Is This Documentary the Ag Industry’s Answer to ‘Food, Inc.’?

The agribusiness-funded ‘Farmland’ follows the lives of five American farmers.

(Photo: Allentown Productions)

May 5, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

When the United States Farmers and Ranchers Alliance asked James Moll to direct a documentary about American agriculture, the first thing the Oscar- and Emmy-winning filmmaker did was Google the group. What he found was an organization considered by many to be a public relations front group for agribusiness interests such as DuPont, Monsanto, and ag and ranching trade groups. He said no.

“I don’t do commercials,” Moll says he told the group. “I’m not going to do a film to promote any sort of agenda in farming.”

The USFRA—whose spokespeople admit it formed in direct response to the success of Food, Inc.—wouldn’t give up on the director so easily. The alliance had a different story to tell about how food is produced, and it was convinced Moll was the person to tell it. In their first face-to-face meeting, representatives from the group told Moll that if he came on board, he could choose the direction the documentary took. He declined again, saying the only way he could agree to take on the project was if he could handpick the farmers featured in the film (USFRA had offered to choose the cast) and have the final cut.

A partnership was born.

The result is Farmland, a 77-minute peek into the lives and work of five American farmers in their 20s, which opened in limited release on May 1. But despite Moll’s assurance that everything shown to viewers was his decision and not that of the film’s agribusiness backers, the corporate alliance is hurting the film with critics and may hurt it at the box office.

Almost every critical review of the film has picked up on (and taken issue with) the USFRA connection. Godfrey Cheshire wrote at RogerEbert.com that the film comes off as “a glossy corporate infomercial for American agribusiness.” The Los Angeles Times’ Martin Tsai called the film a “puff piece,” adding that it often comes off as “lobbyist propaganda.” A notable exception to the litany of wary reviews was the one published Friday on Monsanto’s blog, in which employee Sean Battles calls the film a “winner” and encourages everyone “on both sides of the fence post” to go see it.

Monsanto is, of course, a major backer of the United States Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Some wonder if USFRA’s financial backing had anything to do with the light treatment of controversial issues such as genetically modified seeds, soil health, water shortages, and climate change. Moll counters that this was intentional; he wanted to produce a “character piece rather than an agenda piece.”

Perhaps most telling, Farmland’s link to Big Ag led one of the farmers featured to distance herself from the film. Margaret Schlass of One Woman Farm, an 18-acre organic vegetable operation outside Pittsburgh, Pa., says that while her fellow farmers have her “unwavering support,” she cannot join them in promoting and marketing Farmland. Her issues with the organization that paid for the film just run too deep.

“I cannot overlook my discomfort with the funding structure of this project, which I did not fully understand until much later in the process,” Schlass said in a written statement. “Nor can I in good conscience support the goals of USFRA’s corporate partners, whose interests are involved in the marketing and promotion of the Farmland film.”

Moll, who won an Academy Award for his 1999 documentary The Last Days, about Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, says USFRA had minimal influence over the film. A cut of the doc was screened for representatives from the alliance, and they submitted notes—some of which the director incorporated and some of which he ignored. But Moll says he was never pressured “to make any changes, to add anything or take anything out.”

Schlass informed him she would not participate in marketing Farmland, a decision he respects but disagrees with. “If she had issues with some of the companies that fund USFRA, I wish she would…use the film for what I’m hoping it will ultimately be—which is a springboard for discussion about agriculture and about farming,” he says.

According to some farmers who viewed the film, however, critical pieces of the larger debate about agriculture are absent. Kimberly Hagen, who has raised sheep for 28 years in Middlesex, Vt., says that while she appreciated the diversity of farmers represented in the film and its focus on the rising generation of farmers, Farmland handled a number of issues much too lightly. Drought—a reality in the West that has affected much of the nation’s breadbasket in recent years—is going to change domestic farming “dramatically” in the next decade, Hagen says.

With just a line or two spent discussing GMOs, Hagen says Farmland dismisses the topic too quickly, and that “there’s a lot more going on there.” To her, the brushoff is another example of the industry and its farmers justifying the large-scale industrial farming that’s come to dominate the industry over the last several decades—an approach they see as “under attack.” Hagen disagrees—alternative approaches to food production are more about the realities of a changing climate than about some ideological disagreement.

“I see that, for practical reasons, what we’ve been doing is going to have to come to an end because the change in the amount of resources—fuel, for one—the weather, climate change, etc., are dictating that we need to adapt to new situations,” she says. “And if you don’t, you’re sticking your head in the sand. You’re not paying attention. The world is changing, and you’ve got to deal with that.”

For sixth-generation Texas cattle rancher Brad Bellah, who is featured in the film, participating in Farmland was a way to give farmers more of a voice in the conversations about food production that were spurred by the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentary Food, Inc. (which was produced by TakePart’s parent company)—conversations he says are full of “misconceptions.” If consumers have questions about their food, he says, they should ask a farmer first.

But finding a farmer to ask may be easier in some communities than in others. While small-scale, direct-to-consumer farmers often have a stated objective to build community, larger producers often operate to “feed the world,” says Jennifer Colby, another Vermont-based rancher. Schlass is clearly portrayed as the character who became a farmer to bring people in her small Pennsylvania town closer together. We see her talking with neighbors at the farmers market, at her farm distributing CSA boxes to customers, or throwing huge suppers out on her land. Conversely, the lasting images of the other farms include a barn packed with 25,000 chickens or enormous tillers rolling across an endless sea of corn. Therein lies one of Farmland’s biggest strengths, according to Colby: the chance for moviegoers to see Schlass’ community-supported farm next to larger-scale operations.

“I think the film allows us as consumers to choose which system we want,” she says. “Do we want to support the farmer who’s building community or the farmer who’s feeding the world?”