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On Site with Eat More Trees

E. Bader
August 22, 2023

Eat More Trees film crew captures the shared passion and potential for agroforestry and perennial crop projects across the globe

It’s a hot August day, and I am standing by a gravel road in Kansas surrounded by rows of corn and beans on all sides, but in front of me, a fallow field. Rather than bare, the soil is covered in a dense growth of wild plants. A single Monarch butterfly flits by me toward the dense vegetation. As I wait, a farm truck pulls up, the occupant asking if I am stranded. We chat. Yes, I know the owners of the field. Yes, they chose not to plant this year.

“They need to mow those weeds and get that disked,” the farmer said, eyeing the field with skepticism. “Or spray. Why didn’t they plant this year?” In conventional agriculture in Kansas, there is only one crop per year. A limited number of seasons in a lifetime and limited profit margins. Fallow ground means lost profit.

Before I could answer, another car drove up. The occupants, Louis De Jaeger and Arne Focketyn, stepped out. De Jaeger approached me with a broad smile as if I were a long-lost friend and not a stranger he was meeting after days and days of driving across the U.S. De Jaeger and Focketyn are the co-directors of a documentary in the making, Eat More Trees.

The documentary covers the potential of agroforestry and perennials to produce food in a way that protects soil and water quality and mitigates climate change. The project, which will include an impact campaign, has taken De Jaeger, Focketyn, and team across the world from Europe and the U.S., to Brazil, Africa, and Asia to film successful farm projects centered on perennial plants and trees. The projects vary from silvo-pasture, which incorporates livestock and trees, to food forests, the deep-rooted Kernza perennial wheat in Kansas, and biodiverse agroforestry operations.

The travel sounds exciting, but the conditions are spare with long hours of driving, rustic accommodations, and modest meals. Despite this, the pair radiate energy. As we speak, De Jaeger eats a tomato like an apple, his lunch, and a gift from the previous farm visit. Their energy comes from a sense of purpose.

“The reason behind the documentary is that if we don’t do anything in the next thirty years, by 2050, ninety percent of our topsoil will be degraded. If we have degraded topsoil, agriculture will become difficult, and we might have famines,” says De Jaeger.

Perennials and agroforestry, he continues, are the “missing link” in agricultural practices. A link that can build soil, improve water infiltration, and store carbon along with increasing the biodiversity of soil microorganisms like fungi and good bacteria.

De Jaeger sees a common thread across the diverse climates, farm operations, and people they have seen.

“It’s the love of life,” he says. “And not just their own lives, but life in general. Nature. All farmers or people who are into regenerative agriculture, they are people who speak with so much passion and love for what they are doing. They are so curious. They are not farmers; they are ecosystem builders, and they harvest from the ecosystems they build.”

De Jaeger acknowledges the economic realities that led to the current state of industrial agriculture. The documentary, he says, is focused on alternatives that can be profitable and productive by working with natural systems.

“We just want to show the world the possibilities. Most of the farmers who use perennials are quite profitable and they are happy. They bet on different horses, a Flemish expression, meaning they have multiple streams of income. For example, a farmer we saw yesterday was producing cattle, but also mushrooms under the trees and other products. Diversification is logical.”

De Jaeger gestures to the row crop fields next to us. “If you have this kind of a system, you have a mono-income. If you have a polyculture, you build an ecosystem, you have multiple harvests. A poly-income.” He related his own experiences as a farm intern, harvesting leeks at zero degrees Celsius. His studies and travel led him to observe firsthand the impact of agriculture on not only the environment, but people. The costs are high, given the rate of suicide among farmers, the cost of land compared to limited profits, and the barriers of entry for a much-needed generation of young farmers.

“At that time, I read a book about a 4000-year-oldchestnut tree on the side of the Etna volcano in Italy. You have a tree that produces food for 4000 years and you only had to plant it once. But for the leeks I harvested, you have to plant them every year with so many passes to make per year to plant, work the soil, and harvest. That made me think, why don’t we base agriculture on perennials?”

De Jaeger started the Food Forest Institute, a nonprofit to research food forests and teach about food forest sand agroforestry. But with the pressure of just decades to address soil loss and climate, he wanted the perennial message to reach more people more quickly.

“We decided to make a documentary so that as many people will see it as possible, plant a seed in their heads, and ignite a revolution,” says De Jaeger. “I’ve met people who saw documentaries like Biggest Little Farm or Kiss the Ground and because of one movie, one hour and a half of their lives, they said ‘I’m going to start a regenerative farm.’”

“The revolution needs to be done as soon as possible, with as much noise as possible, and I think this documentary can make a lot of noise,” continues De Jaeger. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by Arne who is co-director and a brilliant filmmaker, Jonas Mallisse who helped set up Too Good to Go Belgium, the food waste app, and Clara Hanssens who is doing the social media. We have a small, but very energetic and powerful team. I’m very happy to be doing this.”

As De Jaeger spoke, we heard the whirring noise of a camera drone landing at Focketyn’s feet. He had been filming the110-acre parcel of fallow land in front of us. The land, in all its beautiful, tangled growth, was resting, preparing to become an agroforestry project that will stand out as an example of what is possible among the surrounding monocultures. The Nest owns the site of the future agroforestry project and funds a portion of the Eat More Trees documentary.

“It’s been inspiring,” says Focketyn of the documentary work. “We’ve met a lot of people who are trying to use their form of agriculture as a lever to solve problems that are way bigger than their own. We’ve encountered people who are experimenting with finding the true power of nature, exploring its complexity, its parameters of plants, animal behavior, water storage, carbon storage. All these built-in free forces of nature that work together.”

“Most of these experiments point out that the more we embrace this complexity, the more we allow nature’s parameters, it will always give you something in return, whatever the circumstances, the drought, or the extreme weather. In this path toward the future where we will be tested by nature more than we’ve been tested in the past, it would be in our interest to embrace all these experiments and get the word out. We can give all these farmers who are under pressure direction on where they can go, showing them that this is mankind’s profound shared story.”

Focketyn turns to pick up the drone as the farmer drives by again and stops. De Jaeger and Focketyn share the vision for the land before us with him.

“You know, I have manure and compost, if they will need it,” says the farmer. He looks again at the weedy patch he at first recommended spraying, his skepticism turning to a spark of interest. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the bright orange wings of the Monarch flit by again, a bright flash of hope on the Kansas landscape.

The Nest Family Office is proud to be one of the funders of the documentary project, Eat More Trees. The film is due out in Spring 2024. Learn more about the film and get updates on its progress at the Eat More Trees website.