One of the highlights of the recent Indiana Livestock, Forage and Grain Forum was the lunchtime sneak peak, private screening of the soon-to-be-released Movie Farmland. The movie was directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker James Moll. Its purpose is to attempt, on a large scale, to tell viewers without a farm background more about how their food is produced and the various kinds of people who produce it. The movie was funded by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.
There are six main characters in the film from a variety of segments of farming around the country: Leighton Cooley, a Georgia poultry farmer; Brad Bellah, a Texas cattle rancher; David Loberg, a Nebraska corn and soybean farmer; Sutton Morgan, a California organic produce farmer; Margaret Schlass, a Pennsylvania community supported agriculture (CSA) produce farmer; and Ryan Veldhuizen, a Minnesota grain and hog farmer.
All are twenty-somethings, several college educated, who are now in charge of running their farm businesses. It quickly becomes apparent to anyone with farm knowledge that these are real people, not actors. Actors couldn’t come up with the kinds of things they say, or the way they say it. They’re real. They get real dirt on themselves during the course of their days. Their machinery is not showroom new and shiny, nor are their farmsteads always pristine and orderly.
They were obviously picked to be able to connect with a younger generation that wants to know how their food is grown and who’s doing the growing. And in the telling of their stories, they do a good job, and do it in a fair manner. They come across as honest, sincere, eminently believable, likable, bright, knowledgeable, and well spoken. They have the ability to look at both sides of the issue, yet articulate their personal side very well.
One of the things the film should get high marks for, in my opinion, is for doing an excellent job of making the point that, whatever their legal business structure may be, these are family farms. In a world where many people hear daily about “Big Ag,” and “factory farms,” all of these young folks except one are the latest link in a chain that have been farming the same land for generations. Indeed, some of the lighter and more poignant parts of the film have to do with the everyday interactions between family members and generations.
In short, the film’s main characters were hardworking, smart, passionate business people with strong family connections and history. They love what they do and are willing to take the risks that go with the rewards that come with their chosen lifestyle of producing a variety of good food for us and others around the world.
I’m sure that as soon as the movie is released there will be some who just can’t wait to tell you what all is wrong with it. There are some for whom nothing short of all of their food being raised organically, by Old McDonald in his bib overalls and straw hat, will do. There are others who will believe that all of the cast’s animals should be turned loose and padlocks put on the barn doors. Still others will tell you it’s all Monsanto’s doing.
But for anyone with an open mind who wants to know more about how their food is grown and by whom, it’s an accurate depiction and a golden opportunity to learn a lot. Possibly even more important, if they have questions, the film can provide the springboard to help start the discussion. And if they do want to discuss it, we in the farm community need to be ready to enter the conversation.
I gave the film 4 of 5 popcorn kernels. I thought it did a superb job of what it set out to do. Still, it’s a documentary about farm life. On the entertainment meter, it’s not going to compete with James Bond—nobody jumping out of helicopters onto speeding trains, no bikini-clad babes here. Compared to the glitz and special effects movie goers are accustomed to, to me it seemed rather, well, normal. But when you stop to think about it, while farm life may be normal to people like us, everyday farm life is exactly what they’re trying to portray. They portray it well.
I have to confess, at times I had to do something of an attitude adjustment on myself. There were a few times when I caught myself thinking, “Geez, everybody already knows that.” Which is precisely the point. Everybody doesn’t already know that. Although all farmers know about hard work, markets, risk, weather and GPS, this film wasn’t produced for the two percent of us for whom this is everyday stuff.
Instead, it is targeted at that great majority of people who are several generations removed from grandpa’s farm, and have no clue what’s really involved. They want to know more about their food, and regularly hear messages from those who have an agenda for disparaging our food system. When I changed my attitude to one of appreciating the attempt being made to bring those folks up to speed about what many of us already take for granted, I was able to genuinely enjoy it in a much different light.
I’d seriously encourage you to go see the movie when it comes to your area. It’s a story that desperately needs to be told, and farmers typically aren’t great at telling it themselves. These young folks are doing an admirable job on farmers’ behalf.
Even better, take some of your non-farming friends along with you, or maybe recommend it to them. Then ask them what they thought of it. It might start a good discussion!