Farmland documentary puts a face on agriculture’s next generation

Farmland documentary puts a face on agriculture’s next generation

 New 90-minute documentary produced by Academy-Award winning producer follows six diverse ag producers in their 20s.

Farmland spans from California to Maine, Washington state to Florida, and everywhere in between. In fact, 35% of the total U.S. land area is in grassland, rangeland or cropland, according to USDA.

But now “farmland” means a lot more. It’s the name of a 90-minute documentary produced by Academy Award-winning producer James Moll. “Farmland” features six young farmers sharing their personal stories of producing food for the nation’s consumers.

Breaking new ground

“Farmland” was produced in 2013 and went into limited release in 2014 in 170 theaters nationwide. On March 3, it gained widespread distribution with exclusive DVD release in Walmart and on walmart.com, as well as being shown on college campuses nationwide.

Farmland” opens the barn doors to consumers, allowing those unfamiliar with the daily function and lifestyle of producing food to learn about the business. Moll told his documentary subjects that, as a Los Angeles urbanite, he had little understanding of food production. If he was curious about how food he buys in the grocery store is produced, he figured thousands of consumers were, too.

So Moll began an intensive search to find six young farmers representing a variety of agricultural products and regions of the country. He wanted young producers interested in sharing their story by allowing a camera to follow them throughout their workday.

Getting the call 

Ryan Veldhuizen

“I was shocked when I got the phone call and realized a big-time movie producer wanted to do a story about me and my hog and grain operation,” says Ryan Veldhuizen, a 28-year-old, farrow-to-finish swine operator from Edgerton, Minn. Brad Bellah, a sixth-generation cattle rancher from Throckmorton, Texas, had the same reaction.

After some research and several discussions directly with Moll, Veldhuizen and Bellah signed on to the project. It’s a decision they say has changed their lives. Other young farmers featured in the film are Leighton Cooley, Georgia; David Loberg, Nebraska; Sutton Morgan, California; and Margaret Schlass, Pennsylvania.

Since the movie’s release, these college-educated farmers in their 20s have conducted numerous interviews, been featured in dozens of magazines and conducted many personal speaking appearances. They say they are jokingly teased by their friends as being famous movie stars.

Veldhuizen says his first step was to discuss it with his family. “We all agreed. Our family has been in the business for four generations, and we strive every day to be the best at what we do — produce food,” he says.

Meanwhile, Bellah agreed to the offer because, he says, “As producers, we are all in the same industry. Whether we produce for different markets, we are all working to provide a safe and abundant food supply.” Knowing the documentary’s goal was to highlight the daily lives of those engaged in agriculture, Bellah says he was open to letting cameras follow him around the ranch.

Brad Bellah

In fact, West Texas was facing the second-year of a devastating drought when “Farmland” called. Bellah wanted consumers to see the challenges Mother Nature can throw at agriculture.

“The most important thing I do is raise cattle and take care of their health,” he states in the film. He goes on to say, “Cattle make us a living, make us a life. For them to take care of us, we have to take care of them.”

Bellah says it’s a tough challenge for those in food production to reach consumers and fight some of the misinformation that exists about his profession. He says “Farmland” will help educate consumers. “The film puts a face on a pound of hamburger. Consumers who watch the film can walk into their grocery store and say, ‘That food product may have come from Brad’s ranch, or Leighton or Sutton’s farm,’ ” he says.

Different species, same issues

Veldhuizen’s family swine operation is nearly 1,000 miles from Bellah’s Texas ranch. Mother Nature brings different issues to this area of southwestern Minnesota, where a late spring can prevent timely planting of corn and soybeans. Yet he faces issues similar to Bellah.

Veldhuizen also came back to the farm after college. He’s one of four siblings involved in the family operation. He says his grandparents and parents told the children that, if they had the passion to farm, the senior generations would work to make it happen. Veldhuizen says he couldn’t envision doing anything else.

The common link that all six “Farmland” personalities share is the consumer. “Telling our story in ‘Farmland’ is a great first step to reach the millennials [individuals born after 1980], who are today’s food purchasers,” Veldhuizen says.

“Farmland” spends equal time covering all six of the farmers, as it addresses challenges facing the food industry. These include weather and market challenges, government regulation, sustainability, biotechnology, antibiotic use and animal care.

Funding for the film came from the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), a group of over 80 farmer- and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners representing nearly all aspects of agriculture.

“ ‘Farmland’ takes consumers into the lives of authentic, next-generation farmers, who directly answer questions and open their farms to the public,” says Randy Krotz, CEO of USFRA.

What’s unique about the film, Krotz adds, is that cast members didn’t use a script. “They spoke from their heart. As you hear them say in the movie: ‘I am living my dream.’ ”

Passion, grit and commitment for agriculture come through in all six young farmers depicted in “Farmland.” Viewers will see young people in a high-risk business dealing with real issues, and balancing work and family.

For instance, Bellah became the father of twins during the filming. Nebraska producer Loberg lost his father to cancer and was forced to take on a leadership role sooner than he expected. Meanwhile, Veldhuizen’s family spent hours working out a family transition plan to prepare for the future, and Cooley and his dad balanced the challenges of a 24/7 business, while Morgan and Schlass wrestled with the demands of new business startups.

“Farmland” allows the 1% involved in food production to reach out to the 99% who aren’t. USFRA’s Krotz urges those in agriculture to support the film and share it with their friends and neighbors. Viewing venues for “Farmland” can be found at farmlandfilm.com, and the DVD can be purchased at Walmart. 

Meet the stars

Leighton Cooley, a fourth-generation Georgia poultry farmer, farms with his father, runs cows and grows hay.

Brad Bellah, a sixth-generation cattle rancher, runs cow operations in Texas and Colorado.

David Loberg, a fifth-generation Nebraska grain farmer, runs the family farm with his mother, custom-feeds 500 dairy cows and has an irrigation business.

Sutton Morgan, a fourth-generation farmer from California, grows and markets a variety of vegetables.

Margaret Schlass, a Pennsylvania vegetable farmer, grows and markets produce through a Community Supported Agriculture membership program, a Pittsburgh farmers market and direct to restaurants.

Ryan Veldhuizen, a fourth-generation Minnesota farmer, is assuming operational duties of the family hog and grain operation.

B. Lynn Gordon, Ph.D., is a freelance writer based in Brookings, S.D.

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