By Sean Battles
Farmland, a documentary on “what it’s really like to run a farm,” was released nationally in more than 60 major markets May 1. Last week, I was lucky enough to see an advanced screening at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. I’d like to share with you my personal thoughts on the film, coming from the perspective of a non-farmer and Monsanto employee.
First, I encourage everyone, on both sides of the fence post, to go see Farmland if available in your area. It’s a beautifully shot and produced film, directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker James Moll. The visuals and the score alone will make the ticket price worth it. The behind-the-scenes insights will make it a winner.
Billed as “an intimate and firsthand glimpse into the lives of six young farmers and ranchers across the U.S.,” Farmland tells a positive yet gritty story about real people. The common setting, in my opinion, just happens to be their family-owned and operated farms.
Their histories and their words also are their own – not the director’s, not a narrator’s, not a so-called industrial operator’s. These young growers welcome you onto their farms and ranches, and they share with you what you “want to know, what you need to know – whatever you want to know,” as one of the farmers phrased it in the film.
“In a day and age where people are becoming more disconnected from where their food is grown, I feel it’s important that they know it’s being grown by people who care about the product as much as they do,” says David Loberg, a fifth-generation corn and soybean farmer who operates a family farm with his mother in Nebraska. “Farming, especially family farming through the generations, is rich with history and heritage, and I feel honored to be able to tell a little bit of our story.”
The story of this 25-year-old farmer puts a welcome spotlight on his business. It also touches on the personal heartbreak of losing his father to bone marrow cancer. Loberg says, with swelled eyes and a breaking voice, he wasn’t ready to take over the family farm, not yet, not like that. But it’s what he – and his mom – did.
Others chronicled in Farmland include a fourth-generation poultry farmer from Georgia; a sixth-generation cattle rancher from Texas; a fourth-generation hog farmer from Minnesota; a fourth-generation organic vegetable farmer from California; and a first-generation vegetable farmer from Pennsylvania. Each has a unique, personal story to tell, on and off the field.
The six farmers raise some timely and controversial issues in the film, ranging from labeling to antibiotics to organic food to animal abuse to GMOs to the weather. They do their best to respectfully shed much needed light on those public issues –and, in many cases, examples of broader public misinformation.
(Leighton Cooley, a poultry farmer, chuckles that “some smart guy” figured out that if you stick a “hormone free” label on chicken, then it could create a big consumer demand. The punch line: government regulations don’t allow producers to use hormones in their operations. The hormone-free advertising, however, has skewed public perception as a result).
But, more than any single issue, I believe the theme of Farmland is much simpler. Here’s why:
Veldhuizen, who farms with his brother and sister, knowing that most Americans never have met a farmer, says at one point in the film: “We’re normal people.”
Strange though it might sound, that simple sentence, for me, is the theme of Farmland. These farmers, like most people in every American city no matter how big or small, go to the movies, shop at the mall and graduate from major universities. Unlike most, however, they decide to work the land for a living.
Only two percent of the American population actively farms. This disparity creates a natural disconnect in lifestyle, heritage and knowledge.
There’s another, larger example to illustrate that Farmland is about real people with deep values – something said by a father who’s handed down his farm to his son: “My time has passed. I know that, and I’m OK with that, because it’s not about me,” he says. “It’s about the next generation.”
The six farmers in Farmland know what they do is hard work and hugely risky. It takes an emotional and physical toll on each of them (the film opens with mother and son walking their fields, scooping the dirt with bare hands, worriedly looking for a single germinated seed amid a drought).
But I believe one of the featured growers captures the point of it all when he says, simply, he loves his job. He’s proud of the work he does to sustain the farm and to sustain his family.
The film Farmland invites you to see, hear and maybe even share in that pride, whoever you are.