Farmers and ranchers know their livelihood is a gamble each year, one in which Mother Nature is the dealer, and one that comes with happiness and heartbreak, success and failure, life and death.
But average Americans know little about how and where their food is grown, let alone about the struggles that come when those in agriculture pour all their money and time into a product from which they may or may not reap rewards.
Members of the agriculture industry are hoping a newly released documentary, “Farmland,” will help repair that disconnect.
“This is a documentary that I think is really going to allow those consumers to step foot on a farm without literally stepping foot on the farm,” said Tami Arnold, director of marketing for the Colorado Beef Council, who was raised on a Colorado farm. “It shows the day-to-day operations. They’re really able to see what goes into it.”
The film, which premiered in a one-time showing at Denver’s Sie FilmCenter on Thursday night, tells the stories of six young farmers and ranchers who have taken on the responsibilities of running operations, all before the age of 30.
Leighton Cooley, a fourth-generation poultry farmer in Georgia, runs four farms, a cow-calf operation and grows hay with his father. Brad Bellah, a sixth-generation rancher, runs beef cattle — including a natural herd — in Texas and Colorado.
David Loberg operates a corn and soybean farm in Carroll, Neb., with his mother after the sudden passing of his father.
Sutton Morgan, a California produce farmer, is the fourth generation on his family farm and has taken over organic production.
Ryan Veldhuizen is a fourth-generation farmer taking over his family’s Minnesota hog operation.
Unlike the others, Pennsylvania organic produce farmer Margaret Schlass is the first in her family to try her hand at farming, and she operates One Woman Farm, a Community Supported Agriculture operation on 750 acres.
“Lots of people talk about how hard they work, but until you know a farmer, you don’t know what hard work is,” Schlass said in a booklet promoting the film.
According to information on the film, Oscar-winning filmmaker James Moll wanted to shed light on the world of farming, hoping to help more people appreciate the “high-risk, high-reward” industry.
He reached out to the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance to help coordinate the production.
The film takes viewers through cycles of production, from baby chicks to full-grown chickens, from planting to harvest. The farmers and ranchers discuss just how little they can control, with weather and markets dictating their bottom lines. As Cooley pointed out, droughts all the way across the country in the Midwest have an impact on his profits, making his feed corn more expensive in Georgia.
The film addresses hot topics surrounding farming and ranching, and the farmers and ranchers give their perspectives about the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and work to dispel myths about hormones in poultry and animal cruelty. Cooley said hormones have never been widely used in the poultry industry, but the public perception that they were being used forced farmers to market their products as “hormone-free.”
Livestock owners in the film said there is no reason to abuse animals because they deserve respect as living beings and their health is crucial to the success of an operation. They said a few bad apples in the industry have given the public a bad taste about how animals are treated.
Arnold, whose grandfather Bill Frank recently retired after 60 years as a founding member of the Weld County, Colo., 4-H Foundation, said after the film that she was glad it addressed issues like animal cruelty. Arnold, who raised cattle for show from a young age as a 4-H member and who will take her grandfather’s place on the 4-H board, said just like the people featured in the film, she knows that treating animals well will only increase their health, which will in turn make the operation as a whole more successful.
“I’m glad they did call some of those issues to light,” she said after watching the film on Thursday. “It’s common sense to us.”
Arnold said most people are three or four generations removed from agriculture, and with so few people remaining in the industry, it’s important to educate as many people as possible on the ins and outs, ups and downs of farming and ranching.
“It’s hard for 3 percent of us to educate 97 percent (of the population),” she said. “It’s kind of overwhelming when you think of it that way.” ❖