Feversham-area beekeeper Hugh Simpson was fully committed to participation in Dylan Sher’s full-length Before The Plate (BTP) documentary.
But his personal passion for bridging the gap between rural reality and urban understanding did come at a price.
“There is a saying, ‘if you’re not swearing, you’re not beekeeping,’” Simpson laughed of the challenge of executing and explaining regular work routines in front of a film crew’s rolling camera. One needs to be true to both oneself and the process he says, “but present an image that can go public.”
Simpson is owner/operator of Osprey Bluffs Honey Company, a commercial beekeeping operation with several hundred hives in Grey, Bruce, Simcoe and Dufferin counties. Beyond farmgate sales, his company services the wholesale market for chefs, commercial kitchens and bakers in the Georgian triangle and Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
As part of his operational mandate, Simpson strives to close the rural/urban divide, believing effective communication is an integral component of modern agri-business.
“There’s no way you can farm like you did 50 years ago,” says Simpson, who administers a company website, Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter accounts and is active with agricultural organizations. He believes if a producer is not willing to be proactive that is understandable, but they had better be prepared to at least be responsive.
“One can lament about it or you can kind of buck up and say if I’m going to be in business, like any other business, you’ve got to keep up.”
Sher is an ambitious 23-year-old Richmond Hill native and University of Guelph Ag-Business student whose personal journey of agricultural discovery added “documentary filmmaker” to his resume. An anomaly, a born-and-bred city kid looking for a farming future, Sher arrived at university with an ill-defined determination to “farm the right way.” His was a loose agri-warrior concept rejecting contemporary practices, based on an unrealistic urban-centric view of farming fostered by negative messaging he witnessed via social media, combined with mass mainstream media coverage.
All that began to change says Sher, when he was exposed to real farmers, their economic realities, pride in product and passion for food quality and safety. His growing understanding of agriculture reached a frustrated tipping point one day on a dairy farm near Keswick, whose pristine, stainless steel environment was diametrically opposed to an animal rights organization’s purported “expose” video of the industry’s supposed horrors being shared on social media.
The incident represents a grim reminder of a cyberspace populated by well-funded, agenda-driven, social-media-savvy animal rights or environmental organizations presenting their version of the truth. Farmers face a risk/reward ratio that has never been higher; the price of failure to respond effectively more potentially devastating. One needs to look no further than the recent American presidential election to quantify the impact of modern social media: fact-based, internationally-directed or otherwise.
Rather than simply getting mad at the misrepresentation of the dairy industry, Sher responded with the tools of his generation, shooting a photo of a container of ice cream in front of a Holstein with his phone, posting it to Instagram under the tag ‘Before The Plate’ with an attendant explanation.
This humble “12-like” beginning would evolve into producing a full-length documentary shot in 4K under the direction of childhood friend and Ryerson film student Sagi Kahane-Rappport. Sher’s concept is a non-partisan deconstruction of each ingredient on a plate of food created by Canoe Restaurant & Bar Executive Chef John Horne (beef tenderloin framed with tater tots, carmalized carrots glazed with Osprey Bluffs honey, onions, bread sauce, and green tomato celery relish) back to its physical and human rural roots, providing enlightenment through the journey.
Farmers already understand agriculture says Sher, and making the ‘reach out’ or bridging the gap between rural subject matter and impacting a large urban target audience is imperative, if difficult to accomplish. Social media, for example, tends to be a highly-segregated space. While his aggie classmates insist they actively post, their message is largely internal says Sher. He never saw a photo of a tractor on Facebook or Instagram until he made those connections.
His plan for bridging the rural/urban disconnect is BTP’s entry into the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and other events, leveraging Chef Horne and Canoe’s status as a foodie hook for the target urban audience, extended through attendant publicity, positive media buzz and BTP’s own social media (website, Facebook Page, Instagram) network.
Canoe’s 54th-floor view provides a metaphor for the heart of the issue. Apart from the iconic CN Tower, Toronto’s business district, Rogers Centre and more traffic than grains of sand on Sauble Beach, one sees a virtually-endless array of apartment buildings, condos, townhouses and subdivisions stretching off into a mega-metropolitan horizon bereft of a single farm or farmer. A panoramic view of Ontario agriculture’s consumer majority instantaneously makes it clear “there are a lot more of them than there are of us.” This observation is backed up by a 2011 census data indicating of Ontario’s then 12,651,790 residents, a mere 174,905 (or 1.4 per cent) were farmers.
The historical shift away from country to city advances beyond numeracy, to urban-dwellers who once may have been a generation or two removed from a farm and retained some understanding of that life, to those who have absolutely no concept of rural reality.
Therein lies the challenge and potential danger for Ontario’s agricultural community. While the province’s urban majority appreciates the fruits of its labour, and in great majority is supportive of their province’s farmers, their understanding largely begins and ends with the view of food on their serving plate. This is problematic in the narrative of its origins, practices it was produced under and perceived quality. Even safety may be co-opted by organizations presenting alternate facts to shape the perceptions, and policy-creation power inherent in that massive majority. Ontario’s farmers’ very livelihood and future depends on an urban understanding that their food is not only safe, but ethically and environmentally-responsibly produced.
Against this backdrop Sher believes effectively sharing narrative must be as much a part of modern agriculture as animal husbandry or cropping innovations.
“If they don’t do it then somebody else will. And there is a lot at stake.”
Sher’s passion, commitment and drive are key to the project, along with Kahane-Rapport’s cinema-tographic talent and access to resources, and Horne’s enthusiastic support and full participation, which offered instant credibility. To maintain editorial freedom, Sher successfully crowd-funded $50,000 through Kickstarter, $10,000 over the original target, if still a shoestring budget for a project of this scope. The BTP crew travelled close to 9,000 kilometres on 30-plus shoot days, compiling over 16 terrabytes of raw footage.
Simpson’s initial contact with Sher resulted as their social media networks aligned. The beekeeper did his due diligence in researching BTP before offering his assistance. They met at a restaurant in Guelph, initiating an ongoing discussion on scope, content and timing to capture beeyards, hives, honey harvest, extraction and packing.
“It was a full day of actually filming, but there was quite a bit of back and forth beforehand.”
The crew’s organization and execution “happily impressed” Simpson, meeting high expectations established during previous contact.
“It was well done. They are young guys but they’ve got credentials and know what they are doing.”
Simpson is also impressed with the time and effort the crew put in, out of what he sees as authentic interest, passion and belief in its inherent value.
“They are doing it in a way that’s visual and appealing,” he said. “All these elements are really key and on point for what needs to be done for agriculture at this time.”
Most importantly, the crew brought an open mind and a fresh perspective to his rural operation, despite being largely urban in origin.
“No one demographic has purview over that, but it is true, if you are appealing to an urban or non-agricultural audience, it would be wise to understand their perspective and I do think Dylan and his team do.
“In some ways, I think Dylan and his crew are uniquely qualified to bring their story to town, so to speak.”
His share of the documentary film experience was both productive and enjoyable says Simpson, apart from providing great subject matter and fodder for his own social media feeds.
“It’s always fun to be doing something I think is right, with people you enjoy being around.”
In particular, he welcomed the opportunity to be part of a fair and unbiased portrayal of Ontario agriculture, given his concern mainstream media does not always live up to that mandate.
“Frankly, it’s a group that doesn’t understand rural living very well,” said Simpson.
There are media outlets which do, he qualified, but their impact may be comparatively limited in major urban centres. And while BTP may not be “the” answer, Simpson certainly sees it as an important piece in the broader effort of building or repairing the farming “brand” and filling in the gap with urban consumers.
“My feeling is these guys are on the right track and doing something that is absolutely necessary. This is an important part of it, and I was glad to be involved.”
Midway through March, Sher’s involvement included being locked in the Toronto-based editing “bunker’”with three others prior to heading home to Richmond Hill for study, maybe a little sleep and mid-term exam the following morning.
“It’s 10 times what I thought it would be,” he laughed, admitting if he were to tackle another such project, he’d prefer to do so with a lot more time and money. “But we will get it done and I don’t think this will be the last project for Sagi and myself – keep on doing what we are doing.”
The BTP trailer (https://youtu.be/ gJ7X3POmIOo) was released late in January and has garnered over 100,000 views, indicating the project may have the “legs” its creators are seeking. Sher projects picture lock (video complete, ready for musical scoring) by early April, allowing for completion prior to TIFF’s May entry deadline. A premiere screening (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/before-the-plate-premiere-screening-tickets-42463467374?aff=Email) has been booked at the Isabel Bader Theatre, 93 Charles Street West, in Toronto from 3:30-5:30 p.m., a timeframe after TIFF releases its 2018 lineup.
“It would be nice to announce it on stage,” said Sher.
TIFF is a major goal, but not the only film festival or avenue BTP’s creators will pursue.
“We’ve got to make sure we deliver on our promise,” Sher said. “We told a lot of people we were going to make a really cool movie and now we have to make a really cool movie.”
And despite the challenges, sleep deprivation and 100 per cent daily pressure en route, Sher’s passion for BTP and what it represents has not diminished.
“Moreso than before, if anything,” he concluded. “The message is 100 per cent worth it.” ◊