Tableland documents sustainable farming successes

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      Vancouver filmmaker Craig Noble may be an urbanite, but he doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. During the two years he spent filming his sustainable-food documentary, Tableland, he travelled to farms in B.C. and throughout North America, working for room and board. He did whatever needed doing: weeding, composting, irrigating. "It was basically [a] workaday, shoot-a-day kind of workflow," he tells the Straight in a phone interview. "I pulled honey for three days and got stung five times. It was a full experience, that's for sure."

      Noble spent periods varying from several days to a few weeks with small-scale farmers, chefs, winemakers, cheese makers, and others. Doing so "had a direct impact" on the film, he says. "I stayed with the producers and their families, and was eating and cooking for them. By the time I left, we had a personal relationship."

      Tableland, which premieres in Vancouver on Sunday (December 2), shows how local, seasonal food is being produced on a small scale in diverse places like Salt Spring Island, rural Quebec, and inner-city Chicago. The film advocates the relocalization of our food system; that is, building the infrastructure for a return to local food production. "They are people with their hands in the dirt," Noble says of the producers. "They actually practise what the message is in the film, which is building local food systems sustainably."

      Noble says the inspiration for the project came from his sister Heidi Noble, a chef who runs Naramata's Joie winery with her husband, Michael Dinn. Their venture, which until recently included a cooking school, evolved from an initial desire to build a food-and-wine centre in the Okanagan. Heidi is the film's associate producer, and she also features prominently on-screen.

      "She was pretty pivotal in getting me the initial contacts," Noble says of his sister, who is well connected with B.C. chefs and producers. "If you get in contact with these chefs, who have connections on every level as far as local food goes, then you have access to everyone."

      The documentary focuses on idyllic scenes, bountiful farmers markets, and gourmet cooking. The interviewees discuss why their ventures are good for the earth, why they're better for people's health, why they create better-tasting products, and how this kind of eating is ultimately more satisfying on a human level. However, this isn't just self-promotion–these people are passionate about what they do. Most are sustainable-food-system activists, and their arguments make sense. "We are reliant on oil and places way far away to feed ourselves here," Vermont vegetable farmer Pete Johnson points out in the film, asking what we would do if the trucks stopped coming.

      The film highlights successful models of sustainable food practices, such as the five-hectare Fairview Gardens in Santa Barbara, California. It's an example of community-supported agriculture (CSA), otherwise known as "subscription farming". Individuals pay a certain amount of money to the farmer up-front and receive a share of whatever the farm produces.

      Chef John Taboada has taken this a step further at his restaurant Navarre, in Portland, Oregon. He has signed on with urban farmer Laura Masterson, whose 47th Avenue CSA farm provides him with a share of its produce. "Traditionally, the relationship is reversed, where the restaurant kind of decides what they want to cook, and then they order it," Masterson says in the film. "This turns that on its head. I walk around the fields and say, 'This is what's ready, this looks amazing, this is prime,' and he [Taboada] says 'Bring it.'"

      Taboada is shown canning an abundance of broccoli raab that Masterson's farm has yielded. "This is what the fields have provided, and I've committed to it," Taboada says, adding, "I'm hoping that I'm creating a model that shows a possibility."

      That's essentially what Noble's film presents: possibilities. "It's a trajectory to work towards," he says. "The current system that we have–the industrial system, global food system–is not sustainable." But he realizes that change can't happen overnight. "You have to build the infrastructure so you can build a local food system."

      These producers are off to a good start.

      Tableland screens this Sunday (December 2) at 4 p.m. at the Ridge Theatre; tickets are $10. The original Monday (December 3) Vancity Theatre premiere is sold-out. The DVD of the film will be available for $20 starting Tuesday (December 4) at Edible British Columbia, at Granville Island Public Market.