When it comes to making movies about industries, documentary filmmakers — and their audiences — really dig dirt. But the only mud you’ll find in “Farmland,” which ostensibly focuses on the lives and labors of six twentysomething family farmers, is the earth in which the seeds grow. Funded by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, which includes Monsanto and Dupont, the pic was made as a rejoinder to health-based forensics like “Food, Inc.,” and “King Corn.” Though the perspective of farmers is well worth examining, this good-looking 77 minutes of propaganda is heavy on sugar-coating and light on nutritional value. Planted in theaters a week ahead of “Fed Up,” it’s hard to see it taking root anywhere other than perhaps the grain belt, where the movie is sure to be USDA-approved.
Director James Moll is best-known for Holocaust documentaries “The Last Days” (1998), which won an Oscar; and “Inheritance” (2006), which profiles the daughter of Amon Goeth, the Nazi concentration camp commandant from “Schindler’s List.” In making the case for Big Agriculture, Moll has a subject that’s only slightly less vilified these days, and it feels like he’s working as a hired hand.
Because the film lacks an omniscient voice, all information is provided anecdotally by its subjects, one of whom immediately avers that 90% of America’s food comes from family farms. A key is the definition of “family farm,” which here includes a poultry operation in Georgia that produces more than 2 million chickens annually; a massive cattle ranch in Texas run by a young, sixth-generation owner; and the comparatively tiny community-supported agriculture enterprise established by 23-year-old Margaret Schlass and backed by 150 members.
The feisty Schlass, who also sells her produce in farmers markets and owns a fleet of tractors that she notes are older than she is, reps the best part of the pic. She’d make an excellent solo subject for a documentary (though “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” has already covered the success of CSAs). Here, you get the feeling Moll is using her mainly to put a more diverse face on a film that is otherwise about five young white guys making the most of their birthrights.
Most of those profiled agree that while there are fewer and fewer family farms, their size is growing. One might regard all but Schlass’ One Woman Farm as survivors who have swallowed their failed neighbors — but any buyouts are never mentioned. Ryan Veldhuizen, who raises hogs in Minnesota, bemoans that 80% of farmland is owned by people 65 or older who bought the land at a fraction of its current value. But it’s not to make any broad pronouncements on how to fix the problem; it’s to complain about inheritance taxes.
In fact, the film makes its points carefully, if not always objectively. Farming is a risky business. All medicines, including antibiotics, are administered under veterinary supervision. The use of genetically modified seeds means less need for pesticides. But some seemingly pertinent issues are never raised: farm subsidies; the alleged use of certain feed additives, like caffeine, which may make livestock grow faster; and the idea that the recent severity of the weather that everybody in the movie talks about just might have something to do with climate change.
Financials, too, are in short supply. Veldhuizen says he doesn’t like the “volume of dollars” it takes to make a farm competitive, but adds that the business can be extremely lucrative. If that sounds a bit like Hollywood accounting, the specifics on cost vs. reward are just as squishy.
Ultimately, the film works so hard to establish the primacy of its young farmers — and the job of farming has become so clearly technologized — that it fails to instill the love of land prevalent in so many agricultural idealizations. Even genuinely touching moments are compromised, as when Nebraska farmer David Loberg tears up when speaking of the ear of corn he saved from the last crop he grew with his late dad.
Visually, the film uses the aspects of farming to good advantage. Pallets of chicks being spilled into a henhouse make for a particularly memorable image. Editing-wise, the decision to identify those speaking only on their third or fourth appearance is confusing. Music occasionally swells a bit too much, particularly during the harvest scenes near the end. Everclear and Liz Phair’s version of “This Land Is Your Land” at the film’s conclusion is jarring.