Farmland the Movie: Hearing from Farmers First-Hand

There’s a documentary about farming, called Farmland, that was released in the spring and that is free to watch on Hulu for the next several days.

The movie follows the lives of six young farmers: five men whose families have been raising corn, cattle, chickens, hogs and produce for generations, and one spunky young woman who is the first in her family to attempt to farm. It spends a lot of time with its subjects, intercutting discussions of their own goals and their families’ legacies with the challenges of weather and markets, and is beautifully shot and scored.

A fair number of writers, on film and on sustainability and food production, would tell you not to watch it. As they’ve reviewed it over the past few months, they’ve called it shallow, propagandistic, preachy and light in its examination of issues.

Here’s why I think you should: Because regardless of its politics, it features the voices of average farmers, who feel disenfranchised and unheard.

It is unusual for a piece of media to showcase everyday commodity producers. The farmers we tend to lionize are strong personalities who have broken from the system: Joel Salatin of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Carole Morrison of the movie Food Inc., or my friend Will Harris III, whom I wrote about two weeks ago. But even a quick tour through the agricultural side of social media will show you that average farmers feel excluded from the national conversation around food. (Good Twitter accounts to follow for highlighting farmer voices: NYFarmer, from upstate New York; DairyCarrie, from Wisconsin; and Emily Zweber, from Minnesota.)

Photo of Leighton.

Farmer Leighton Cooley is one of the people highlighted in the new movie Farmland. Photograph by Don Holtz

The farmers in Farmland look pretty average to me: They grow a variety of crops, on a variety of farm sizes, and struggle with issues that seem common to almost all farmers: costs, prices, balky equipment, unpredictable events (a snowfall, a drought, a death, a birth). But across the board, they tell filmmaker James Moll that they feel the food-buying public knows little about their lives.

One of the farmers in the film, Leighton Cooley, lives about two hours’ drive from me in middle Georgia. Last week, I went down to visit the large poultry farm he operates with his parents. We stood in one of his broiler barns and talked about the movie while chickens pecked at the hygienic plastic covers on my boots.

“We wanted to do it to give the average consumer, who normally wouldn’t be able to step foot on a farm, a chance to actually see who we are and what we do,” he said. “I can’t say that every broiler farm in America is exactly like this one, but this is what most chicken houses in Georgia look like, and this is how they’re raised. Most farmers treat and care for their animals the same way we do. At the end of the day, they just want to provide a safe, affordable product for consumers and be able to make a living doing it.”

Cooley and his family are under contract to poultry giant Perdue Farms, which means they raise fast-growing chickens, allowed to live 38 to 52 days, in conventional houses holding tens of thousands of birds at a time, without access to the outdoors—but also without antibiotics, under a company-wide program that Perdue announced several months ago after the film had been released.

“I think people have the picture of a conventional poultry farmer as running a nasty house with lethargic, half-sick chickens, and an organic farmer having 50 chickens in a coop that they kill themselves and sell to the local diner,” Cooley told me. “I think the film says, Look, that conventional poultry farmer isn’t as inhumane as you pictured, and that organic farmer uses a ton of technology. Neither one is what you think.”

Farmland has come under fire because it was funded by the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, a trade association formed three years ago by producer groups (such as the National Pork Producers Council and the National Corn Growers Association) and agribusiness companies (including Dupont and Monsanto). Moll, an established documentarian with an Oscar, two Emmys and a Grammy, told me in a phone interview that he agreed to make the film only because he was promised complete creative control.

“I saw there were all these companies involved, and I was cautious,” he said by phone. “I told them, I don’t make commercials. But to their credit, they didn’t even see the film until it was finished.”

Moll told me he declined the organization’s offers to help him find people to film, preferring instead to find his own subjects through farmers’ organizations and social media. “This was not done to fulfill anyone else’s agenda,” he said. “I didn’t take a political stance. I’m proud of that.”

The lack of a political viewpoint—or discussion of farm subsidies, or the lobbying influence of agribusiness, or even the reality of climate change and its impact—is a reasonable criticism of Farmland, and it’s something to keep in mind as you watch. Balancing that observation, I’d offer this one: Farmers themselves feel it speaks for them.

A friend of mine who lives on the West Coast but comes from Iowa happened to see a screening while home with her family; she reports the audience raved. Another acquaintance, a farmer well-versed in how government economic policies have affected family farms, told me: “Anytime you can get farmers’ life stories out, it’s good. Farmers are faceless.” Moll told me that after a screening, “One older gentleman came up to me with tears in his eyes and said ‘No one has ever told our story before.’”

Here is something I deeply believe: If we’re going to change the food system—end antibiotic overuse, reduce agricultural chemicals, add back heritage varieties, encourage small farms — we need to be able to separate farm practices from farmers. Critically evaluating farm practices, and the government policies and financial influences which create them: That’s appropriate and necessary. Demonizing farmers as either perpetrators or tools: doomed.

Beyond its pretty images and maybe overly stirring music, the value of Farmland is that it brings into the discourse the voices of people who believe themselves misunderstood. So I encourage people to watch it: thoughtfully, with attention to what is said and isn’t, in fact-checking mode if that suits your mood. But watch it. Especially while it’s free.

Farmland is available for free on Hulu through Friday. Beginning in November, it will be downloadable to rent or own on iTunes, Amazon and a number of other platforms. Information at www.farmlandfilm.com.

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