WILL ORTMAN: I’ve kind of accepted my fate in a way of being, sort of, the, the guy that’s alarmed about this before everybody else is.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: FUTURE OF FOOD
ON SCREEN: A COLLABORATION BY QUARTZ AND RETRO REPORT
ARCHIVAL (STAR TREK: VOYAGER, 2000):
One slice of New York cheesecake.
NARRATION: Why is it, in so many of the sci-fi movies …
ARCHIVAL (THE MATRIX, 1999):
Breakfast of champions.
NARRATION… food of the future comes out of a gadget?
ARCHIVAL (BACK TO THE FUTURE, PART II, 1989):
Hydrate level four, please.
NARRATION: But if you really want to understand the future of food, it’s probably not gadgets you should be paying attention to. People who make raising food their business say the biggest challenges coming involve how food is grown.
WILL ORTMAN (ORGANIC FARMER): We’re kind of a throwback to a different era.
NARRATION: This South Dakota farm looks old school, but the Ortman family has designed it around their vision for the future.
SHERILYN ORTMAN (ORGANIC FARMER): Better to embrace change on your own terms than wait until it embraces you by force.
NARRATION: Several years ago, the Ortmans began rebuilding their operation from the dirt up, after realizing that they were barely breaking even focusing on a conventional crop of mainly corn.
WILL ORTMAN: My conclusion after pushing the numbers on this, was that going organic was going to work better economically. Because of the organic price premiums. This wasn’t rooted in some kind of dream or wish or some philosophy. It really did start with economics.
NARRATION: Switching from conventional farming to organic was a huge change. Instead of plowing and spraying to kill weeds, the Ortmans make multiple trips through fields to carefully scrape them out. Instead of fertilizing with chemicals, they spend months preparing one of the oldest tools in agriculture.
WILL ORTMAN: Our operation is really built around compost. We’re talking about manure here.
NARRATION: For these farmers, all that effort is worth it because for them the future of food has a lot to do with the future of dirt.
WILL ORTMAN: If you boil down food production into its most basic form, everything that we eat comes off of the soil originally, and the soil is a living organism.
DAVID MONTGOMERY: We tend to take the soil for granted. That’s the ultimate source of most of our food.
NARRATION: History holds lessons for societies that fail to keep soil in mind.
DAVID MONTGOMERY (AUTHOR, “DIRT: THE EROSION OF CIVILIZATIONS”): You look at the history of the spread of western civilization, it’s in many regards, a story of people moving on after degrading the land. Individual droughts or political events or war with the neighbors, those kind of events are the kind of things that will actually, sort of, take down civilizations. But the table is set, if you will, by the state of the land.
NARRATION: One of the reasons this is so important? Climate change.
LISA PALMER (AUTHOR, “HOT, HUNGRY PLANET”): Farmers will feel the impacts in their fields long before we feel the impacts in the grocery stores.
WILL ORTMAN: The trends are all towards extremes. Rain doesn’t come gradually throughout the year anymore. It comes in fewer, but larger doses, that the land is just not able to soak up.
NARRATION: Will says he’s found that minimally-tilled land enriched with organic material like compost tends to soak up more rain, and stay moist through dry spells. Other growers have found still more dramatic solutions. This indoor vegetable farm in New Jersey has eliminated dirt entirely, and recreated climate from scratch.
MARC OSHIMA (CO-FOUNDER, AEROFARMS): We grow in warehouses without sun or soil. Independent of the seasons, independent of the weather. And this is how we can take back what’s becoming more and more challenging with climate change.
NARRATION: Another vulnerability could be the conventional farming model practiced across the United States. It tends to favor large operations that specialize in just a few crops or animals.
DAN GLICKMAN (US SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE, 1995-2001): This monoculture agriculture, which we tend to have had, is so vulnerable to weather changes and climate and pests. If a disease were to wipe out the wheat crop worldwide, it would have potentially devastating, catastrophic impacts globally, everywhere. I’m not saying it’s gonna happen tomorrow. I’m just saying that a good farmer has got to be a good risk manager.
NARRATION: The Ortmans manage their risk by spreading it out. They grow a variety of crops like corn, rye, black beans, soy and strawberries. And they also raise cattle and chickens that lay eggs.
WILL ORTMAN: It’s exactly like a stock portfolio, not very many people have all of their holdings in one stock.
NARRATION: Small organic farms may be one part of the solution to the challenges the future holds. But in world whose population is heading north of 9 billion people, it’s probably not the only solution. That’s because the human race will consume more food in the next 50 years than it has in the past 10,000 years combined.
DAN GLICKMAN: It’s a complicated problem. But it is a problem that the human race can deal with. We’re gonna need everything from traditional agriculture to exotic agriculture. Everything from industrial agriculture to locally scaled agriculture. And we got to remember that overlying it all is the consumer and the consumer is king and queen. And they ultimately will decide what they’re gonna eat and therefore what the future of agriculture is gonna look like.
NARRATION: Feeding the future will require us to grow a lot more food. But it’ll probably also require us to waste a lot less.
DAN GLICKMAN: We throw away about 35% of all food that we produce. That’s both here in the United States and elsewhere. That is low-hanging fruit. That is almost enough, if we could figure out a way to deal with that problem, to feed people over the next couple of decades.
SHERILYN ORTMAN: So in our little corner of the world, we’re doing what we can to enrich our soil, to diversify. I hope people can see that that the land is responding to what we’re doing I hope people can see that we’re not starving, that we’re doing OK, financially, knock on wood.
NARRATION: And the Ortmans believe their operation could hold affordable lessons for improving resiliency in the developing world countries where farms are small and populations are large.
WILL ORTMAN: It’s not going to be a gadget that’ll do it. There’s a constant exchange of ideas and of experiences. I don’t want my kids to say, “There were all these warning signs when I was a kid and my dad just looked the other way. And now look at what we have to deal with.”
SHERILYN ORTMAN: This is the ark we’re building before the rain.