If James Moll wanted to know what the challenges were that face farmers on a daily basis, all he needed to do was look at the shooting schedule for his latest documentary “Farmland.”
“It was the better part of a year and took months to shoot,” said Moll, just after the film premiered this weekend at the Atlanta Film Festival. “I didn’t necessarily intend it to be that way, but Mother Nature didn’t cooperate. The planting season was late, and the harvest season was late. When you’re documenting farmers, you’re going to go with the flow.”
But as frustrating as the uncooperative change of seasons may have been, Moll handles such adversity with the same grace as the farmers he depicts in “Farmland,” a film that deals with a greater transition than one brought on by the weather. As fewer children of family farms return home to work on the crops full-time, Moll travels the country to talk to those who have carried on their parents and grandparents’ profession as well as others at the forefront of a new generation in American agriculture, all hoping to shake the image of what Minnesota-based hog farmer Ryan Veldhuizan describes as the “big overalls, straw-hanging-out-of-your-mouth type person.”
“Farmland” collects stories from across the country, running the gamut from California where Sutton Morgan, a fourth-generation farmer presides over onion and potato fields, to Nebraska where David Loberg, a fifth-generation farmer who augments his family’s corn stalks with soybean production and an irrigation business, all the way to Pennsylvania where Margaret Schlass is just getting her hands dirty with an 18 acres of land to bring vegetables to sell at the local farmer’s market. Each speak of the hardships they face, whether it’s the uncertainty they encounter from year to year with their product or the patience required to cultivate business relationships along with the crops, but their presence alone says more than words could about the resilience and resolve of the people who put food on our tables.
In the midst of yet another busy season for Moll, who’s hit the road in support of the film leading up to its May 1st release with a series of festival dates including upcoming screenings at the Nashville and Newport Beach Film Festivals, the filmmaker spoke about what drew him to the project, allowing farmers to speak for themselves and being surprised at how they think the public perceives them.
How did you actually get interested in this subject?
I got interested in it just from buying food, basically. Years ago, I remember thinking while in the supermarket that I know nothing about where this food is coming from or who these farmers are and I thought I want to make a documentary about this. I read on Facebook or in the media all the time about how bad our food supply is or all the precautions we have to take about what we’re eating, and you start to shop with a lot of fear. That’s something I wanted to explore. But what I really wanted to do is make a film about the farmers. Like most of the films I make, it’s a character film, not an activist or agenda film. I just really wanted to get to know who these farmers and ranchers are.
The film states that it was made with the support of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Did that actually mean you had to go in a certain direction with it?
Well, no. It didn’t give me a direction creatively, and it’s funny because when I first found that my agents hooked me up with them as possible funding source for the film, I didn’t want to do it because I thought, “Oh, clearly they’re going to have a take on telling me how to do the film.” And that’s not how I make films. The agent said, “No, you should meet with them. I think this is different.” And I met with them, and they asked me, “If you could do any film on farming, what would you do?” I said, “I’m interested in the next generation of farmers and I’d be interested in profiling farmers in their twenties, all over the country. All different types of farming.” And they said, “Wow, that sounds great. We’d be very interested in supporting you on that.” Even then, the only way I would do it is if I had final cut on the film. And they said, “Sure.” So I was able to make my own film. They only saw the film when it was finished, but they were very, very supportive overall, and continue to be.
Since this film does criss-cross the country, how did you find your subjects and decide who you’d want to follow?
Choosing the subjects was tough. Obviously, there are quite a few farmers in the country, and there’s really no way to just pick one handful of people and adequately portray all of farming and agriculture in 90 minutes. It just can’t be done. But I did want to try to find people in different parts of the country, because farming in California is very different from farming in Georgia. I wanted to find people in geographically different locations and different types of farmers. That’s really what we did. We went out and did some outreach in farming communities. Cold-called people. Sometimes they’d just hang up on us. I think there was some mistrust because I’m a filmmaker from Los Angeles calling them out of nowhere. But some people were interested in talking and getting their story out, so we had quite a few people to choose from.
This film is quite beautiful with elegant cinematography and a classical score, which was particularly striking to me since at one point, Margaret Schlass, one of the farmers in the film talks about trying to disabuse people of the romantic image they have of farmers because of how tough they have it these days. Was that something to consider when portraying them in a certain light?
For me, the goal was to allow the farmers to speak for themselves. I did ask about some of what I would consider to be the issues surrounding farming right now: pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and animal welfare. At the same time, I knew I didn’t want to make a film that was going to get stuck on long-winded conversations about these issues because there are a lot of other films that do that. This one really gets in-depth about the people themselves, and what their families are like and their lives are like as farmers. Hopefully, people will come away from this movie feeling like they now know a farmer.
In the film, there’s a progression from the younger generation of farmers, which is obviously the focus, to speaking with older ones. Was it interesting to speak to both generations separately?
Yeah, it was. I was interested in how farming has changed over the years and like every aspect of our culture, it is changing very quickly. There are so many examples of the way technology is changing farming – for instance, technology is making it easier to water all of your crops by pressing a button on your iPhone as opposed to running around the field opening valves.
But the thing that really stood out to me is the multi-generational aspect of farming. All the farmers I profile in this farm are family farms, [except for] Margaret, the one farmer in Pennsylvania who has a small, community-supported agriculture farm that she started from scratch, on her own, out of a passion for farming, where she sells directly at a farmer’s market and to restaurants. The rest of them have a multi-generational aspect to it, so it’s interesting to hear from their parents about when they took over the farm and now handing it off to their kids. That’s a big part of the story.
If you hadn’t really met a farmer before this experience, was there something surprising you learned during the making of this?
It was fascinating from beginning to end. They’re all great, great people. I enjoyed the whole process immensely, as did my whole crew. But I guess I was surprised a little bit by their expectations of what my opinions of farmers were. They thought I was going to be coming at it in attack mode and prejudging them. Of course, I did ask the tougher questions, but it really was just allowing them to speak for themselves in their own words, so I was surprised at how much they are struggling with public perception.
Do you see this film as changing the conversation?
Every film I’ve made I hope prompts some conversation, even something that was just escapist fun for me, like documenting the Foo Fighters. What was interesting for me there was going into what it is that makes a team. There’s always some component to a film that you hope people come away with something and want to learn more. Certainly, in this one, we’re dealing with agriculture and there are a lot of hot-button topics right now. If this film will help prompt conversation on those topics, that’s a good thing.