The making of A Farmer’s Road began unknowingly in 2010. My sister-in-law, a long-time resident of Urbana-Champaign, IL invited my wife and me to Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery (PFFC) for a “dinner on the farm.” I was told the evening would be long and enjoyable with multiple courses of delicious small plates made from ingredients sourced locally, many of them from the farm itself, and all in the spirit of the slow food movement. What I experienced, though, was much more than that. In fact, the four hours I spent on the farm that evening initiated a five-year journey doing something I had never done before – producing and directing a documentary.
As a sound designer and media arts educator with 32 and 25 years respectively behind me, I’d been around film and the filmmaking process a long time. I suppose sound’s role in cinema fit me particularly well. For years, I couldn’t imagine anything greater than quietly working out of the spotlight for the larger whole of a creative and collaborative achievement. Sound editorial, and the teaching of it in a vibrant higher education environment, had always been my high octane fuel.
When I met the proprietors of PFFC, however, and learned they had traded the security of being tenured faculty at a world-renowned research institution for the relentless challenges and economic uncertainty of operating a Grade A goat dairy and farmstead creamery in central Illinois, I became very interested in wanting to tell their story. As I saw it, the farm had value, and not just to its custodians, but to the community and what it represented. In many regrettable ways, American food has become bigger than the table it sits on. Too much of it is mass-produced, chemically structured, flush with preservatives and devoid of nutritional value. I envisioned A Farmer’s Road to use the successes and challenges of the farm to look at the relationship between production and consumption, and to find a better way to better food.
Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell treated the idea of running their own farm with inevitability, purchasing seven acres just north of town in 2003 while still working for the university. What began with restoring commodity production land to prairie, planting fruit trees, and raising four goats became a full-time farming life tending twenty-two acres and a herd of seventy milkers. By the time I met them in 2010, they had resigned from academia, and were annually producing 18,000 pounds of artisan goat milk cheese, gelato, and cajeta, which they showcased during elaborate bi-weekly slow food dinners on the farm. They also sold their products at farmer’s markets and supplied grocers for sales throughout Illinois. While these products contributed to the farm’s mission, they were only part of the much larger goal to build a diverse enterprise balancing the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of the food system.
Discovering these core principles of sustainability and responsible food management – something I was deeply interested in – had been (literally and metaphorically) packaged in a roasted beet and chèvre salad was enough to bring me out of the shadows of solely working in sound. I immediately sought the advice of experienced filmmakers I had worked with and knew. How does one go about making a doc? Where does the funding come from? What are the hurdles and did I have the resources to actually dive in? The answers came all at once, pointing quite simply to a willingness to trust my creative instincts (and be vulnerable) while maintaining authenticity.
One of the benefits of being a Dean at a media arts college was that I had access to lots of gear. And, I knew some professional film friends of mine, who thought as I did on these topics, might be willing to take the doc on as a side project. So, starting in February of 2011, a small crew of us set out from Chicago to Urbana-Champaign, IL without a shooting script or anything planned other than a notion of turning the camera on the daily routines of Leslie and Wes. To start, the only goal was to capture a full twelve month cycle of life on the farm. Because of my day gig, though, the shooting was sporadic. I could never have predicted it would take several cycles, in fact three years in all, before I felt I had enough footage to tell their story and begin editing.
Along the way, as elements of the larger food system story began to emerge, I felt it necessary to shoot interviews with chefs that featured PFFC products on their menus. I was fortunate to get some of the best chefs in Chicago. Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and XOCO), Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat and Little Goat Diner), and Paul Virant (Perennial Virant and Vie) spoke urgently about using locally-sourced ingredients in their restaurants and that PFFC embodied the exact kind of small-scale artisan producer American agriculture needs more of. Their testimonies were verification of a growing trend – people wanted to have a relationship with the source of their food. PFFC executive chef Alisa DeMarco balanced the guest chef interviews nicely with a unique perspective from the inside out. She also talked about the impetus for the dinners and why they are so important as part of the social component of sustainability.
Another “chapter” in the story, and one which created some dramatic conflict, involved the resurgence of a local construction project that had been dormant for nearly twenty years. The proposal on the table when I began shooting was to extend an existing dead-end road across railroad tracks and through the fields of century-old farmsteads, terminating only a few hundred feet from PFFC. The thinking from city officials was that the new road would attract businesses along a light-industry corridor north of the interstate. Leslie and Wes, and their neighbors, organized and brought as much legal action against the proposal as they could. The fight went on for years and made no sense to those who did feasibility studies. There was very little evidence of occupancy in a subdivision near the road that had been built on the other side of the railroad tracks, so in the minds of the farmers, the new project was a questionable use of state money. To represent both sides in the doc, I interviewed the owners of the affected farms and the Mayor of Urbana. The viewer will decide which side they favor, but I think the road proposal exemplifies the conflict between pavement and production, the past and future arguments for economic development, and the adage that “all politics is local.”
Up until 2014, I had funded the entire enterprise myself. Even though my professional colleagues gave me the “weekend rate” for their time and services, it was still a costly endeavor for me personally. As I neared completion of principle photography, I was tapped out. I needed additional financial resources for post. So, I launched an Indiegogo campaign. Though I didn’t meet my goal, I was able to generate lasting interest for a second fundraising effort a year later. All in the film has cost about $50,000.
Postproduction sound is my wheelhouse, but I had never engaged in the intimate back-and-forth of working with a picture editor. We began with long conversations about tone and message. About the only thing I knew at the outset was that I wanted the film to be understated, without the hard-hitting facts so many documentaries present. I wanted the viewer to get to know my characters, provide some graphics to illustrate what it means to be sustainable, show the landscape, and simply tell Leslie and Wes’ story for people to digest on their own terms.
I think we followed a pretty traditional workflow. The paper outline became an assembly. The rough cut became a fine cut. And then, picture lock. Along the way, I screened clips for colleagues, friends, and my producers. Graphics took a bit longer than anticipated. All of the text, including the title sequence and lower-thirds, were first hand-inked on parchment paper, then scanned, and finally, animated. Overall though, getting to picture lock was fairly painless.
I worked on sound design currently to the picture edit and about the time we got to a fine cut, my composer began writing. I was fortunate enough to record the score at the historic Village Studios in Santa Monica, CA with some of the best LA session players working today.
The final stage in the process of completing the film was perhaps the most eye-opening, color correction. Most of the footage had great contrast and exposure, but given we shot both interiors and exteriors almost entirely with natural light over three years of time and the film is edited in a non-linear fashion, there were significant inconsistencies in color tones. Working with the colorist was a really great practice for me. Interestingly, I learned a terrific amount of nuance in storytelling through color. I suppose it was the counterpart to sound and perception I had been missing.
Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery continues to grow without taking government subsidies, has created jobs on the farm, and works tirelessly on their mission of sustainable agriculture and the slow food movement. I think this is important stuff. I hope by highlighting the rewards and challenges of farm to fork agriculture in the midst of large-scale commodity agribusiness, the film underscores the vulnerability of farming on the urban-rural fringe and serves to provide a sense of urgency for change.