The Planted Row: Documentary depicts realities of farm life

Farm Forum

In 1840 Unitarian minister George Ripley decided to start a farm near Boston. It was a special kind of farm. He sold shares in the farm at $500 apiece. People paid for their share, and they lived and worked on the farm. Ripley tried to get enough people to participate so that everyone could share the chores and still have plenty of time to devote to more leisurely activities.

The farm was known as Brook Farm, and it’s famous in literary circles because the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the founding members. He previously worked at a U.S. Custom House. The work there was tedious, and it left him uninspired for writing, so he decided to try his hand at farm work.

Hawthorne soon found that there was more than enough work to go around, and he was spending long days performing manual labor. After a hard day of farm work, he had as little desire to write as he did after a day in the Custom House. After one summer and fall, he left the farm and his illusions about what farm life is really like behind.

Every farmer and rancher knows two things about a life in agriculture. One, it is a lot of hard work and stress, and two, it’s not for everyone.

I recently took the opportunity to watch the documentary “Farmland” that was released this summer. Produced and directed by James Moll, the film follows six young farmers. Moll did his job well; the farmers in this film are not only hard-working and successful, they can also speak eloquently about what life on a farm is really like. By the end of the film, viewers can see that these people aren’t just farming because they had no other options. In fact, they are talented individuals who are successful because they are doing what they love. Unlike Hawthorne, these farmers have the right stuff.

One of the farmers, Margaret Schlass of Gibsonia, Penn., did not come from a farming family and did not have an agricultural education. She said that in the beginning no one believed that she could start a farm from scratch at 23. Later she realized what she attempted was crazy and everyone but her knew that. Maybe that’s why she succeeded.

Schlass now runs a community supported agriculture vegetable farm. In this business model, members of the community pay a fee and receive fresh produce each week. Like Brook Farm, Schlass found a way to make agriculture part of her community, and it thrives because her community supports it. But, like any farm, it takes a lot of hard work. Schlass said, “It’s so hard on a day to day basis. It takes an emotional toll. It takes a physical toll.”

Ryan Veldhuizen, who farms in Edgerton, Minn., said, “You have to love it. You have to enjoy what you’re doing because it is typically hard work.”

Sutton Morgan, who farms in Brawley, Calif., said, “It’s difficult sometimes to even assume I’m going to stay afloat, but realistically if I didn’t have that challenge, I don’t know if I’d survive.”

There you have it. That’s what a farmer is. Man, woman, young or old, a farmer is someone who needs a new challenge every day.

The film opens with a shot of farmer David Loberg of Carroll, Neb., digging in a field with his mother and looking for kernels of corn that have begun to germinate after weeks of cold weather following planting. They aren’t finding any. At the end of the film, Moll cuts back to the scene when Loberg’s mother finds a young kernel that has begun to sprout. With that one kernel, hope returns to their faces.

I think every farmer knows that moment very well. It’s the moment when you start to think you might stay afloat, after all.

Do yourself a favor and attend the screening of “Farmland” at 7 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center on the SDSU campus in Brookings. After the screening there will be a producer panel (including Ryan Veldhuizen, one of the farmers in the film) to answer questions.