"Troubled Waters": What we saw, why you can't see it

Troubled Waters postcard

The latest wrinkle in the Troubled Waters controversy is that the University doesn't "own" the film. A final "Project Abstract" was completed by the film's producer, Barbara Coffin, on September 7, and the film was delivered to the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), the legislative body responsible for overseeing $349,000 in funds for the documentary project. 

What this means as far as an official release remains to be seen, but I viewed Troubled Waters at LCCMR on Monday, along with another reporter.   Troubled Waters had been set to premiere on October 3, but that was before the U of M's public relations office canceled scheduled showings by TPT and the Bell Museum.

"Vilifying agriculture?"

Late Friday, the University PR machine shifted its story on pulling the film from one being about need for an additional "scientific review" to one being about concern over political tone. Al Levine, the Dean of the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, told MPR that the film about the Mississippi "vilifies agriculture."

Dean Levine's statement casts the yanking of the academic film as a matter of political balance, rather than scientific review. [Ed. note: David Brauer reported today in MinnPost that it's not the first time that criticism of Big Ag has resulted in trouble at the U of M—with the apparent involvement of Public Relations Vice President Karen Himle.]

Viewing Troubled Waters

I saw the film at LCCMR on September 20. Rather than "vilifying agriculture," it seemed that filmmakers took extra steps to show that farmers are providing real solutions for halting the deterioration of the Mississippi and the resulting dead zone.

The filmmakers spent at least 30 minutes talking to farmers who have developed unique agricultural solutions for reducing runoff-much of it full of nitrogen and phosphorous-into the Mississippi. About six minutes into the film,  (not including the 2:30 intro) the filmmakers highlighted brothers Dick and Jack Gerhardt, two farmers, the narrator says, "who are on the leading edge of new technologies."

These corn farmers have created a "green seeker," a tool that reads chlorophyll levels in plants and reveals how much nitrogen is needed to achieve optimal results. It's estimated that half of all nitrogen used ends up as run-off, as farmers use it for extra "insurance." Since using the green-seeker, the farmers estimated they have used one-third less nitrogen on their crops.  

The filmmakers talk to other farmers offering sustainable solutions, including Dan Coughlin, who raises grass-fed cows; Jack Hedin, whose small vegetable farm uses winter ground cover like clover to reduce soil erosion and water run-off; and Tony Thompson, whose 4,000-acre corn and soybean farm includes perennial grasses and wetlands that soak up excess runoff.

In fact, it is the farmers in the film who are showcased as leading-edge inventors helping to come up with ways to decrease both soil run-off and dependence on massive applications of nitrogen and other fertilizers.

"Ethanol is controversial"

The film takes a strong stance on federal agricultural policy—in particular, the use of payments to support high yields of commodity crops such as soybeans and corn for production of ethanol. It faults federal policy for contributing to the water pollution that has resulted as farmers use nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer to increase yields. The film cites a 2007 federal mandate that called for 15 billion gallons of ethanol to be produced by 2022.

David Tilman, a U of M professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, has been somewhat of a lightning rod in the Minnesota agriculture community for his research on ethanol, which Tilman says leads more to pollution than to solutions for renewable energy. Tilman said that ethanol uses eight gallons of fossil fuel to create ten gallons of corn ethanol, and noted that it is an imperfect solution for weaning the country off oil.

Linda Meshke, a Minnesota farmer who is also Executive Director of the Blue Earth River Basin Initiative, said rewarding the farmers for higher corn yields has increased the use of nitrogen and, therefore, plays a major role in creation of the dead zone in the Gulf.

Troubled Waters offers an intriguing glimpse into how political interests, the need for fuel, and emphasis on grain production have played a major role in environmental issues that detrimentally affect Lake Pepin, the Mississippi, and the Gulf.

Given the film's actual subject matter—one that offers new solutions for agriculture and feeding people as well as solutions for protecting the environment—it would seem the documentary is perfectly suited for the mission of the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences. According to a message from Dean Allen Levine on the CFANS site:  "CFANS is a college devoted to solution-driven science; we use critical and innovative thinking plus all the tools of the arts and sciences to make our planet a productive, friendly, and sustainable environment-to solve everyday problems. We study the health of the land and the health of the living."

Academic freedom at issue?

And there might be another wave of trouble coming for the University and its University Relations department. A number of university faculty and staff have publicly expressed anger at the U's quashing of the documentary, saying that the halting of the film by a PR department is censorship and impinges on academic freedom, something the U has prided itself on providing as a top research institution. 

The blog, Faculty for the Renewal of Public Education, offers a glimpse of the internal controversy the public controversy is raising. Yesterday, a faculty member going by the pseudonym One Mad Prof wrote, "Can you imagine your Dean messing around in your work and telling you that it doesn't meet her/his standards for balance (whatever that means)?"

Late last week a faculty member using the name of "Gadfly," wrote: "Sounds to me like the administration is making it pretty clear that when they say they want to see the U be a place where great research can happen, they only mean research that makes big business happy."

According to Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors, a national organization whose mission it is to advance academic freedom and shared governance, the staff has every right to be concerned.

"Perhaps Minnesota's public relations office hopes to deflect attention from Troubled Waters by creating a troubled campus," said Nelson, author of the book No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom.

"Academic freedom applies to creative projects like films, just as it applies to conventional research," Nelson said. "Of course, if the filmmakers agreed contractually to some form of oversight or approval by the University, that's another matter. If not, the PR office's action is both bizarre and unacceptable."

Still no answers from the U

LCCMR expects the film to be released for public viewing. "That is the intent of public expenditures," said Susan Thornton, director of the LCCMR.  "All of our projects are in the public domain."

LCCMR officials said the film is balanced and meets the standards of the LCCMR appropriation language, something the U at first said was one of the reasons they pulled the film.

As of late Monday afternoon, the LCCMR offices still had not spoken with Karen Himle, the University Relations VP who pulled the film from TPT, regarding its request last week for documentation about the University's concerns. Thornton, who said the film is a "balanced" project, is still waiting for answers for University officials before determining how to proceed. "Right now we have a partnership with the University," she says, "and we hope to move forward with this partnership."

Susan Weller, the Bell Museum Director, said late last week that the Bell requires all films to have a "researcher" throughout the entire process and that this film did not follow those standards. University spokesperson Dan Wolter has not yet responded to a Daily Planet request for a copy of any documents that outline these Bell Museum requirements.

Despite repeated requests for the University to answer questions about Karen Himle's conflict of interest, which we noted last week, the Daily Planet has received no response.  Karen Himle is married to John Himle, president of Himle Horner, a PR firm that represents the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, an organization that is a strong proponent of ethanol production. Karen Himle also lists her corn and soybean farm in Nebraska as an additional source of income.

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Molly Priesmeyer's picture
Molly Priesmeyer

Molly Priesmeyer (mollypriesmeyer [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a freelance writer and editor, living in Minneapolis.

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if the U doesn't own the film, how can they stop a TPT premiere?

I don't get it. 

Betty Tisel
SW, Kingfield
Minneapolis

great job

nice work on this.

Pulitzer material

Molly Priesmeyer deserves a Pulitzer nomination for her enlightening work on this story.  It is a piece of important public interest journalism too bad we don't see more reporting like this from the other outlets in town.

You have been doing a great

You have been doing a great job of reporting on this important story. It is very important to those of us who value the University's mission that this conflict of interests be given public scrutiny. I have yet to hear what the Regents or the President think, although I have written to ask them.

troubled waters

Your reporting is insightful and to the point.  I have seen a rough cut of this film and it is balanced and thoughtful. What is really troubling is how one person seems to have overstepped her job boundaries to stop this film. Maybe more people will want to see this film now and in the long run the U has helped get the word out!

my pseudonym

Molly, thanks for the shout out. I am indeed "One Mad Prof" but my blogging pseudonym is madradprof!

So who *does* own the film?

If the U doesn't own it, why can't it be publicly screened elsewhere?  Is there some contractual obligation between the U and the filmmakers that gives the U the legal right to keep the film from being shown elsewhere?

Keep pressing this issue, Molly!

This censorship is a huge story, one of the biggest and most important to impact the University in decades. Get those documents they're refusing--some of them are probably being created as we talk here!--, get more great quotes, get the U's administrative figures stumbling all over themselves with contradictions, and maybe give us all some insight into which Big Ag companies fund what research on the St. Paul campus. "Follow the money."

"All of our projects are in the public domain."

I thought public domain meant public domain.  Where does the public view the movie?  Why doesn't the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) have a copy of the movie posted online?

Truth in reporting

Thank you for your courage in reporting this story.

Balance in sustainability issues with people, planet, and profit should not mean that a special interest group can successfully darken the truth forever.

Please continue to shed light on this important topic of sustainable agriculture.

Just natural

Himle makes a big point that no one pressured her. Her husband, colleagues in the StarTribune make a big deal about nobody pressuring her. BUT did they have to? She obviously knows which side her bread is buttered on.