Grant-funded ag film debuts in front of audience
NEW BRUNSWICK — “Fields of Devotion,” a new USDA grant-funded film produced at Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, made its debut to an ag-focused audience on Friday March 3 on the Cook College campus.
The 30-minute documentary chronicles efforts by Dr. Jim Simon, Dr. Andy Wyenandt and others on a team of graduate students at other Rutgers growing facilities in Bridgeton, Cream Ridge and Pittstown, to overcome the effects of downy mildew on basil grown in the Garden State.
Given the typically hot and humid summers, Garden State vineyard and fruit orchard owners well know the effects of mildew and airborne fungi on their grape vines and fruit trees. The story focuses on Simon’s team and their efforts to create modified strains of basil that are resistant to the dreaded downy mildew, which turns green basil leaves brown or developing brown splotches, making the basil unappetizing to buyers in farm retail stands and supermarkets.
The film was directed by Dina Seidel, an award-winning science communicator and documentary filmmaker based in Rutgers’ English Department. One of Seidel’s recent projects was “Atlantic Crossing,” about an unmanned vessel that gathered volumes of data and crossed the ocean from New Jersey to France. “Atlantic Crossing” aired more than 400 times on PBS-TV affiliates nationwide, reaching an estimated audience of 180 million people.
Dr. Xenia Morin of the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health at SEBS welcomed everyone and introduced Dr. Wendie Cohick, dean of research in graduate education at SEBS, who in turn introduced the film’s director, Seidel.
“We welcome our farmers and our researchers,” Cohick said, “and parts of this film with the [interviews with] farmers is just so emotional for me. It really reminded me why we do the work we do here at SEBS and the New Jersey Ag Experiment Station.
“Work goes on by farmers in the fields as well as the researchers in our labs, day after day, even during COVID, and the work we do here at SEBS is mission driven; we seek to tackle the challenges that we have in this state. Much of the work that happens on our farms and in our research labs is unknown or at least not visible to everyone. Today, we hope to change that perception with this new film, ‘Fields of Devotion,’ made through the Rutgers Center for Agriculture and Food Ecosystems known as RU Café, located here in The Institute for Food Nutrition and Health,” Cohick added.
In her remarks, Seidel said the film “isn’t just a movie, it’s really all about collaboration and shared learning. In early 2020, while I was a visiting scholar here at SEBS, Dr. Jim Simon approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in helping to tell his story about basil breeding as an extension of my science communication research. I was a bit hesitant at first, because as far as I knew at the time, basil was not very talkative, not terribly charismatic and could be a challenging main character for a science story.”
“I came here to SEBS in 2020 as a visiting scholar to further develop the science-in-action storytelling model that began here with [marine scientist] Oscar Schofield’s story, [the Atlantic Crossing film,] and the challenges they faced navigating an autonomous robot across the Atlantic Ocean,” Seidel explained.
“My goal was impactful science storytelling and teaching. I always involved my undergraduate students in the science storytelling process and as co-authors. Over many years now we’ve developed together what we feel is a replicable model for communicating science processes and science culture within a narrative art that translates science for the public. Lots of us feel that it’s very important for the public to have a greater understanding and appreciation of science of all types, including climate science.”
The film has already won awards and will be screened at both the Garden State Film Festival, the Arts and SGS Film Festival and the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, among other places this spring and summer.
“Fields of Devotion” is distributed by First Run Features and will soon be available to the public on Kanopy.