The film opens with two people digging in the dirt, a mother and son.
They are searching in a planted row of corn, trying to locate un-emerged seeds. Perhaps their planter was skipping or plugged during seeding, or maybe there was a heavy rain that washed away or rotted out some of the seeds, or maybe temperatures were too cold when they planted. We are never told directly what it is they are doing.
This is Farmland. A documentary about family farming, opening in select theaters around the country this May.
There are many scenes in the movie, like the one above, that are not directly explained. This, I think, is a mistake, since the intended audience for the film is non-farmers.
Still, I encourage you to watch it! Farmer and city-dweller alike.
I wish I could provide a more detailed supplement to this film for you non-farmers, to help you understand the scenes that go unexplained. This was the first introduction to farming for James Moll, the film’s director, and I’m surprised he chose not to make the content more easy to digest for others who have never stepped foot on a farm.
To farmers, the film serves as a beautiful testament and encouragement to the work we are doing. To everyone else, it provides a smattering of insights and important perspectives that I believe are missing from farm- and food-related documentaries already out there. The public needs more stories about farmers and to hear their side of hot topic debates: GMO versus organic, hormone and antibiotic-free chicken, and land stewardship, to name a few.
The six farmers and ranchers featured in the documentary help illustrate the large scope and diversity in farming. They are:
- a chicken farmer from Georgia
- a cattle rancher from Texas
- a corn and soybean farmer from Nebraska
- a commercial (large scale) vegetable farmer from California
- a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable farmer from Pennsylvania
- and a hog farmer who grows his own corn and soybean feed in Minnesota.
These six voices provide a good representation for the types of farming that exist. Although, I think the film tried to cover too much ground using all six of these perspectives within the allotted 80 minutes. This may be the reason why time was not taken to explain what was happening in some of the scenes.
The film is marketed as “The Evolution of a Tradition” and “follows the lives of six farmers and ranchers.” However, beyond mentioning that the farmers and ranchers are fourth or sixth generation (meaning that farming has been practiced by each generation from their great grandparents—or greater—down to them), the documentary does not demonstrate an evolution of farming beyond the last twenty years.
And although we see video of both planting and harvest, and both baby chicks and mature chickens during the film, we don’t actually see much of the day-to-day toil or risk of farming. Bad weather, unpredictable marketing (selling of product), shoveling manure, and the like are simply verbally discussed or skimmed over quickly, leaving the audience to take their word for it.
I feel that if the filmmakers had featured just 2 or 3 farmers, the film could have followed a more traditional, linear approach, and actually follow the lives of these farmers for a year, or even two.
I do think the film is successful in putting real faces on farming. In the city, people curse “factory farming,” and have a false impression that factory farms are taking over the food industry. This documentary squashes those misperceptions with statistics and replaces them with introductions to real farmers and their personal stories. How did they start farming? Why is farming important? This is the true emphasis and purpose of this film.
Again, I would like to go into further explanation about scenes that show some farmers using irrigation while others do not, or explain that the machine farmer Ryan Veldhuizen pushes against to straighten is a self-propelled sprayer. But like the film, there just isn’t enough time. I realize I’ve said more negative things about this film than positive. But no film could possibly explain all of farming. I hope this is one of many films made from the farmer’s perspective.
As Leighton Cooley, the poultry farmer from Georgia, says: “The best way to get people to understand is to show them.”
See the film. (Watch the trailer.) Visit a farm near you, or visit mine.
Special thanks to the North Dakota Soybean Council for the special showing of the film on April 30th, and my cousin Kathy for inviting me to the event!