Film Review: Farmland

Reviews

One of the themes sounded throughout the first sections of the beautiful but overly corporate Farmland is that Americans at large have little idea about the demands that modern agriculture puts on farmers. This doesn’t ring completely true; after all, if most people thought that farming was a simple way to make a living, more people would likely do it. But if one of the aims of James Moll’s documentary was to illustrate the complexities of that life, then mission accomplished. There is nobody who will come away from this lush celebration of the land thinking that farming is just planting seeds and selling what comes out of the ground. They will also receive a narrowly selective viewpoint that is just as rigidly message-driven as some of the anti-agribusiness documentaries that have vilified the industry in recent years.

It’s a shame that what the film has to say is squeezed through such a restrictive aperture. The half-dozen people whom Moll chose to tell their stories are each of them fascinating as individuals and as representatives of what they do. From Leighton Cooley, the Georgia poultry farmer with a natural laid-back confidence, to Sutton Morgan, the nervy California organic farmer who’s not quite sure whether he’ll succeed or not, the film presents a broad range of personalities and backgrounds. There’s Brad Belah, a rancher from Texas whose shirts remain impossibly starched while herding his cattle, and Margaret Schlass, a plucky Pennsylvania organic farmer whose analog modus operandi is summed up by her business name: One Woman Farm. All of them profess a deep love for what they do, talking about the land and their work with a generations-long appreciation for its importance. Very importantly, they’re also all in their 20s, and appear utterly dedicated to this life.

The film’s ability to paint glowing thumbnails of these women and men is never in question. There is not one person here who doesn’t present as a shining example of the American farming community. Where Farmland fails is looking any deeper than what reads as an industry-proscribed presentation with a soaring symphonic score. Not so subtly threaded through the shimmering views of gleaming wheat fields and roiling piles of adorably cheeping yellow chicks are a string of bullet-pointed corporate messages.

Moll’s interviewees opine about everything from genetically modified crops (not a problem, don’t believe the propaganda), overuse of fertilizers and hormones (also not a problem), estate taxes (bad), and the growth of corporate as opposed to family farming (a myth). This isn’t surprising, as the film appears to have been underwritten by farming business interests and doesn’t have much of any particular editorial or artistic heft to it. But while it’s all fair play in the unfortunately often partisan world of nonfiction filmmaking, there are some real missed opportunities here. At one point, the film broaches the topic of what exactly do all those different labels in a supermarket (“hormone-free” as opposed to “organic” and “all-natural”) really mean? But instead of digging into the topic, the film just breezes past, belying its stated intention of educating people about an apparently misunderstood industry.

A strain of defensiveness, perhaps not surprisingly, runs through much of what the film’s subjects say. The rangy Minnesotan Ryan Veldhuizen in particular seems perturbed by the outdated view he thinks people have of farmers: “We have electricity and running water.” This much is clear, given the amount of mechanical and electronic hardware on display in most of these highly complex family businesses. If the point of Farmland was to recruit people to the farming life, then it is most likely a success. It’s hard to watch the unadulterated joy that the likes of Belah and the effusive Schlass in particular bring to their work and not feel a twinge of envy. But as anything more than a well-meaning cinematic brochure, it simply doesn’t fly.

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