Friday, March 30, 2012

"American Farm" examines the history of an upstate New York dairy farm, shows how family farming is declining in the US


The documentary “American Farm” (directed by James Spione, 2005), traces the history of the Ames family and its dairy farm, Contour Meadows, established in 1823 in upstate New York, northwest of the Catskills and northeast of the Fingerlakes (near Richfield Springs). 

As modern times come, the kids in the extended family become much less interested in farming and want to do other things with their lives, and are less interested in the religious callings of their parents and ancestors.  When “dad” has an aortic aneurism and heart attack both, needing bypass surgery, he can’t run the farm.  Gradually, the family has to sell off the herd and various assets of the farm. The film traces the history of the "social capital" of the extended family and of its gradual weakening with modern individualism. 

There’s a sequence where a teenager describes getting up at 4:30 AM, doing chores until 7 AM, having 15 minutes for breakfast, then school, and coming back and doing chores until 7.  

The film also documents the practical and medical hazards of rural life, as when a woman dies of a minor injury when she doesn’t get medical attention in time.

The people in the film are far from “perfect”.  One character discloses that she is an unwed mother.

The film points out that in 1900, 42% of the nation’s population lived on and worked farms. Now it is 2%. Big corporations have taken over farming.

Curiously, the film does not deal very much with the crisis in farm prices in the 1980s, of which I remember media coverage well. 

The DVD has an additional featurette, “Return to the Farm” which interviews family members and tells what happened.  Gradually, family members had been taking on other kinds of work, especially contract repair work, over the years. 

The "message" of the film certainly raises issues about sustainability, if the environmental changes some day force us to produce food and consume much more locally.  

The film was premiered in Cooperstown, NY.  The director says that making the film led him to connect to his own extended family.  The official site (MorningLight Films) is here

I spent summers in a small town in Ohio (Kipton) in the 1950s, and visited a family farm nearby frequently, on Route 20 (as in the film, but a couple hundred miles farther west). 

Wikipedia attribution link for animated map of Fingerlakes area. 

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