Documentary Sheds Light on Experiences of Modern Farmers

5/17/2014 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — A new documentary about the lives of young American farmers aims to show the general public that farmers are regular, modern people who care about producing safe, profitable food.

Agriculture industry members watched and talked about the movie “Farmland” at the Cinemark theater in University City, Pa., during a private screening on Tuesday sponsored by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

The film was directed by James Moll, an Allentown, Pa., native who has won an Oscar, two Emmys and a Grammy on subjects as varied as Holocaust survivors and the Foo Fighters rock band.

Loosely organized around the 2013 planting season, “Farmland” follows six farmers in their 20s from different parts of the country.

Viewers get a peek at chicks in a chicken house, the hectic pace of a produce business and a search for germinating seed on a Nebraska corn farm.

The chosen farms are well matched to their industry’s strongholds. The cattle rancher is a Texan, the organic produce grower a Californian.

The farmers talk frankly if broadly about the markets and weather they cannot control, and the difficulties of farm transitions.

“You have to enjoy what you’re doing because it typically is hard work,” Ryan Veldhuizen, a Minnesota hog farmer, said.

As proof, the film shows Veldhuizen and his brother fighting with equipment, and Georgia broiler farmer Leighton Cooley covered in poultry litter after spraying down a chicken house.

The farmers also got to offer their side to current food-production controversies.

The film’s conventional and organic farmers politely disagreed on the use of genetically modified organisms.

Margaret Schlass, a first-generation farmer from Gibsonia, Pa., said she chose the type of growing that seemed right to her.

“I’m not interested in bashing other farmers,” she said.

If a consumer does not want to eat GMOs, “organics are the acceptable choice, but don’t try to vilify what I do,” said David Loberg, a Nebraska corn farmer.

Veldhuizen acknowledged consumers’ skepticism about chemical pesticides.

“They sound horrible. I agree,” but “you use chemicals on your hands every time you wash your hands,” he said.

Brad Bellah, a Texas cattle rancher, said it would be as ridiculous for him to mass-treat his animals with antibiotics as it would be to medicate an entire family just because one person got the sniffles.

The livestock farmers agreed that such animal abuse exposed by undercover videos is unacceptable and unrepresentative of the industry.

“I want them to have a comfortable life,” Bellah said of his cattle.

If the farmers’ descriptions of production practices sometimes seem a little too promotional, the movie also features moments of genuine emotion.

Many of these are related to Loberg’s father’s death of bone marrow cancer five years ago, an event that also pushed Loberg into greater responsibility on the farm.

Though the film offers insights into many parts of the farming experience, farmers will not learn much about farming that they did not already know. Early on, Veldhuizen has to explain that his farm grows crops to feed its hogs and then uses the hog manure to fertilize the crops.

Still, the farm-friendly audience loved the movie’s celebration and defense of agriculture.

“I appreciated those moments of emotion” because they made the farmers’ experience real, said Russell Redding, dean of agriculture at Delaware Valley College and a former state secretary of agriculture.

“This is a very good way to spread the word” about farming in a positive way, said Lou Sallie, Farm Bureau’s administrative secretary.

Veldhuizen, the only one of the farmers in the movie who attended the screening, said in a panel discussion afterward that his family ignored Moll’s first half-dozen phone calls, suspicious of what a Los Angeles production company could want with Midwestern farmers.

Eventually, they decided, “we should probably hear them out at least,” Veldhuizen said.

The family ended up on Moll’s radar because they were the 2013 Minnesota Pork Family of the Year, Veldhuizen said.

Veldhuizen said he is pleased with the way he was portrayed in the film.

“We wanted a fair presentation of the facts, and that is exactly what (Moll) did,” he said. “This was our opportunity to reasonably present our story without getting into a yelling match.”

The general public indulges mythological ideas of both evil and bucolic farmers, neither of which is accurate, Veldhuizen said.

Nonfarmers can get caught up in the business side of farming and forget that farms are still largely run by families.

Modern farms are not a cute little farm with a few sheep and chickens, he said.

“We don’t run around in Model Ts or ’57 Chevys anymore” either, he said.

Veldhuizen pointed out that fellow panelist Maria Forry’s Lancaster County farm is a limited liability corporation.

“That is a corporation,” he said. “That is what a modern family farm looks like.”

While the panelists agreed the film can help change negative consumer perceptions about farmers, they agreed that interpersonal interaction is also important.

“There’s definitely people out there what want to learn,” said Ben Wenk, an Adams County fruit grower who sells directly to consumers at Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.

Forry, a partner in Oregon Dairy, said her family’s farm welcomes 16,000 farm visitors a year between school field trips and a family-friendly event in June.

The technological advances mocked in terms like “factory farm” are actually advantages for farmers, as they allow for more efficient use of resources, Veldhuizen said.

“As far as animal care, it’s far superior” today, he said. “I’m not sure why that’s been taboo, except that the wrong people have been talking.”

Despite the enthusiastic response at the ag-only screening, critical reception has been frosty.

Many critics have noticed that “Farmland” was funded by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, or USFRA, an industry group that tells consumers about food production practices.

The group reportedly gave Moll complete creative control over the film, but that has not stopped accusations of propaganda.

Calling the film a “one-sided puff piece,” New York Times reviewer Jeanette Catsoulismay dismissed the farmers’ claims about pesticides and chicken growth hormones, and criticized their silence on global warming, government subsidies and seed patents.

Godfrey Cheshire of wrote the film is “essentially just masquerading as an actual documentary.” He suspected that the organic farmers in the movie were chosen because they would not insult conventional practices.

All movies need funding, whether they are dramas or documentaries, Randy Krotz, the chief executive of USFRA, wrote in a rebuttal on the group’s website.

“It’s no different than calling someone anti-science’ the moment they ask a question about GMOs, or calling them a corporate shill’ as soon as they speak in support of technological advances in agriculture,” Krotz wrote.

The group posted a map showing critical reception to the movie has been positive or neutral everywhere in the country except New York City, southern California and Madison, Wis.

USFRA says there have been 200 good reviews to 10 bad ones as of May 7.

The panelists said “Farmland” can be a tool for educating the public but conceded that farmers have more work ahead if they want to improve their image.

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