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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Racine County farmer blends love of old movies with homesteading in new film

Charlie Tennessen on his four-acre homestead in Racine County with Sebastian
Susan Bence
Charlie Tennessen on his four-acre homestead in Racine County with Sebastian

Charlie Tennessn is on a mission. For the last 15 years, he’s been trying to grow as much food as he consumes on his four acre homestead.

He also hopes to inspire others to do the same.

In 2021 Tennessen distilled that desire into a short film called 25 Weeks: A Wisconsin Pizza Harvest. And his second film, Night of the Living Harvest, is premiering this week at the Times Cinema in Wauwatosa.

In the film, Tennessen weaves clips from old movies, including Night of the Living Dead, to document a year of food production.

"It takes about 500 gallons of gasoline or the equivalent energy to make the food that an average American eats ... and interestingly, about two-thirds of that 500 gallons goes into agricultural chemicals, fertilizer and the pesticides and herbicides and things like that," he says.

Tennessen contrasts his homestead's environmental impact. “Mostly my donkeys and I live off the rain and the sun that falls on this four acres,” Tennessen says.

The grass that grows on his farm sets the cycle in motion.

“I can’t eat grass, but grass grows pretty easily, pretty much for free and the donkeys eat it,” Tennessen explains.

In turn, his donkeys power and fertilize the farm.

“It’s hard to reduce your footprint and I doubt anyone gets it to zero. Our existence has a cost to other parts of the earth, (but) I like to get closer to that ideal,” Tennessen says.

In his first film Tennessen focused on the heritage wheat he grows on nearby fields. “I showed as much as possible how I got a meal of a beautiful pizza out of that field,” Tennessen says.

His new film Night of the Living Harvest turns the focus on his homestead.

“I live on four acres. And coincidentally, if you divide the number of people in the world by the amount of arable land … we each have about four acres,” Tennessen says in his case, that includes producing the food he consumes.

Tennessen says tamales help tell the story. He grows all of its ingredients on his farm.

“If you look it up on Wikipedia, it’s considered to be like one of the world’s oldest recipes, we’ve been making tamales forever. It’s nutritious … it builds health and it tastes great,” Tennessen says he’s able to make tamales all year long.

The final old film Tennessen’s uses in his new film is from D.O.A.


"Well, I love film noir, and of course, in these films, it's exciting when somebody's about to die, but also on the farm, there's a sense we're about to die," Tennessen says. "If the harvest fails, if the worldwide harvest fails, we're all gonna die within 12 months. So to me, there's something real at stake during this act of growing food."

But Tennessen says his message isn't intended to be pessimistic. He loves his life and hopes to inspire others.

“I get social connections; I get connections with beautiful animals … I’m getting my exercise, eating my tamales, and have a joyful, satisfied life,” Tennessen says. “So I want people to aspire to that.”


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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