At the CCMA conference in the Twin Cities last June, attendees were treated to screenings of two short films, each of which had been made the year before in a whirlwind of inspiration and homegrown talent from a specific food co-op: “Sweet Soil” for the Berkshire Co-op Market of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and “A Trip to the Co-op” for Brattleboro Food Co-op in Brattleboro, Vermont. The fact that both screenings were acknowledged with standing ovations speaks to the power of film as a medium for conveying the messages of our movement.
Both movies emphasize those things that distinguish food co-ops from conventional supermarkets. In the case of “Sweet Soil,” the story is about our connections with local growers and food producers. “A Trip to the Co-op,” an appealing, playful seven-minute film, educates children about nutrition and the cooperative difference.
Making a “healthy commercial”
By the time she came up with the concept for “A Trip to the Co-op,” marketing manager Lisa Ford had already, with the help of shareholder Melany Kahn, produced a short promotional video about Brattleboro Food Co-op. While this original film (made in 2000) had been effective in educating employees and shareholders about basic product selection, cooperative structure, and the co-op’s history, it was not designed with children in mind.
Ford was beginning to devote more of her attention to the challenge of bringing the co-op’s message to kids. She had developed a healthy snack program and nutritional presentations for local schools and realized that a video would nicely complement these efforts. A rhyming script began forming in her head, tested relentlessly on her own children. “Instead of writing a movie for adults that might incidentally be enjoyed by children, I decided to work the other way around,” she explains.
Ford then met new shareholder Bill Forcion, who had worked as a clown as well as a stunt man; she instantly pegged him for the film’s lead role. Armed with both a script and an enthusiastic actor, she contacted Kahn again; together they recruited another shareholder, Joe DeFelice, to shoot footage and edit. Their goal was to make a gentle co-op comedy, featuring Forcion as an amiable clown interacting with food and a team of seven children.
Wearing an ever-changing array of colorful hats, Forcion recites the rhyming stanzas of the script while driving a motorized cart through the store, often experiencing mishaps. Children laugh and look on as he overfills his peanut butter jar, sprays whipped cream on pizza during a kids’ cooking class, drops a juggled egg, and accidentally tips over a bushel basket of peanuts.
The humor is intertwined with memorable lines about local farming, organic growing, and community ownership. The overall message is that of inviting children to feel connected to the co-op: “So go tell your parents the store is your friend, the co-op is definitely not just for the adults.”
What Ford discovered is that “A Trip to the Co-op” is not just for kids. “I no longer call it a kids’ film because we find that it amuses adults as well,” she explains. She has replaced her first promotional video with this one, using it at all working member and staff orientations, school health fairs, store tours, and other special events. Ford plans to break out pieces for use on television and radio, and has published an illustrated book version of the text In “Sweet Soil,” a 20-minute video, interviews with farmers, images of Jersey cows and fence-nibbling goats, and long shots of the Berkshire countryside create a behind-the-scenes field trip interspersed with images of the co-op as a community hub.
The inspirational seed for “Sweet Soil” was planted at the 2003 CCMA conference in Lexington, Kentucky. During a pre-conference meeting of CoCoMaMas (Common Cooperative Marketing and Member Services Managers) Berkshire Co-op Market’s marketing manager Pauline Banducci heard Rosemary Fifeld talk about the video lending library at Hanover Co-op.
“I started thinking about developing a lending library that includes videos on composting, gardening, farming, and cooking,” says Banducci. “Then I thought it might be a good idea if some of our local farmers were featured in a documentary that would let customers know how different they are from large agribusiness—even large organic agribusiness.”
When talking over these ideas with her staff, Banducci learned that videographer Laura Meister, from the co-op’s grocery department, was a friend of Erica Spizz, also a filmmaker. The two of them were excited about the possibility of making a video, and offered to do so at (by market standards) a greatly discounted price.
On the surface, the fall of 2003 didn’t appear to be a particularly auspicious time to begin a project of this scale: Berkshire Co-op Market was in the middle of a relocation that did not leave room in the budget for making a video. (An article about this transition, by general manager Art Ames, appeared in the previous issue of Cooperative Grocer, including illustrations of the human chain of owners who helped stage the move, handing groceries down the row.) Yet Spizz and Meister had created an exciting proposal for the film, and Branducci recognized the opportunity.
“I saw this as a great marketing tool supporting our relocation,” says Banducci, who approached general manager Art Ames with the proposal. “I’m grateful that Art was very interested.”
In hopes of showing the film during the co-op’s 10-day grand opening celebration in January 2004, the crew knew they had to act fast. It was late September; autumn would soon peak, and frost could derail their efforts any day. Spizz and Meister figured they had about nine days to get footage.
“We scheduled visits to four farms: Thompson-Finch (fruit), Rawson Brook (goat cheese), Equinox (salad greens), and High Lawn Farm (dairy),” explains Spizz. They also planned to end the film with a joyful sequence featuring the co-op’s move and its human chain of owners passing inventory hand to hand.
One thing each location had in common was the sincerity of the farmers, who were delighted to have the opportunity to talk about their commitment to farming in a way that respects the land and the animals in their care. Their stories are set against an auditory backdrop of toe-tapping fiddle music, also homegrown by the farmers. “The passionate connection between farming and music—that’s the subject of another story!” declares Meister.
Once shooting ended, Spizz and Meister worked day and night to cut 17 hours of footage down to 20 minutes. Artist Katy Blander created the cover art for the DVD.
When January arrived, Banducci arranged for the use of a local movie house, planning a reception to celebrate the film. Over 250 people came out of winter hibernation to watch Sweet Soil, astonishing the staff by traveling into town during a snowstorm of epic proportions. “We had two back-to-back screenings during the storm, followed by two more standing-room-only crowds at a March screening,” Banducci explained. “Each time, the film was followed by a discussion among audience, farmers, and filmmakers.”
Media power: lessons learned
Art Ames emphasizes the effectiveness of “Sweet Soil” as a promotional tool and claims the video has done more to communicate the mission of the co-op than any of their other marketing efforts. “Each time the film is shown locally, non-members from the audience show up at our store asking to become members. They don’t ask about discounts or monetary benefits. They become members because they agree with what we are trying to do.”
Produce manager Andrei Smerechniak, who is also featured in “Sweet Soil,” enjoys using the film as an orientation tool with new staff. “The knowledge I acquired while working on this project was vast. ‘Sweet Soil’ broadened my horizons.”
“Video production doesn’t have to be expensive,” says Brattleboro’s DeFelice. He suggests using the resources of public access television stations to give your co-op greater visibility and working with local libraries to create an archive of co-op publications as well as a video record of notable classes, speakers, or workshops.
“While I understand video’s ability to dull minds into apathy, I also recognize its potential to illuminate and inspire,” says DeFelice. Like the other people involved, he notes how enjoyable the videomaking process turned out to be. Tapping into the talents of filmmakers who care about natural foods and who take pride in creating a documentary that directly benefits the co-op community is key to creating a movie that looks and feels genuine.