A fight has been brewing in Northwest Arkansas for some time now. Local farmers, concerned citizens and environmental activists have been pushing back against the Carroll Electric Cooperative Corporation's use of herbicides to manage vegetation growing near some power lines.
The co-op serves Benton, Carroll, Madison and Newton counties. Farmers in the area are concerned about the effects of herbicides on their crops and environmentalists fear that irreversible damage will be done as these chemicals seep into the water table.
It's an issue that hasn't received much press, at least not in this part of the state. But three local filmmakers hope to change that. Terrell Case, Tim Wistrand and Corey Gattin, all graduates of the University of Central Arkansas's Digital Filmmaking program, have been working on a documentary about the battle between the co-op and some of its members with the help of UCA anthropology professor and producer Brian Campbell.
I sat down with Case and Wistrand to talk about their film, "The Natural State of America," which they hope to finish this April. The trailer is a must-see. Just go to arktimes.com/naturalstate.
How'd you come across this topic?
TW: I had never heard of a co-op doing anything like this and I grew up in Northwest Arkansas for a little while before moving to Nebraska. My father has always been an organic farmer so it interested me. It was a go-for-broke effort. We didn't have any money. We had never made a movie that was this long and we'd never made a documentary before this, so we we're fishing to make anything and this seemed like the best project to jump into.
Was it hard to not get personally involved in the story?
TC: When we started we approached it like it was going to be about the environment and there were these activists that might be a little too extreme or too radical, but as we started doing it — and even the first day of interviewing — we started to find out that these guys were really intelligent. They all had degrees from very prestigious universities. They had all moved from big cities and decided they didn't like that life style and wanted to get back to nature, something that hadn't been touched. This was one of the last untouched areas and now it's almost like the final stand. So we had these really educated people — they have full grown beards and longer hair — and we were asking ourselves about how we were going to show these people without having everyone think, "Oh, this guy's just a hippie or a radical." As we met them and got to know them it was clear that it wasn't that one-sided.
TW: What was crazy about our approach was at first I thought it was just going to be this one-sided thing about herbicides But it became more about the co-op, because they're not a co-op. There's a governance issue here. It wasn't just about the fact that they were spraying herbicides but the way they were going about it. And then it's about land issues. It's turned into this huge thing. It's been hard to condense all that information and not make it boring.
What do you hope to get out of it, or get across to the audience?
TC: We hope that most people around the Ozarks get a chance to see it and they can kind of decide how they feel about it. I think a lot of people in Arkansas enjoy the Ozarks, and most people have probably been to the Buffalo River, and we met a lot of people that religiously appreciate those things. We want to help the people there that feel like they've been wronged.
Also, the geology of the region is really important. The land is made up of karst, which is cracked limestone. In the Ozarks, there's not a lot of topsoil, there's just this cracked limestone and pollutants can easily penetrate into the groundwater. There's no filtration. And that's the biggest concern as far as the geology of the area.
TW: Really for me, it's just about informing the public that this is going on. I didn't know what the term "fracking" was until I saw the documentary "Gasland," and that's how I feel about the term "karst" in our film. Not a lot of people know about that and I feel that's very specific to our region and we want to get the word out about that. Hopefully this film will start a discussion on changing regulations on these types of things and maybe it will be easier to hold people accountable.