Ag Group Fires Back at Critics of ‘Farmland’

The group that funded the film is downplaying its involvement.

(Photo: Allentown Productions)

May 14, 2014· 3 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.

Farmland, the agribusiness-funded, James Moll–directed documentary about five American farmers in their 20s, is going into its third weekend on the big screen, and criticism of its corporate backers and light treatment of controversial issues such as genetic engineering continues to haunt its release. The film focuses on five young farmers (three large conventional operations, a large organic grower, and a community-supported farm), who discuss, without the help of an omniscient narrator, the triumphs and tragedies of farming in the 21st century. But for the media, the story is all about how the United States Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, a public relations group funded by agribusinesses, such as Monsanto and DuPont, financed the film.

Before it cut a check, USFRA came up with the idea for the film as a way to balance the furor raised against industrial food practices in best-selling books like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and documentaries like King Corn and our parent company Participant Media’s Food, Inc. After all, the USFRA’s own spokespeople have said the need for a PR front group for Big Ag was inspired by the success of these books and films.

Judging by this week’s statement from USFRA president Randy Krotz, however, you’d think the organization simply wrote the checks and stayed out of the way. Krotz says the group hasn’t formally spoken about its role in making the film “because we haven’t really had one.” Not according to the film’s director. Earlier this month, Moll told me that representatives from the USFRA viewed a rough cut of the film after it was shot and submitted a list of suggested edits—some of which were made. USFRA initially wanted to give him a list of farmers to use in the film but in the end let him choose his own cast, he added.

It isn’t clear whether droves of people have been watching the film, as box-office numbers were not immediately available owing to the film’s limited release. But in the statement issued on the USFRA website Food Dialogues, Krotz expresses surprise at some of the reactions the film has elicited. A map included in the post shows (without sources) that all the “negative” articles about Farmland originated in either New York or Los Angeles. Farm country, on the other hand, is shown to be mostly positive or neutral about the film.

“While we hoped [Farmland] would spark conversation about American agriculture, and we anticipated a fair share of Hollywood critique, we didn’t expect this movie to draw such clear lines in the American landscape between those who grow our food and those who consume it,” Krotz writes.

The implication here, of course, is that the negativity about this film’s origins, motives, and content is coming mostly from the coastal elites who know not of what they write (never mind that fewer rural Americans are involved with farming these days). Yet Krotz ignores one of the film’s own stars—Pennsylvania’s Margaret Schlass, who runs a small, community-supported produce farm—who informed Moll that she would not participate in promoting the finished movie because she “did not fully understand” the funding structure involving USFRA “until much later in the process.”

The neat rural-urban divide also glosses over sharp critiques from writers such as Jim Goodman, an organic dairy farmer from Wisconsin. In his piece for Civil Eats, Goodman pays close attention to the details of the farms portrayed, and he emphasizes that his criticism is not of the farmers themselves but of “the system, and the corporate control” that the operations represent—which he says was never questioned.

“That is what I found missing from Farmland: someone seriously asking questions about this ‘get big or get out’ food system,” Goodman writes. “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?”

Moll says these things were not addressed because Farmland is a character study, not an issues piece. But regardless of the documentary’s content (which national critics described as “puff” and “propaganda”), Big Ag got what it wanted out of the film: a dreamy, sweeping story that gets the focus off the controversial “how” of American industrial agriculture and onto the “who.” In this case, we’re talking about five humble, smart, likeable young people—individuals asked to stand in for a sprawling industry. It’s a swap that Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, says plays right into the hands of Monsanto and other organizations looking to reframe the conversation and shift blame.

“It serves the interests of the large corporations that are really under attack to put the farmers in front of them and say that it is the farmers being attacked, not a set of practices, not a...highly concentrated industry, not monopolistic seed merchants, all the things that are the real targets,” Pollan told NPR.