Photo by Don Holtz.

‘Farmland’ Fables: What the Documentary Gets Wrong

The promotional website for the new film Farmland invites viewers to “step inside the world of farming for a first-hand glimpse into the lives of young farmers and ranchers.” The film, which opens in some theaters May 1, features six young farmers from across the U.S.

But let’s make this very clear: Farmland is funded by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), a trade association uniting industry representatives from groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the United Soybean Board, state farm bureaus, and the agribusiness corporations Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, and John Deere. This fact​ alone​​ suggests that it’s not the straightforward look at today’s farmers that it portrays itself to be.

The Farmers

The film combines interviews with scenes from their day-to-day lives, and it does a very credible job of capturing the trials and aspirations of ​a corn and soy farmer, a hog farmer, a chicken farmer, a cattle rancher, and two vegetable farmers—one large organic producer and one small CSA (community-supported agriculture) farmer. They are all passionate advocates of their farming operation and methods and all six spoke of​ the problems of growing crops, particularly the really tight margins affecting farmers.

I suppose one could say they covered a fair cross section of farming operations across the U.S., but they did, however, miss bringing ​​dairy farming, urban farming, and minority farmers into the picture entirely. From my point of view as a farmer, Farmland also left out a lot of the problems we face and glorified the trend toward larger, more industrialized farms.

When I heard the stirring, almost patriotic music I knew a giant corn planter would soon be rolling across the Nebraska landscape for a moonlit planting run. From there the viewer goes to Georgia, where a group of school children are looking into a barn housing 25,000 chickens, one of 18 such barns on the farm, to which 450,000 chicks are delivered at a time, five times every year.

The Nebraska corn and soy farmer tells the audience that he has irrigated twice as much in 2012 as he does in a normal year, but we never hear him question the sustainability of irrigating what should be dry land farm country.

The hog farmer from Minnesota shows the construction for an expansion of their facilities, but he never questions why the global market he is part of is not providing a fair return for his work, one that would not necessitate constant expansion.

And the rancher from Texas asks, “Is there really any difference between organic and natural?” as a swirling collage of labels filled the screen, enforcing the idea that labels are more confusing than they are helpful.

The commercial organic grower in California seems to rely heavily on his Latino employees and I hope they were fairly paid. While he clearly feels organic is a better way to farm, his choices appear to be lead more by economic factors than ethical ones. His farming plan is to try to stay one step ahead of the market at all times.

Finally, the young CSA farmer from the appropriately named One Woman Farm, in Pennsylvania, shows real joy in growing food, not commodities. She is the only one who directly connects with people who eat what she grows. New to farming, she is the token woman and a token small-scale operator. And, as the film suggests, she may provide food for several households, but she alone (or others like her) will never “feed the world.”

No, for that important work—Farmland tells us—one needs a much larger operation, and new technology: GPS, auto-steer tractors, genetically engineered seeds (commonly referred to as GMOs), confinement-based animal production (or CAFOs). This is a common refrain from USFRA, which was founded in 2011.

“Feeding the World”

The group has hosted events called Food Dialogues and produced media to respond to other food films, such Food, Inc., King Corn, and criticism aimed at revealing what many consumers see as the downsides to heavily consolidated agriculture. (The USFRA receives federal commodity marketing program dollars, or check-offs, paid for by growers of various commodities who contribute through product sales whether they want to or not.)

Indeed, the phrase “feeding the world” has become an opiate that lulls farmers and consumers into accepting the system of commodity production, high-tech farming and the notion that “food is food,” no matter how it’s grown or harvested.

GMOs are a good example. In Farmland, they are described as offering farmers all sorts of benefits that haven’t lived up to their hype: Weed control options, insect resistance, higher yields, drought resistance, and better nutrition. On the other hand, the film’s two organic farmers were never shown criticizing the farmers who use GMO seeds, and, in my opinion, that is how it should be. Industry is the one and only winner when it comes to GMOs.

Like them, my criticism is not of these young farmers. It’s not an easy job and most of us take on huge financial risks while the multinational corporations controlling agriculture will make a profit, no matter what happens to our bottom line. Thanks to climate change, free trade agreements, and consolidation, all our futures are uncertain.

But the system, and the corporate control was never questioned—that is what I found missing from Farmland: Someone seriously asking questions about this “get big or get out” food system. I would have liked to see someone ask why hunger continues to grow as farmers adopt all the technology that industry, government, universities, and media tell them they should.

And finally: Why must small and medium-sized farmers struggle financially while the agribusiness industries see their profit margins climb?

 

Photo at the top by Don Holtz.

14 thoughts on “‘Farmland’ Fables: What the Documentary Gets Wrong

  1. You suggested that GMOs haven’t offered benefits such as drought tolerance, higher yield, insect resistance, and weed control options. But these benefits are real. GE drought tolerance was recently released, insect resistant maize and cotton have increased yields (and suppressed populations of pest insects that also benefit non-GMO growers), and despite the weed resistance issues of herbicide-tolerant crops, it has still allowed farmers to reduce the environmental impact of their farms through using less harmful herbicides and increasing and maintaining no-till farming. I co-run an independent organization that helps educate people on this topic, at http://www.biofortified.org. Anyone who wants to learn more can come check us out.

  2. I was approached by a production company in LA to supply contacts for a similar venture in documentary idealization. They insisted that they only want to laud farming’s “unsung heroes” much the way it was done in the FORD commercial, but there was to be no mention of politics or Big Ag. I can hear the swelling music now. Nowhere is there a mention of the real struggle for survival that small & medium sized farmers face everyday. What their goal seems to be is to contribute to a false notion of the stalwart farmer toiling away to feed the world, not as an expression of reality, but to make it seem that all of our food is raised this way, by these very stalwarts–not the industrial farm that is the reality on the ground.

  3. @ Karl, I think despite the fact that GMO’s may in fact do what you have described above, it remains a fact that majority of GMO corn and soy crops are not for human consumption but are for livestock feed and industrial commodities. Which is an interesting fact, and one that is curious when looking at this author’s point of Farmland encouraging the viewer to think that only large conventional farms are able to “feed the world.” So it’s important to even ask…do we need GMO crops to feed the world?

    There are also health concerns: Studies are showing that glyphosate, the main ingredient in Round Up, is also damaging to our beneficial bacteria, which nowadays is showing to be extremely important to our health. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.g

  4. As the director of a grassroots documentary film about young farmers, called Greenhorns, released in 2011– its erie to see a corporate PR campaign coopt the voices of young farmers. But then, I shouldn’t be surprised, Farm Bureau, 4H and FFA ( Future Farmers of America) are all on the payroll of monopolistic agribusiness, and have been running ” communications courses” for beginning farmers, teaching them how to” tweet on behalf of the industry. ”
    Our latest films about young farmers can be seen at http://www.ourland.tv.

  5. I work with the local 4-H chapters in central NY. I haven’t seen that any of our chapters “are on the payroll” of monopolistic agribusiness. We are actually working with some 30 local children to raise “local meat” for our area. Many of the children come from small farms that are striving to survive. We are doing our best to innovate and find ways that these children might carry the farm into the next generation. Knock it off with the “on the payroll” accusations.

  6. Most farmers in NY have been happy to hear about a film being shown about farmers in NYC . There is a serious problem among urban food movement groups who steadfastly refuse to invite commodity farmers to speak at their events . NY has 7.2 million acres of farmland. 1/3 of that is woodlot, perennial pastures, etc. Upstate dairy farmers are literally uninvited over and over at urban food conferences, unless perhaps they are certified organic. I have sat in on a few sessions at NYC meetings where farmers uniformly cast as ” conventional are spoken of in a very dismissive and denigrating way . So , can author , the commenters and retweeters here let me know what they have done to welcome the average farmer into the NYC food talk fold ?

  7. If farmers are not feeding the world, who the heck is? I think the film is well balanced. It looks at a spectrum of real farmers who really are producing food — feeding the world or at least their little part of it. The fact they do some business with corporations does not make them criminals. If they had to do without land, equipment, financing, seed, etc., etc. (all facilitated by corporations of one sort or another) these young farmers would not be sell-outs but they also would not be farmers. Why are organic producers always bashing other good honest farmers? Such a shame our organic producers cannot promote their stuff on its own merits instead of always poisoning the well. I will have to reconsider my support for organic farmers

  8. Once again, the special corporate interests of large mono-crop and CAFO farming operations coopt an important movement to further confuse the public on food security issues. Take a load of cash, some music, add corn fields and talking points and it’s more toxic propaganda.

    As a co-producer/director of GROW!, a film about young, beginning organic farmers in Georgia, we are always asked, challengingly, by members of conventional ag and their sycophants: “Can you feed the world this way?” The answer is yes.

    I would ask the subjects in Farmland: “Do you believe your farm business model, based as it is on chemicals, GMOs and government subsides, is actually sustainable?”

    http://growmovie.net

  9. Why all the angst just because the lives of young American farmers are being shared with us? Isn’t that the “know your farmer” idea? Haven’t we been clamoring for “transparency”? Why do you denounce this fine new effort using the same old anti-agriculture talking points? Can’t you come up with some fresh criticism, something other than the old evil corporations conspiracy theory rant? Little wonder organic is such a small portion of the food market. So much attention to attacking people, so little attention to the business of farming. Are organic cows as nasty and combative as organic producers? Is that why the organic milk costs so much, because you get your head kicked off every time you milk ‘em? A little less hate, please, Jimbo. Thanks

  10. Feeding the world sounds really great, but we can’t help but notice since that effort has started, most of what’s happened is that ingredients have gotten cheaper, mostly improving the profit margins of companies who buy the ingredients. We haven’t noticed much of an increase in ag exports to starving countries as a result of mass food production.
    At the risk of sounding ignorant, why don’t we expand agriculture in China and/or Russia? Those countries have a lot of land that isn’t currently in ag production.

  11. My gramps farmed the large acreage his family continuously enlarged to stay afloat. My Uncle Sam sold pesticides & fertilizers – another Michigan State educated spokesman for commercialization of farming. Gramps relied on mortgages & his wife’s outside income to buy extremely expensive modern farming implements. He won many prizes for his polled Hereford studs. This ended as futile. Uncle Sam humbly admitted he misspent his career selling poison. None COULD AFFORD TO KEEP THIS UP. Also, they destroyed the farmland, which Gramps bragged was in the top 3 for soil nutrients nation wide, but they killed the earthworms & had no drainage after 40 years. This is REALITY. Most farmers have 2nd jobs. Huron County, Mi 150 yr farm died…

  12. Pingback: NY Times critiques USFRA’s ‘Farmland’ | National Family Farm Coalition