It’s not news, but it bears repeating: the United States is in an agricultural crisis. "We agrarians are involved in a hard, long, momentous contest, in which we are so far, and by a considerable margin, the losers," farmer and author Wendell Berry wrote emphatically in defense of farmland and the people who tend the land. Anti-globalization activist Vandana Shiva has expanded on the thought, saying the goal of the global economy is to replace "food democracy" with a worldwide "food dictatorship."
If you're like 99 percent of the population who don't claim farming as an occupation, you may not realize how pervasive that dictatorship is. The amount of food produced in the U.S. is increasing steadily, but the production is primarily controlled by 10 major corporations that grow produce at huge corporate farms. The small-scale family farm is going extinct — but it's not gone yet.
The Nolan family, Nick, Celeste and their children, moved back to the family land after Nick's grandfather died in a farming accident. "I've gone out and done other things ... but those things always felt hollow compared to [farming]," Nick says. Everyone told the couple that they were following a pipe dream. "The people buying our milk said we couldn't make it," Celeste said. The Nolans knew they had to do something different, and in 2009, they started making artisan farmstead cheese.
That's when I met the Nolans. Having grown up on a homestead in rural northern Ohio, I've always been drawn to people who work the land. Soon after, I began documenting this inspiring family through their struggles and hopes as they have made their way in this new world of farming in America.
The documentary film "Farmsteaders" takes place in the lush, rolling foothills of Ohio, just a few miles north of the Ohio River. The region is like countless other places in rural America. It was once a thriving agriculture economy, but for years farmers have fallen victim to the pressures of big agribusiness. Fertile farmland is unused, barns are falling over, health issues are skyrocketing. This is the land of plenty, yet people are going hungry every day.
There are a few core things that I believe: Food is political, spiritual, radical and simple. Nature is incredibly wise, and living in connection with nature is best. You are what you eat, and eating natural and peaceful sustenance is vital. If people can connect to where their food comes from, they are more likely to make better choices. And I believe that the best way I can contribute to society is to build awareness around the issues faced by small-scale farmers; I choose the camera as my tool.
"Farmsteaders" isn't a film focused on the evils of factory farming or the greed of big corporations; instead, it's an intimate and exalting look at the small family farm, the everyday hero of our food system.
We are facing a disaster that, as Berry says, "is both agricultural and cultural." We need families like the Nolans to continue to produce wholesome food and tend to the land and to our cultural commons. It's all connected – just as Nick says about the cheese they make: "You've taken this sunshine and this herd of cows and this water that fell from the sky ... and you've created it."
The film is currently in production and raising funds to help with major post-production costs. To support "Farmsteaders" please visit our Kickstarter page.
Shaena Mallett is a filmmaker and a homesteader who teaches classes at UNC.
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