Mar 9, 2014
A Farmer’s Life, in Focus and on Film
Posted on Apr 29, 2013
By Emily Wilson
In director Ramin Bahrani’s latest film, “At Any Price,” he tells the story of Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), a man who runs a farming empire in Iowa and sells genetically modified seeds. Whipple wants to pass the farm down to his sons, but the older one is traveling through Argentina and the younger one, Dean (Zac Efron), wants to race cars.
Bahrani, whom the late, sorely missed movie critic Roger Ebert called the “director of the decade” in 2010 for films such as “Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop” and “Plastic Bag” (a short narrated by Werner Herzog), was drawn to this topic when he started reading Michael Pollan’s best-selling books about food and farming. He asked Pollan to introduce him to some of the farmers featured in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” including George Naylor, who wound up playing the role of Farmer George in “At Any Price.” Bahrani spent half a year living with farmers in Iowa where he watched them deal with tremendous pressure to expand their multimillion-dollar businesses.
We talked recently with Bahrani about the pressures of farming in the current Monsanto-dominated environment, why he sees his film as a kind of “Death of a Salesman” on the prairie and how the country has changed since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “Democracy in America” two centuries ago.
Emily Wilson: You say you see similarities between agribusiness and the housing crisis and the global financial meltdown. How so?
Ramin Bahrani: Big industrial farming is based on economy of scale, so the larger you are, the more power you have, meaning the better prices you can negotiate with Monsanto on fees, the better prices you can get on fertilizers like Roundup Ready, the better deals you can get on large machinery like tractors, combines, planters and sprayers which can farm massive acreage quickly and efficiently. All these things work in the same way Walmart works when it shows up on Main Street. How are you going to compete when they can sell everything for so much less? The same thing happens in large banking institutions. When you graduate people out of MIT who have no interest any more in making discoveries and inventing things and solving problems of the world—instead they’re creating financial systems none of us can comprehend. This is yet another way to make massive amounts of money at everyone’s expense. When you make that much money, you also have power. Then you have people running regulatory agencies who are in positions or were in positions of great financial power in that industry. It just doesn’t make any sense.
EW: You spent six months hanging out with farmers. Did these topics ever come up?
RB: Some of them, yes. Some of them it didn’t seem to be a topic of conversation. Every farmer I met was incredibly nice. They were very openhearted, very good people. They invited me to their homes, so I didn’t stay in motels or hotels. The idea of me staying in a hotel seemed foreign to them. They still have that traditional set of values about community and caring about your neighbor, but times have changed and these mantras in the film—“expand or die,” “get big or get out”—all of them without fail told me this when I asked, “What is the one thing that runs your life?” These were the two things I would hear, and that pressure is very difficult to deal with and manage because you get into situations like the Whipple family where you have to survive as a family and family comes first. When I met Zac, he said, “That’s how I grew up, family comes first.” That means you get into cutthroat activities with your neighbors because you have to survive. These are the pressures we’re all feeling. Right now I’m sure there’s going to be some journalist who writes for The Associated Press, and they are going to write one review of my film and it’s going to go to 200 newspapers. That means journalists out of a job.
EW: Like in the movie, did you find people were worried about their kids getting into farming?
RB: Oh, of course. Without fail. Usually the farmers I met would say, “I would love my kid to do anything they want, and they’re going to farm.” Or I would say, “What’s your kid interested in now, and they would say, “Oh, he loves farming,” and the kid would be like, 6. And that’s OK—it makes sense. If I were a farmer, I would feel the exact same way. It’s not the same as my profession or your profession. What am I going to pass down if I had children? The concept of a movie I want to make? With a farm, you actually can give them land. It’s even more tangible than a brick and mortar business. The real challenge is like for Zac’s character, the larger the farms get, the families go away. Those families have been bought out and they’ve moved. So that means the local Main Street is going to get emptied out because there’s not enough people to support those small mom and pop stores. So usually the farmers drive 20 or 30 minutes to Walmart or Costco, so for characters like Zac’s, there’s nobody around and there’s nothing to do, so you just kind of bide your time and get into trouble.
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