The art of avoiding money
When I arrived at O.U.R. Ecovillage in May, I thought I had it figured out. I had bought myself time to edit my film by arranging things so I could live rent-free. I thought I was pretty clever figuring out how to trade my labour for a place to live and still have enough time to work on The Hands that Feed Us. So, what’s my biggest accomplishment during the three months I’ve been living outside of the world of money? I’ve raised a whole bunch of money, about 20% of our budget. I’m still not over the irony.
This is a big deal. I have no major commercial films on my resume; from the perspective of most funders, I’m a newbie and an outsider. That makes it very difficult to raise money; most broadcasters would prefer someone with more of a track record, or at least a project that is more commercially oriented. A huge number of documentaries die on the vine or never get seen because they can’t attract interest from mainstream funders.
From my point of view, the commitment to show the film is more important than the money: A broadcaster gives the film access to a mass audience. I’ve figured out how to make this project without getting paid, but I haven’t figured out how to get it seen.
You’ll notice I’m being a bit cagey about how much and who. That’s because the deals and commitments that we have are still evolving. We have an offer from a broadcaster / streaming service, a separate offer from a distributor, and at least one private investor. But all of these are still verbal, and are slowly working their way towards being formalized. And, to be honest, the funds I’m most proud of raising are the smallest amount and the least expected.
After my last newsletter, a number of you reached out and donated money to the project, without me even asking! That means a lot to me, more than any amount of cash from a broadcaster. A broadcaster sees the film as a means to an end: A way for them to make a buck or fulfill their mandate. They may like the project — they have to if they are willing to put money behind it — but it’s still just content to fill their library. Money from you, my small list of supporters that I’ve built person-by-person, shows me that you believe in me and believe in the project. It shows me that I’m making something that people care about, and that means the world to me. Thank you!
The downside of raising money is that I’ve pushed the edit out of the way to do it. Raising the money and making the project attractive to broadcasters is at least as much work as editing the project. And, for the last three months, fundraising has gotten priority. I’ve been attempting to split my focus three ways: Fundraising, editing the film, and farm work. I’ve discovered that editing isn’t really compatible with the other two.
Editing a film is like writing a novel. It takes long hours of sustained focus, and many continuous days of those long hours. When I’m in the zone of editing, I have the whole film mapped out in my head, and whichever individual part of the film I’m working on takes shape based on that map. Spending a few minutes writing an e-mail or an hour having a meeting is a really big interruption because it wipes clean the whiteboard in my head. It takes a couple hours to switch back into the editing mode and get the vision of the documentary back in my head. Likewise, taking a day or two off for farm work means I spent at least a day re-acquainting myself with what I was doing before I stepped away. The end result is that I spent most of my time trying to remember what I was in the middle of, and very little time moving forward.
So, I need to make a change. It’s hard for me to admit, but if success is finishing the documentary, trading my labour for a place to live and edit has been a failure. I haven’t moved the project forward. My original goal was to be finished editing by June, and … well … it’s past June.
So, I’ll be leaving O.U.R. Ecovillage and my attempt at living without rent. I’ve told my producers not to expect much help on fundraising. I’m looking for a farmhouse to rent on Vancouver Island that is away from distractions, and I’m planning to push the world out of the way so I can focus exclusively on finishing the documentary. I’ll make the farmhouse my artist’s garret for a few months, and with any luck, I’ll emerge with a finished film!
The headlines from the prairies have been bleak. The heat dome that crossed North America has baked the land, but the real concern is water: There hasn’t been any. Crops in Manitoba are small and stunted, and the grasshoppers are eating what’s left. There’s worry that farmers may have to cull 40% of their cattle because they won’t have enough feed to last the winter. Reading those headlines left me with a feeling that only afflicts the media: I wanted to be there to document it. Journalists are drawn to disaster like … well, like grasshoppers to a parched wheat field.
So, even though The Hands that Feed Us is a film about farm economics, not the weather, when I saw the headlines I felt drawn to pick up my camera and see if I could capture some of the adversity. But, first I called my farmers. From them, I got a reminder that I was falling prey to my ambulance-chasing instincts.
It’s dry in Daysland, but Nathan has seen enough rain that the crops are still growing. The weather is a concern, but the weather is always a concern. It will probably be an early harvest, but he’s not anticipating disaster.
I asked Susan whether she might have to sell cows due to lack of hay. She’s watching the situation, but, in her words, “farmers always figure it out”. In her case, she thinks some of the poor, dried out crops that would normally be sold for human consumption will end up being used for animal feed instead.
Neither Nathan nor Susan are in Manitoba or Saskatchewan where the drought is worst, and their responses were a reminder that headlines always show things in the worst light. It’s a tendency I want to be aware of as I continue to edit. It would be very easy to make a disaster film about how farmers have such a hard time making money, but to do so would do a disservice to Susan, Nathan, and all my other farmers who have shared their lives with me to show me how the farming life is possible.
The Hands that Feed Us started with a sense of injustice: Farmers can’t make a living from farming alone; most need off-farm jobs to pay the bills. That sense of disaster-seeking righteousness launched me into my journey with a great deal of momentum, and it has carried me a long way. As I’ve learned more about how farmers live, my thinking about the problem has shifted. I’ve grown. And I’ve realized that focusing on how much money farmers make misses the bigger picture.
What picture is that? The Farming Lifestyle. Invariably, whenever I ask farmers why they do what they do, the answer I get is some variation of “I do it for the lifestyle”. That makes sense. I mean, they sure aren’t doing it for the money! But what does it actually mean? What is “The Farming Lifestyle”?
Now that I’ve lived and worked on farms for a little while, I think I have a sense of what that means, and I’ve written a blog post to try and share my thoughts with non-farmers, who I’m sure have just as much confusion about “The Farming Lifestyle” as I did when I first heard farmers talk about it: What makes “The Farming Lifestyle worth it?”
I’ve just discovered Katherine Aske, a student at the University of Manitoba who wrote her thesis on what has caused the price of farmland to spike over the last couple decades. Her thesis is a bit long for light reading, but she wrote a fantastic article that appeared in a recent NFU Quarterly. This quote really stuck out for me:
The shocking reality at present is that many farmers purchasing land in Alberta for conventional grain and oilseed production cannot pay it off in their lifetimes just by farming it. These farmers become like speculators, their fates hitched on hopes of an ever-rising tide. High land prices also spur even more farmland concentration since often it is only big farmers who can increase their landholdings, and high prices keep aspiring farmers out of the sector.
I’ll be moving to a place with less distractions, and then buckling down to finish editing the film. Of course, moving itself is a pretty big distraction…
- I’ve made a start editing the section about Amara Farm, so finishing that is my most immediate priority.
- Then, I’ll edit a section about each other farm. Once that is complete, the most challenging part will be weaving all the individual parts together. I’ll be writing a voiceover to give the film a unified voice, and weaving the five farms together into a cohesive whole.
- Looking farther into the future, once the film is done — and only once the film is done — I’ll be laying the groundwork for a crowdfunding campaign that will help fund a tour across Canada.
- I’m looking for a rural farmhouse to rent in a very competitive market. Do you know anyone who might have a farmhouse sitting empty on Vancouver Island — ideally in the Comox Valley? I want to hear from them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Read What makes “The Farming Lifestyle worth it?” and talk about it with your friends. I’m especially interested in hearing criticisms. This blog post is close to the thesis of the film, so the clearer I can make it right now, the better the film will be.
- We are looking for media partners who are intersted in partnering on our crowdfunding campaign. We want to talk to writers, industry groups, advocacy organizations, etc. who are already involved in issues around farming, and who would be interested in using The Hands that Feed Us to further those conversations.