facing asparagus producers and their communities, the filmmakers spend about one half of the 53 minute video highlighting the uniqueness of their culture and how it distinguishes them. You’ll see interviews by producers, industry leaders, and law-makers, but you’ll also be exposed to the role of asparagus in families and community organizations.

For those who think that farmers and farming communities are alienated from their land and from each other – this video will force you to rethink such broad generalizations. In this way, this video can speak to broader themes that take up the interests of sustainable food system advocates such as: “What is agriculture for?”; “ What purposes does agriculture serve beyond food?”; or, “Does it matter who produces our asparagus – Peruvian or Michigan farmers?”

“Asparagus” does a good job communicating the culture of agriculture, but this video misses the mark when it comes to peeling back the meaty layers of international trade. The focus on the U.S. war on drugs is only part of the story, all be it one that makes for sensational filming. A fuller conversation about this crisis would force us to explore questions about global trade networks apart from the ‘war on drugs, such as “Would asparagus remained untouched by global competition, had the US government not given Peru incentives to enter the asparagus market. The answer has to be no most likely. All commodities have encountered global trade competitors over the past decade or two. A more complete picture of the asparagus commodity chain would also demand an account for the constraints faced by government as it attempts to be responsive to an increasingly diverse – and non-farm – constituency.

For those of you who are thinking, this film sounds somewhat “Berry-esque” (as in the noted essayist and poet Wendell Berry), I recommend coupling a viewing of this film with Berry’s classic “The Unsettling of America”. If you are looking for companion videos to show along with this one, consider, “Broken Limbs: Apples, Agriculture, and the New American Farmer” or one of my all-time favorites, “Tobacco Blues”. “Broken Limbs’ excels at telling the globalization story more fully, while “Tobacco Blues” articulates a unique culture of agriculture quite distinct from “Asparagus”, yet still a culture in flux due to broader social changes taking place outside the farm.

Reviewed by:
Wynne Wright, Ph.D. Michigan State University

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS for Asparagus: Stalking the American Life:

1. Have you ever been to an asparagus farm? Have you visited Oceana County?

2. What is your initial reaction to this film?

3. How has global trade competition impacted rural community life?

4. Does it matter who produces our asparagus – Peruvian or Michigan farmers? Why?

5. What obligation does the U.S. government have to protect Michigan asparagus farmers? Or, in this case, do the ends (reducing drug trade) justify the means (curtailing US asparagus production and hurting farm families)?

6. Could the war on drugs be fought in a way that does not threaten the economic stability of asparagus growers and their communities?

7. Do you think the filmmakers told a balanced story of asparagus? Did they omit anything?

8. What meaning does asparagus hold in this community?

9. According to “Asparagus”, what role does agriculture play in Oceana County? What purposes does agriculture serve beyond food?

10. What other foods are closely associated with Michigan culture and traditions? How do you think they may have been impacted by global trade competition? How might you expect these products to have shaped a unique rural or agrifood culture?

11. Many of the individuals interviewed in this film seem to experience this change as a loss. What do you think are feel they are losing?

12. How can you use the information you have learned in this film in your daily life?

in cooperation with
Michigan State University
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