Apr 7, 2007
Asparagus Documentary Film Wins National Attention

A Michigan country gal now living the life of a struggling artist in New York’s East Village has struck a blow for her folks back home with a film depicting the joys and sorrows of raising asparagus.

A key theme is the effect of policies, made at high levels of government, that damaged a domestic industry by flooding markets with cheap, imported product.

The 75-minute documentary is called “Asparagus! (A Stalk-umentary).” It was co-produced by Kirsten Kelly and Anne de Mare. Kelly grew up in Oceana County, Mich., and left home to attend Calvin College in 1990.

The film is getting national attention. It was chosen to premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., in April. It will probably be shown to the folks back home during the National Asparagus Festival, June 9-11 in Hart.

The directors hope for a wider audience, perhaps through a broadcast on PBS or cable television or as an educational film marketed to schools and libraries.

“There are two threads in the film,” Kelly said. “One is the fun and joy side, the community spirit, the dances and parades and recipes, that come with identifying with the thing that is an economic force in your community.

“The other is the decisions we made that put barriers before American farmers.”

That side focuses on a decision made by the U.S. government in 1991 to give trade preferences to Andean Mountain countries that reduce production of illegal drugs in return for gaining access to markets for legal crops. That led to an explosion of asparagus imports from Peru.

“Probably the intentions were good, but the policy doesn’t work. Nobody thought it through,” Kelly said, quoting grower Tom Oomen, one of the “main characters” in the film. “It is totally ironic. Nobody thought it through.”

Part of the onus is on American consumers, she said. They don’t think about the impact their purchasing decisions have on producers.

“We hope the film will encourage consumers to purchase and ask for U.S. grown food at their supermarkets, and that they will understand they as individuals have the power to help change things around for American growers.”

Kelly grew up on a farm called Kelly Orchards, owned by Pete Kelly. It produced asparagus, apples and cherries. The family sold the farm in 1994. She recalls being a proud member of the pre-teen dance troupe, The Oceana Stalkers.

Other “characters” who speak in the documentary include grower Dick Walworth of Golden Stock Farm, Rick Herrera, who grows asparagus and sells a pickled product called Little Chico’s, December Gonzalez, who held the title “Mrs. Asparagus,” and John Bakker, the executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board.

Also in the film are Congressman Peter Hoekstra and former Secretary of Agriculture Ann Venneman.

Another spokesperson is Leroy Glover, who grows 40 acres of asparagus and is vice president of the National Asparagus Festival.

“We hope they can show their film on June 9,” he said.

Glover and his wife, Joan – the festival president – talk in the film, focusing on the fun side of asparagus, although they have their political opinions as well.

Kelly and de Mare worked together on several theater projects in New York and Chicago before beginning the “asparagus film adventure.” They’ve kept their day jobs.

To say they are into asparagus is an understatement. Their company is called Spargel Productions. Spargel is the German word for asparagus.

This is their biggest project and biggest success, so far. Both the film and the six-minute trailer have won awards.

When the film debuts at the festival in Oceana County, the directors plan to be there, thanking sponsors.

Money for the film project was raised by volunteers and by donations from Honee Bear Canning Co., Peterson Farms, the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, the American Documentary Fund and the Michigan Rural Arts Council. Sponsors first saw the film at a special screening last fall.

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