Heartland: Greener Pastures
An incredibly powerful look at the lives of real-life family farmers trying to keep their American dream alive in the face of climate change, industrial agriculture and Covid.
For Heartland Film Festival schedule and tickets, please click here.
Film Yap is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Before I became a soft-bellied writer, I actually had some demanding jobs back in the day. Mowing lawns. Lugging around 50-pound steel cannisters. Cleaning bathrooms. Teetering on tall ladders. Washing dishes at a vegetarian dining hall (the worst, by far). But it’s still hard to imagine the everyday labors of the small American farmer.
It’s a 24/7/365 day job, one that would break the back of most people in short order. “Greener Pastures” is a powerful documentary that looks at the everyday lives of these people and how they contend with myriad existential challenges — and the mental health struggles that inevitably accompany them.
Filmed over four years, its shows them striving heroically to keep their American dream alive in the face of climate change, industrial agriculture, Covid and more.
Director Sam Mirpoorian also shines a light into the issues of depression, addiction and suicide that have become an epidemic largely hidden from an American public indifferent about where its food comes from.
Spotlighting farmers from all over the Midwest, “Greener Pastures” shows the differences and similarities in what they’re each going through. Many of them are dairy farmers who have intimate relationships with each cow in their herd. In several cases it becomes necessary to sell some of them off in order to pay the bills, and we can see the anguish that’s like losing a member of the family.
But with the price of milk unchanged from what it was 20 years ago and the massive factories able to cut their bottom line through inhumanely efficient practices, they’re forever operating on the edge of disaster.
At one point Jay, a guy whose family has owned the same land since the days of Thomas Jefferson, has to sell off his entire herd. Sending them off on trailers, he fusses with a now-useless steel gate before wandering off into the field, turning his face away from the camera to hide his tears.
His wife makes fancy cake designs as a side business, but suddenly it becomes the family’s sole means of support. Then her landlord jacks up the rent and she has to move her shop. Jay seeks counsel with his dad, who’s also the local preacher, applies for a steel mill job, but seems headed for a long, dark spiral.
We also meet Juliette, a blowsy lady with a big personality. Her passion is raising show cows, though it’s been on hold for a few years as the pressures of running the farm have risen. She jokes about polishing off a six-pack of beer before noon every day to cope, but eventually she realizes she’s a got a real problem beyond milk prices.
Chris is an older farmer in Iowa whose been agitating politically for decades to fight for the little farm operator, seemingly without much effect but never losing his sense of the need to fight. He becomes a Bernie Sanders supporter during the 2020 primaries and is tickled pink when his daughter, Becky, is inspired to run for county soil and water commissioner.
A recurring figure is Jeff Ditzenberger, another older guy who knows his time working the fields is drawing to a close. He started a support program for farmers suffering mental health issues called TUGS: Talking, Understanding, Growing and Supporting. He’s studying to become a licensed counselor and realizes his true calling late in life.
And Jeff seems to have a million other things going on, from acting in the local theater to playing Santa Claus to driving his old Mustang in local parades. At one stage his different activities overlap to the point he rushes to get the last of the corn harvested after an unexpected November snowstorm while still wearing his Santa get-up.
“Nature can be kind of growly sometimes, but then so am I,” he burbles cheerily, a veritable farmland sprite.
As time goes on in the documentary, more and more independent farmers sell out to the big agriculture conglomerates, shut down or lease the mineral rights for their land to the gas and oil companies. One of the farmer subjects is astonished at how much he can get to allow fracking on his plot, far more than he could ever hope to make just growing crops on it.
Then pandemic hits, and everything goes sideways. People still need food and complain when inefficiencies in the existing production and distribution processes are exposed. Juliette is heartbroken when she finds out her most recent batch of milk was taken to a location and dumped.
The similarity to their own plight hits a little too close to home.
“Green Pastures” is an outstanding documentary because it not only shows the no-varnish life of farming in the 21st century, but it’s also an incredibly human story filled with empathy, despair… but also dignity and an unflagging hope.
Walking alongside these hardy folk and sharing their struggles, we feel like we understand what the word ‘heartland’ truly means.