05/03/2014 12:15 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2014

ReThink Review: 'Farmland' - Meet the Next Generation of Farmers

If you try to imagine what a farm looks like, one of two images probably springs to mind. One would likely be an idyllic small farm from a bygone era (or from ads and food packaging) with a red barn, some happy animals, and a small plot of colorful vegetables worked by a single tractor, or even a horse-drawn plow. If you're more pessimistic (or realistic), you might picture endless acres of corporatized monoculture doused in chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers worked by enormous mechanized farm equipment, with animals living short, cramped, tortured lives in concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). But no matter which image (or any permutation) you picture, almost no one imagines farms being owned or run by young people -- a serious problem in a country where over 60 percent of farmers are aged 55 or older. The documentary Farmland profiles six young farmers from across the country who are bucking that trend, portraying them as hardworking people attempting to navigate an industry fraught with risks, changing technologies, and unknowns. Watch the trailer for Farmland below.

Of the six farmers Farmland follows -- a Georgia poultry farmer, a Texas cattle rancher, a Nebraska corn and soybean farmer, a large-scale California organic vegetable farmer, and an organic CSA vegetable farmer in Pennsylvania -- five are from farming families that passed down their land, knowledge, and infrastructure through multiple generations, highlighting the facts that farmers are usually born and not made and that those wishing to enter the farming/ranching business face enormous obstacles regarding buying land and equipment. But even with the advantages of legacy and inheritance, perhaps the strongest theme of Farmland is that nearly all modern-day farmers live on the brink of going broke, with expensive equipment to buy and upkeep, the pressure to expand their operations, the unpredictability of weather and market prices, and the necessity of purchasing inputs up front (like seed, fertilizer, and feed) when the outcomes are uncertain. While the farmers clearly have a passion for what they do, all of them emphasize that farming is a business above all else, and a difficult and risky one at that.

Farmland dips its toe in a number of hot-button issues in food production, including the mistreatment of livestock, the use of antibiotics, GMOs vs. non-GMOs, and organically- vs. conventionally-grown produce. But as someone deeply interested in food issues, sustainability, and environmentalism who organically grows most of his vegetables, I felt that this was done in more of a perfunctory, check-the-boxes fashion meant to validate whichever method each farmer used while avoiding taking sides without statistics or serious questioning.

All of the meat producers abhor the mistreatment of animals and claim to have never seen such abuse aside from online videos, and they all attest to how they don't use growth hormones and only use antibiotics therapeutically. However, this ignores what happens on the CAFOs where most of their animals will probably spend their last months being rapidly fattened for slaughter after the farmers sell them, where animals live in cramped, filthy conditions, are fed grains and animal byproducts that can compromise their health, and are given hormones and antibiotics to increase their size. In the discussion of why farmers choose organics over conventional farming, Farmland avoids mentioning the impacts of non-organic pesticides, fertilizers, and weed killers on the environment, wildlife, and the health of soil and humans. The rise of herbicide-resistant "superweeds" and pesticide-resistant insects are also not mentioned.

I understand that these are probably topics for other films since the main focus of Farmland is these likable, hardworking young farmers and the challenges they face trying to do the work they love. But as I watched David Loberg, the Nebraska corn farmer, harvesting his vast expanses of yellow #2 corn destined for livestock feed and ethanol production, I couldn't help thinking that livestock like cows shouldn't be eating corn, corn ethanol production is unsustainable, that vast monocultures like Loberg's cornfields are rotten for the environment, and that leaving the ground fallow and exposed after harvesting (as Loberg does) increases erosion and the loss of invaluable topsoil. While I feel that Farmland should be required viewing for any young person considering going into farming or meat production to disavow them of any idealistic notions they may have of working the land, I feel that with the environmental and health-related harms conventional farming is causing, America's unhealthy eating habits, and increasingly scarce resources exacerbated by global warming, celebrating farmers isn't enough when we should be questioning and rethinking everything about how we grow and raise our food.

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