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Terrence O’Keefe, WATT’s content director, provides his perspective on everything from animal agriculture trends that impact our food chain to food-safety related issues affecting chicken and egg production. O’Keefe has covered the poultry industry as an editor for more than a decade and also brings his experience in plant management and poultry production to comment on today’s issues.
Broilers & Layers / Egg Production

'Farmland' film shows the human face of agriculture

May 2, 2014

I recently attended the only scheduled North Carolina showing of the documentary film, "Farmland." The U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, who provided the financial backing to make the film, certainly got what they wanted: a 75-minute film that puts a human face on several types of farming operations spread out across all regions of the country. Importantly, this film did not shy away from featuring farms that employ agricultural practices that are being questioned by some anti-agricultural interests.

Six “young” farmers and ranchers were featured along with their farms and families. The farms ranged from a small vegetable farm in Pennsylvania using a Community Support Program and farmers market to sell its produce, all the way to a 750-acre produce operation in California and a grain farm in Nebraska. Animal agriculture was covered with large broiler and swine operations in Georgia and Minnesota, respectively, as well as a cattle ranch in Texas.

I think the film did a good job of tying some of the human interest aspects of the story line -- like succession of farm management from one generation to the next -- to important public policy issues -- like the impact of estate taxes. This was done in a way that the issue was brought up, but it wasn’t preachy or contentious, yet I think it might plant ideas the audience could reflect on later.

In my opinion, the film was strongest on the crop and produce farming issues. Irrigation and its place in agriculture in arid and semi-arid regions was presented on the farms in California and Nebraska. Use of GMO crops, organic production and local agriculture were incorporated in the story line. The film never attempted to “resolve” controversial areas; it just acknowledged the issue and allowed the farmers to present what they do and why. The farmers came across as being trustworthy and full of common sense.

The same approach was taken for addressing the issues of antibiotic use and animal welfare at the swine, poultry and cattle operations. I was particularly impressed with the selection of Leighton Cooley’s broiler operation for inclusion in the film. Cooley has 18 broiler houses which house 450,000 birds, which is a large operation. As expected, the film showed the arrival of chicks on the farm, but it unabashedly showed them being placed in older houses with built-up litter. This was a realistic portrayal of what a broiler house looks like. Similarly, I think that Ryan Veldhuizen’s swine houses were typical houses that presented an accurate picture of what conditions in the houses are like for the animals. But, in a bit of a spoiler alert, chicks and piglets are still cute, so animal agriculture always has that going for it.

Cooley and Veldhuizen did a good job of discussing the use of drugs for treatment of animals and its place in agriculture. All of the farmers came across as average folks -- albeit ones who work a little longer hours than most of us -- who are always trying to do what is best for their land, crops and animals. They don’t come off as having an ax to grind on any of the issues addressed; they are just running their businesses and supporting their families as best they can.

If you have a chance to view "Farmland," I would encourage you to do so. I think this film could do a lot of good for agriculture, if enough people see it. I attended the only scheduled North Carolina showing of the film on a Thursday night in suburban Charlotte. There were 36 people that I counted in the theater. A gentleman from the North Carolina Farm Bureau gave out discussion guides and posters to those in attendance after the show. I am not an expert on building “buzz” for a film, but I know that getting this film shown in high schools would be great. I suppose the ultimate goal would be getting this film on television.

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