There have been a host of films in the past decade to address America’s bad eating habits. Like the ones with graphic shots of tortured animals, or the one where a guy gets fat from fast food, or the ones that show us exactly why we’re doomed if we don’t change. Though nearly all of those films have been acclaimed and well received, Hailey Wist didn’t want her The Garden Summer to be another piece of shock value.
“You watch all those large-scale documentaries, and they sort of freak you out. You almost don’t even know what to do with them,” Wist says. “If you watch something that fires you up and makes you have fun, then there’s the social incentive to make small changes in your life.”
Wist calls The Garden Summer a feel-good movie of sorts, and it’s meant to lead by example. The film follows her on a journey to rural Arkansas in the summer of 2010 to trade a life of suburban comfort for a life without microwaves or supermarkets. Her goal was to plant a garden, invite some like-minded people to help, and eat only what they grew or sourced from a 100-mile radius. The project was inspired by a lecture Wist heard one night in November 2009 while she was in graduate school at Georgetown University. It centered on Robert Putnam’s theory of social capital, which basically says that when everybody is giving to each other, they don’t have to rely so much on larger institutions.
Little did she know that the lecture would be the genesis of a project that’s taken her nearly two years to finish. Wist met with her mother the same night of the lecture for dinner and the two began brainstorming ideas. “It’s funny because my mom was actually the one to say, ‘You know, we should do that at the farm,'” Wist says. Her family happens to own a ranch in Greenbrier, Ark., a rural town about an hour outside of Little Rock. It was the perfect site for the kind of social experiment she had in mind.
Wist dedicated the next five months to working out all the details. She launched a website, bought a camera, and even went to the ranch for her spring break to till a plot of land for the garden. It seemed like everything was coming together — except for the people she needed to farm with her.
Luckily, the connections she’d made while an undergrad at the College of Charleston started to come through for her in March. Seth Amos was the first to commit, and Marie Barker, Ben Williams, and Emilee Cleary soon followed suit. Though they all had Charleston as a common thread, there weren’t any close ties between them. “I wanted everyone to be basically strangers so that the basis of our friendship would start at the farm,” Wist says.
The group met at the farm for the first time in May for a week of planting. “We loved each other. We made homemade dinners and sat out on the porch every night. It was like that honeymoon stage and it was just so much fun,” Wist says. “But then they left after five days, and I was there by myself for six weeks.” Wist gave herself the task of overseeing the garden while the crops grew. In retrospect, she admits she could have used more help. Weeds started overtaking the garden, and since she didn’t want to use any chemicals, she spent most of her days picking them and trying to keep the plants alive.
Somehow, Wist pulled it off, and the rest of the group returned to a lush garden full of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. They spent the next month and a half tending it, visiting neighbors, preparing fresh gourmet meals, and once a week they’d go to the farmers market in Little Rock to sell their extra crops. At the end of the day, the group would go grocery shopping at the same market with the day’s profits, so their money went right back into the local farm economy. On average, they made about $150, which Wist says could feed the five of them for an entire week. “That was one of the biggest shocks to me. And we did it easily. Sometimes we even had money left over.”
Even with their humble earnings, the group was still able to regularly prepare meals with elk, buffalo, and duck, not to mention all the fresh vegetables and grains. As if their cuisine could get any more enviable, at one point in the summer they had Mike Lata, executive chef of FIG, visit the farm to prepare a meal for their field feast. “Mike made this 12-dish meal and everything was local,” Wist says. “He even made ricotta gnocchi from scratch. It was incredible.”
Wist remembers the feast as one of the proudest moments of the project. She invited neighbors, the owners of the farmers market, family members, and even their cheese man. “I remember looking around at that table of all those people who didn’t know each other eating this incredible meal. I meant to bring them all together and be a part of it. It was just beautiful.”
As the summer wound down, the group was proud of what they had accomplished, yet they were eager to get back to reality. They scattered to different parts of the country, but all vowed to keep in touch with each other (Wist and Williams even began dating) and with the habits they’d formed. Wist is glad to call the Lowcountry home again, because she’s able to align her values with Charleston.
“One of the main themes of our project was the idea of social capital and being an interactive member of the community,” she says. “It sounds cheesy, but Charleston goes above and beyond that.”
The Garden Summer premieres at the American Theater on Feb. 22 and 23. Both screenings are sold out. For more information, visit thegardensummer.com.