Jerry Nelson: Farmer of the Year

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

With a wintertime pandemic raging outside our windows, many of us have opted to hunker down. Watching a movie in the comfort and safety of your living room has gone from being an unhealthy way to avoid exercise to a good way to stay healthy.

A series of random connections recently brought to my attention a movie that was shot in the nearby small town of Tyler, Minnesota and in my home state of South Dakota.

“Farmer of The Year” was released in 2018 by Yellow House Films. The movie’s stars include Mackinlee Waddell, Terry Kiser and Barry Corbin along with a cast of various local folks. Over the course of his lengthy acting career, Corbin has worked with the likes of Clint Eastwood, John Travolta and Sam Elliott.

After watching the flick on a streaming service, I wanted to learn how the movie came to be, so I got in touch with filmmaker Kathy Swanson. Kathy and her husband, Vince O’Connell, wrote, produced and directed “Farmer of the Year.”

“Is it true,” I began, “That you were once a dairy princess?” I always ask the toughest questions first.

“That was a long time ago,” Kathy replied with a chuckle. “Yes, I was Lincoln County Dairy Princess in 1974. But I doubt if anyone remembers that.”

I asked Kathy to tell me about the genesis of the film.

“I’ve always liked stories,” she said. “When I was about 15, I began to take notes about things that I observed and the things that my dad said. The idea for the movie sprang from some of those stories and observations.”

How does one assemble the myriad resources that are needed to produce a feature-length movie?

“Vince and I had made about 20 shorts and decided that we wanted to do a feature film. Once the script was finished, we knew that it made sense to shoot it in Tyler. I have a lot of background in Tyler and a solid infrastructure of friends and family.”

“Vince and I sold our house to help finance the film. A grant from the state of Minnesota covered 25% of the production costs. About five months before we began shooting, Vince and I moved in with my dad, who lives in Tyler. We shot at Dad’s house, around Tyler and on the dairy farm where I grew up, which is now operated by my brother, Dale.”

So, you saved a bunch of money on location rentals. How did you get Barry Corbin involved?

“Barry’s name was on the list for the lead role of Hap Anderson, but we thought there was no way we could get him. We offered the role to Terry, but it didn’t fit his schedule. Terry’s agent then told us that Barry was interested. It turned out that Barry, Terry and Mackinlee all have the same agent.”

What was it like to work with Barry Corbin?

“Barry was awesome. We hadn’t worked with an actor of that caliber before and didn’t know what to expect. He was really approachable and was just like part of the crew. Vince and I had a very clear vision of what we wanted, but we would always discuss the next scene with Barry.”

This flick is a humorous yet touching “road” movie about the misadventures of a cantankerous old dairy farmer and his granddaughter. Are there parallels between Hap’s and Ashley’s stories?

“Hap and his granddaughter, Ashley, are both trying to grapple with changes in their lives and are both trying to figure out their next chapters. With a movie, you get to tell your story with more than just words. A lot of the film’s humor is contained in the human behavior that everyone can relate to.”

Why is Tyler named as Sleepy Eye in the film?

“Sleepy Eye had an iconic water tower that I had wanted to use in the movie. Plus, I really like the name Sleepy Eye. It’s unique.”

How many people are involved in a typical day of shooting?

“There would be up to 30 people on the set during a shoot. A good number of our crew were film students. They were young and enthusiastic and a joy to work with.”

How has your movie been received?

“We have gotten a lot of positive feedback from across the nation. We sent a DVD to Barry and he wrote a letter saying that he loved it and was very pleased with the result. But the praise that I value the most came from the folks in the area where I grew up.”

Jerry Nelson
Mackinlee Waddell and Barry Corbin played the roles of Ashley Anderson and her grandfather Hap Anderson in the movie “Farmer of the Year.”