Promoting a Homegrown Stalk-umentary
Alumna’s film showcases plight, pluck of ‘asparagus capital of the world’
By Debra L. Freeberg

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June 1, 2006 update:
Asparagus! (A Stalk-umentary) was awarded the "Good Food Film Award" from the Kellogg Foundation as part of the Media That Matters Film Festival. Watch the six-minute trailer of the film at www.mediathatmatters.org (select the box for film #13).

What are the ingredients of a stellar premiere for a new documentary film? Import 17 family members and friends to market the documentary; provide aprons, chefs’ hats, tiaras, “Mrs. Asparagus” sashes, and baskets filled with asparagus muffins or asparagus cookies; and send them out to meet and greet the public.

And so, armed with appropriate garb, goodies and goodwill, the “asparagus people,” as we became known at the festival, encouraged, nudged and cajoled audience members of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival to attend the world premiere of Asparagus!: A Stalk-umentary, by former Oceana County (Mich.) native and Calvin College alumna Kirsten Kelly ’95 and New York City native Anne de Mare. In a day and a half, we passed out more than 1,500 asparagus muffins and cookies to festival attendees and helped this feisty first film of de Mare and Kelly play to a near sellout crowd on April 7, 2006, at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, N.C.

Kirsten Kelly and Debra FreebergIn nine short years, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has become the premier documentary film festival in the United States. Asparagus!: A Stalk-umentary was one of 75 films selected for the new documentary category out of more than 1,100 films submitted to the festival this year.

“It was amazing to see people’s reactions, laughter and responses,” Kelly said. “This was our first audience, and it was wonderful to see it sail — and fascinating to hear people’s questions and interest in the film. I am relieved. This is a scary thing to do.”

Although the film did not garner any awards at the festival, it was apparent to this Mrs. Asparagus that the film will be invited to other festivals. Moreover, Evangeline Griego, producer of Sir! No Sir!, told me that the asparagus people promotions were stellar. “I’m going to tell my students about this,” she said. “Young filmmakers often forget that they have to promote their product. This is a great example of a successful campaign.”

Filmmakers Kirsten Kelly and Anne de MareKelly and de Mare’s film chronicles a small community’s fight to preserve its identity and livelihood in spite of global economics and U.S. subsidies to Peru. With humor and subtlety, Kelly and de Mare weave the story of small farmers, asparagus queens, politicians, boosters and townspeople spear-struck by their local cash crop.

Delicately intercutting between showcasing the annual Oceana County Asparagus Festival and telling the sobering tale of the effects of American foreign policy on small-town America, the film ultimately triumphs as it pays tribute to the optimism and hardiness of a community that refuses to give up. The film’s great strength is in showing the indomitable spirit of the people of Hart and Shelby, Mich., as they proactively fight to maintain the economic vitality of the region and their community identity as the “asparagus capital of the world.”

“It was delicious!” gushed a woman after the premiere. “I was so angry at the Peruvians, and then I saw Colombia, and I was so upset. I am from Colombia.” She was referring to the effect of the Andean Trade Preference Act of 1991 and the $60 million subsidy the United States provides Peruvian farmers to grow asparagus and reduce the drug trade. While the subsidy decreased cocaine drug imports to the United States by 61 percent by 2001, neighboring state Colombia filled in the trade gap by increasing its U.S.-bound cocaine shipments by 74 percent over the same 10-year period. Moreover, these Peruvian farm subsidies have virtually annihilated the asparagus industry in Washington state and threaten the livelihoods of Michigan farmers, as well.

“What can we do?” an audience member asked during the talk-back session. “Buy local,” quipped de Mare. The filmmakers’ responses underscored what is at the heart of this film: “Make decisions to preserve your local community’s economy.” They reminded their audience that there might be consequences to saving 10 cents on a product. “Look at labels. Know where your food comes from. Buy local."

— Debra Freeberg is professor of communication arts and sciences