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Farmland: New Documentary is Take One on Agriculture

CHERYL TEVIS Updated: 05/12/2014 @ 10:55am Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

Massive storm clouds and severe weather alerts set the stage last night for the Ames, Iowa, premiere of Farmland. It was a fitting backdrop for the opening scene as David and Kris Loberg kneel and dig in the field to determine if a fickle Mother Nature has provided the right conditions for their seeds to sprout and grow.

The 90-minute film, directed by documentary award-winner James Moll, follows the lives of six young farmers and ranchers as they forge a future for themselves and their families. Produced with support from the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, the documentary has been released in more than 60 major markets. It offers a glimpse of what farmers have to do to earn a livelihood, interwoven with the individually appealing personal narratives of these six operators:

  • Brad Bellah, Texas cattle rancher
  • Leighton Cooley, Georgia poultry farmer
  • Margaret Schlass, Pennsylvania community supported agriculture (CSA) grower
  • Sutton Morgan, California organic producer
  • David Loberg, Nebraska cattle, corn, soybean producer
  • Brian Veldhuizen, Minnesota hog, corn, and soybean farmer

These six young producers are intelligent, informed, and thoughtful. The common thread running throughout the film is the business challenges they face, but the film genuinely succeeds in reflecting their authentic diversity as farmers. It tackles the simmering internal debate within the agricultural community about conventional vs. alternative growing practices and methods, ranging from organic produce to antibiotics in livestock, natural beef labels, and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).

Farmland also elevates the complexity of farm decision-making, and the growing importance of technology. “You can’t get the planter going until the software is downloaded,” Loberg points out.

I’m glad that the film features one woman farmer, a trend reflected in the last two U.S. Census of Agriculture reports. Margaret Schlass is the only one who is a first-generation farmer, yet her mother’s comment seems oh-so familiar. “She has a passion for farming,” her mom says. “The farm always has to come first.”

The film also highlights the integral role played by women, including mothers and spouses, in farm production and business record-keeping. Yet it doesn’t downplay the value of a dine-and-dash meal prepared by Mom’s loving hands.

One segment of the film features producers voicing their frustrations with what they consider misleading public perceptions and stereotypes of farmers and agriculture. It includes a visual reference to the shadowy undercover videos of animal abuse in livestock operations.

The film succeeds in humanizing these young farmers by focusing on their individual challenges: growing new crops and finding new markets, taking over the operation after the death of a father, intense, long-term drought conditions, and the unexpected birth of twins. Be prepared for a few genuinely tear-jerking moments.

Farmland offers a powerfully positive, if somewhat sanitized perspective, of farming. For instance, there was no swearing as the farmers loaded cattle into the trailer.

Farmers have a reputation for complaining, and the film may indirectly present insights into why they persevere: It captures farmers experiencing the beauty and sense of satisfaction from growing their crops, the traditional husbandry of working with animals, and the daily interactions with their family members.

A final overriding thematic element is the legacy of farming. “It’s not about me, it’s about the next generation,” says Brian Veldhuizen’s dad. Farmland speaks to the passion for farming that is passed on from one generation to the next, as well as the poignant sadness of the memory of the last corn crop made with Dad, working side by side.

It’s a surprisingly good documentary, but it would have benefited from a more subtle musical score, and a more realistic hint of human flaws in family and rural relationships. “We have bad days, we have good days,” Loberg says in the film. The bad days are underrepresented.

Will Farmland strike a responsive chord with nonfarmers? The Movies 12 Theatre was packed. However, Ames, Iowa, is the home of Iowa State University, and many moviegoers were affiliated in some way. It also was easy to identify members of the agribusiness crowd sprinkled in, along with a few farmers who were rained out of the fields.

I hope nonfarmers see it, too. Tell your nonfarm friends and family members about it. The plan is to release Farmland as a DVD. It needs to go beyond being a feel-good film for the farm community and serve as a springboard for good discussions about U.S. agriculture and food production.

If you saw the film, what did you think?

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