Film Review: ‘Farmland’

A good-looking piece of propaganda that's heavy on sugar-coating and light on nutritional value.

Brad Bellah, Leighton Cooley, David Loberg, Sutton Morgan, Margaret Schlass, Ryan Veldhuizen.

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.

Film Review: 'Farmland'

Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, May 3, 2014. Running time: 77 MIN.

Production: A D&E Entertainment release of an Allentown Prods. production. Produced by James Moll, Christopher Pavlick. Co-producer, Amy Martinez.

Crew: Directed by James Moll. Camera (color), Harris Done; editor, Tim Calandrello; music, Nathan Wang; sound, Paul Graff; re-recording mixer, Larry Benjamin; associate producers, Tim Calandrello, Jodi Arneson; assistant director, Oneika Austin.

With: Brad Bellah, Leighton Cooley, David Loberg, Sutton Morgan, Margaret Schlass, Ryan Veldhuizen.

More Film

  • Jody Madden Replaces Craig Rodgerson as

    Jody Madden Replaces Craig Rodgerson as CEO of VFX Firm Foundry

    Jody Madden has been upped to CEO at U.K.-based VFX outfit Foundry. She steps up having been chief product officer and replaces Craig Rodgerson, who joined the company in late 2017. Foundry was bought by U.S. tech firm Roper Technologies earlier this year in a £410 million ($509 million) deal. The London-based business provides software [...]

  • The Lion King

    ‘The Lion King’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Walt Disney Pictures claims the top spot in spending with “The Lion King.” Ads placed for the remake had an estimated media value of $5.64 million through Sunday for 1,290 national ad airings on [...]

  • Beyonce poses for photographers upon arrival

    Beyoncé Releases Music Video for 'Spirit,' Her 'Lion King' Soundtrack Contribution

    Beyoncé fans are stampeding across the web veldt to get a look at her just-released music video for “Spirit,” the original song she co-wrote and sang for the “Lion King” soundtrack. The track is also included on the companion album she executive-produced and will release Friday, “The Gift.” Clips from the computer-animated film are interspersed [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez Takes Down Wall Street Crooks in New Trailer for 'Hustlers'

    According to Jennifer Lopez, basic pole dancing movements all revolve around a few foot positions. But as she tells her stripper student Constance Wu, it’s not just about the dancing. In the new trailer for “Hustlers,” Lopez and Wu swindle a number of high profile Wall Street clients in an effort to bring their white [...]

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Writers Guild Leaders Warn Members About Contact With Fired Agents

    Leaders of the Writers Guild of America are warning members about being contacted by their former agents — asserting that such efforts are an attempt to undermine the WGA and its members. The missive, sent Tuesday from the WGA negotiating committee, came with the guild in a bitter three-month standoff with talent agents that appears [...]

  • Apollo 11

    Film News Roundup: 'Apollo 11' Re-Release Set for Moon Landing Anniversary

    In today’s film news roundup, Neon is re-releasing “Apollo 11”; “Sesame Street” gets moved; “Supersize Me 2” is set for Sept. 13; Will Ropp gets a “Silk Road” deal; and Apple makes a movie deal. RE-LAUNCH Neon will re-release Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary “Apollo 11” in theaters on July 20, the 50th anniversary of the [...]

  • Michael B. JordanAFI Awards Luncheon, Los

    Michael B. Jordan's 'Just Mercy' Moves to Awards Season Slot

    Michael B. Jordan’s upcoming legal drama “Just Mercy” has been shifted forward three weeks from Jan. 17 to Dec. 25 for an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release. “Just Mercy” is based on the case of Walter McMillan, an African-American death-row prisoner who was exonerated in 1993 after being convicted five years earlier for a 1986 murder in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content