Conrad Weaver, a documentary filmmaker who spent the past year screening a film about water shortages in the West, is currently at work on another that isn't overtly agricultural but still has an indirect tie that might be of particular interest in a state like Colorado that led the way in legalizing marijuana.
Conrad Weaver, a documentary filmmaker who spent the past year screening a film about water shortages in the West, is currently at work on another that isn’t overtly agricultural but still has an indirect tie that might be of particular interest in a state like Colorado that led the way in legalizing marijuana.
He’s making a film back home in rural Maryland that will show the ravages of the heroin epidemic, with attention paid to contributing factors like recreational marijuana use, a contention based on evidence he’s gathered so far.
Weaver has become familiar to agricultural audiences for his work on a pair of documentaries that began with the "Great American Wheat Harvest," which followed custom harvesters on their annual migration bringing in the crop. He won a regional EMMY award for that film. A year and a half ago he followed it up with "Thirsty Land," which portrays farmers, ranchers and public officials from Colorado to California grappling with historic drought and rising water scarcity.
Over the past year, Weaver has screened the film at multiple venues across the region, starting with the world premiere held at the University of Nebraska’s Water for Food Global Conference last April. He has also shown the film at Colorado State University and in the San Luis Valley (where some of the footage was shot), at the 3i Farm Show in Dodge City, the Oklahoma Governor’s Water Conference, the Tallgrass International Film Fest in Wichita, and, most recently, at Kansas State University in Manhattan.
A future showing is scheduled in conjunction with AgChat’s Western Region Conference in Fresno, California, in June.
“There’s been lots of interest in the film, and lots of great discussions, and that’s really what I intended for it to do,” he said.
Since filming wrapped, the drought has eased. Last week California Governor Jerry Brown lifted a statewide drought emergency that had been in place since the beginning of 2014.
Still, the discussion over water allocation and availability is far from over.
“The drought map may be clear today, but tomorrow or next year it could come back, and we need to be ready,” Weaver said.
The most interesting discussions he’s had in recent months focused on thorny issues like water rights and prior appropriation and how or whether those laws should be changed. He’s also tried to encourage individual water conservation. The average household of four consumes 300 to 400 gallons of water a day.
Then there’s the need for more water storage. Even though another five feet of snow recently fell in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and Colorado’s snowpack is at equally abundant levels, no new reservoirs have been built in the last 50 years to capture the runoff, he points out.
Weaver grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio and has extended family members still actively engaged in farming. His company, ConjoStudios LLC, is already at work putting together funding and sponsorship for his next agriculture-related film. While he’s not ready to announce that project yet, in the meantime he’s working on something else that might be of interest to Colorado viewers.
By September, he plans to finish a new documentary examining the heroin epidemic in his local community outside the greater Washington, D.C., area.
He considers marijuana a gateway drug that has helped fuel a nationwide drug epidemic.
“Every one of the addicts I’ve talked to in the last two months said marijuana use preceded their descent into opioids,” Weaver said.
The film will explore drugs’ toll on families, communities and local law enforcement. Last year 52,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, and the problem exists everywhere, including in rural communities, he said.
Weaver opposes the trend toward marijuana legalization, which began in Colorado but is now spreading across the country.
While growing industrial hemp has generated significant interest among farmers, rural Coloradans tend to have a more conflicted relationship with the budding marijuana industry. For starters, both crops require lots of valuable water, an average of six gallons of water per plant per day, more than it takes to grow corn.
Weaver said even before voters in California passed a measure to legalize marijuana last November it was not uncommon for growers to steal water by siphoning it out of the aqueduct system. Water theft is a problem in parts of Colorado as well.
The filmmaker is now hoping to inspire thoughtful conversations about the modern drug crisis just as he did by spotlighting an escalating showdown over limited water.
While his belief that pot legalization leads to unintended consequences might run somewhat counter to the prevailing winds, he said his new film has already started attracting interest, and he hopes to get it into high-profile venues like the Sundance Film Festival.
As for his "Thirsty Land" film, it will be released as a DVD and available for live streaming after appearing at the Los Angeles Film Festival in September.
Being in the film industry’s capital represents an exciting opportunity.
“They actually reached out to me and told me they wanted to bring the film to their festival,” he said. “They really like the project.”
As a result, what is largely an agricultural story could end up finding a broader audience.
“There’s lots of opportunities for potential distribution plans and contracts to develop, so who knows what could happen to it? It could be a pretty big deal,” he said.