Harvesting Liberty: A Short Film

Written by Rebecca Burgess

Harvesting Liberty is a film that captures a story of a vision made manifest, a creation process that somehow made it through the veritable tsunami-like conditions created from the aftermath of the changing of antiquated laws, and the tour de force of promises brought forth by many-a-businessmen that followed this political change.

Hemp legalization in Kentucky in 2014 ushered in a sea of individuals and corporations focused on the immediate potential profitability that could be garnered from the re-introduction of the crop.  I recall my time on the phone and in-person with Mike Lewis and his colleagues, hearing about their efforts to navigate the stream of interests, money, and speculation forces at work.  

At the advent of the laws changing in Kentucky, there was a gold rush of sorts taking place, but within all of that swirling energy, none of these groups were navigating the value chain for textile fiber production, it just wasn’t of interest—their plates were already filled with CBDs, grain oil, bio-plastics, composites.  Half way through 2014, I received a call from Mike who had been at one of many department of agriculture events, and he said to me, ‘The good news is there is no competition for textile grade fiber, and the other news is that I don’t know how we are going to process this crop… and somehow you’ve turned me into a doily farmer’… I laughed, but at the same time, my heart sank a little.  

How were we going to process this crop, how are we going to find support for American grown hemp fiber, and see this material once again utilized in that which we wear. My main concern was how would we keep farmers interested in fiber production when it’s one of the more labor and capitally intensive aspects of adding value to this crop?  I was watching first hand the unfolding nature of the American marketplace: the idea of the quick return, big promises, and large scale value added processing. And here I was, offering none of those things to anyone.

What we did have in 2014, was the faith and a grant from the Environmental Grants program at Patagonia, provided to us to move forward with our hemp textile research.  I forwarded every dollar to our two farming partners—one small county-owned land farming operation in Colorado, and the other funding went to Mike Lewis and Kevin Lanzi of Growing Warriors to build hemp processing equipment.  

After a couple of years of collaboration, long phone conversations, and even longer email threads, we now have a burgeoning community of individuals (that has grown beyond who you’ll see in this film), who understand that this hemp fiber farming process is not a get rich quick scheme, but through time, commitment, and iterative trialing, making, creating, failing, succeeding, and sharing we will eventually look back and consider where we started, and know that we have done well.  

The commitment to the land, to farmers, to the makers, and yes, the investors too (they will see money with a modest return)… all of these elements can be honored, if we choose to walk a conscious path. Thank you Dan Malloy for making a film that reflects those qualities we seek to amplify in ourselves and in the world at large—persistence, honesty, humility, equity, and the ability to vision. Thank you Mike Lewis for holding your vision, and thank you flag making artisans whose hands and hearts produced the most beautiful American flag I’ve ever seen. Amazing work—Stephanie Brown, Deborah Kreikel, Brick Walker, Ongeleigh Gipson, and Elizabeth Smith.

From filmmaker Dan Malloy & Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line blog:

Ten years ago, just before a 17-hour flight to Indonesia I stood at a giant wall of magazines searching for something worthwhile to read. Glistening nether regions, outrageous headlines, sugar coated treats and self-help tips tempted my primal instinct to lurch. Stuffed in the back, in a negative space that drew me toward it like a vacuum, was a slim black and white periodical with no advertising called The Sun.

In it was an interview with author and farmer Wendell Berry and what would become the impetus for my new short film Harvesting Liberty. Mr. Berry explained clearly that industrialized agriculture has inflicted “a kind of cultural amnesia” on our society. In other words, the chasm that has been created between the people raising our food, and us (the eater) is doing more damage than we are capable of quantifying.

This disconnect from agriculture seems to be part of what has allowed us to narrow our vision of nature as only a place for vacation, preservation and play. It is safe to say that Mr. Berry and his cohorts (Jackson, Shiva, Snyder to name just a few) have changed how I see my place in this world. They have challenged me to, as Snyder said, “Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.” I now see deliberate participation in healthy food and fiber systems as engaged activism that requires less fighting against and more working for. (Same goals by the way, just less bureaucracy).

In our new short film Harvesting Liberty we had the amazing opportunity to document the work and vision of both Michael Lewis and Rebecca Burgess; two folks that have dedicated their lives to reestablishing meaningful connection to their communities and the natural world through agriculture. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Rebecca Burgess for inviting us on her journey and for introducing us to the forward thinking, visionary redneck Michael Lewis.
I’d also like to thank the Lewis family for welcoming us (and our cameras) into their home in the midst of raising a family, farming and finishing college.

To learn more about our support of hemp textile research, read our previous blog entries on Kentucky Cloth and Colorado Cloth, and join our mailing list to continue to receive updates.