By Casey Beck, Buzzworthy Blogs
“I began to wonder: could passion alone fuel young farmers? And perhaps more importantly, how can we consider their produce sustainable if their livelihood is not?”
The exploration of this question was the driving force that compelled me to direct The Organic Life, a feature length film about life as an organic farmer. After graduating college and without any other direction, I committed to going out to a farm one day a week for a year to experience life with my boyfriend Austin Blair who had decided to become a full-time organic vegetable farmer.
I wanted to see farming through his eyes, perhaps to have an excuse to be outside in one of the most beautiful parts of Sonoma County, and just to see what would happen. Perhaps I also wanted to understand more clearly why we had left San Francisco for this rural area. Now, looking back on it, I can’t deny that part of me wanted to validate his story — and mine.
Though not a farmer myself, I saw firsthand the struggles that Austin and other small organic farmers like him have to undertake: the long hours, the unrelenting heat of summer, the torrential rains when they finally come. The unending physical labor takes an emotional toll on a person. And, of course, there is the question of whether there will be enough money for the month.
Throughout the production of the film, I focused entirely on giving Austin a platform for his story. The film, after all, is about his life as a farmer, and on many occasions, I had to stand my ground with fellow filmmakers, team members, and friends to keep the story focused on him and resist the urge to expand the film to include the great food thinkers of our day (e.g., Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Wendell Berry and the like). I didn’t want to make another Food, Inc. It had been made, and it was good. I wanted to make something about the people who grow our food and, specifically, about the people I know personally who are growing food.
As a result, the film is unequivocally about Austin. It’s personal and, at times, awkward (as life is), but it’s always authentic. And to achieve that authenticity meant doing something I had never done before: I allowed myself to be part of the story.
The film serves to remind us that a person — on hands and knees — has to plant the leek or tomato in order for it to get to the farmers market. Upon watching the film, many people ask Austin if his back hurts. Yes, it does, although lots of stretching can keep chronic pain at bay.
The audience hopefully learns the value of fresh, seasonal produce. They see the faces of the people, the passion that drives their lives, and the sacrifices they’re compelled to make to provide food for their communities.
Yet, despite the many challenges, the life of a farmer is blessed with innumerable pleasures: an abundance of the freshest, most delicious food imaginable; the ability to be outside; the ability to use your body in creative and productive ways; the ability to learn about everything but to not have to dwell on perfecting any one skill. Austin loves being part carpenter, part plumber, part mechanic.
For now, passion is enough. But is being a farmer actually sustainable when the wage earned hovers around the poverty line? The often-insurmountable capital investments required to start one’s own farm only complicate the picture. Certainly, as older organic farmers retire and try to sell their lives’ work (their thriving farms), we will see individual responses to the ‘sustainability’ question.
Austin and I got married last year, and I took the “for better and worse” vows quite seriously because, for better or worse, many farmers try to make it work as long as they can. It is a question that each small-scale farmer must consider individually. Yet by lending our support and appreciation, we may be able to sway their decisions.
Casey Beck recently premiered her feature-documentary directorial debut The Organic Life to sold-out crowds at the 36th Mill Valley Film Festival, where it was included in the prestigious Active Cinema circle. The film won Best Documentary Feature at the Santa Cruz Film Festival and will screen at the Sonoma International Film Festival and others, as national online distribution is rolled out April 8, 2014, in partnership with FilmBuff. For the past nine years, Casey has been directing and producing independent documentary films, including Mongolia: Land Without Fences and the award-winning The Rising Tide: Kiribati, which detailed the effects of global warming on Kiribati, a developing nation on a small island in the Central Pacific. Follow the film on Twitter (@organiclifedoc) and Facebook (facebook.com/theorganiclifemovie).