Remember The Hands that Feed Us? That film you heard about in 2017 or 2018 that was about how difficult it is for farmers to make a living? I’m back. I’m still planning to do everything I said: Make a documentary and take it across the country to raise awareness about the difficult finances of farming. And I’m starting in 9 days.
“Well, this is a bit sudden”, I hear you say. “And don’t you know there’s a pandemic going on? What are you doing shooting a movie?” It is sudden, and COVID-19 is exactly why the time to do this is now.
Despite my best intentions, my regular work on The Hands that Feed Us trailed off in the fall of 2018 after we failed to get funding from Telus. The reason? Money. I was busy making it. My day job is (was) recording sound in the film industry. The industry boomed through 2018 and 2019. After years of scraping by, suddenly I had more work than I could handle, and my unfunded personal project — The Hands that Feed Us — fell by the wayside.
All that ground to a sudden, rude halt in mid-March. Out of an abundance of caution, the film industry shut down in an instant, and I found myself with no work for the foreseeable future. I was looking at a whole lot of free time, time I could give to my unfunded personal project. My first step was to approach funders, which meant pitching them something they wanted to pay me to make. I shopped the project around back in 2017, so I had to bring them something different, and COVID-19 presented the perfect opportunity.
It’s tough to make a living as a farmer at the best of times, but these aren’t the best of times. We don’t know how COVID-19 will affect farmers — I have some ideas, but no one knows for sure. The only way to know is to live through it. That’s an ideal scenario for filming a documentary. Documentaries are at their best when they show something as it happens, and COVID-19 is happening right now. So, in addition to looking at the economic plight of farmers in general, The Hands that Feed Us is now about how COVID-19 will affect farmers.
I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping for a good news story. There is nothing more essential than food, and those of us who aren’t farmers are gaining new appreciation for that fact right now. In a world of closed borders and crashing markets, how is our food system going to cope? This is a life or death question; if it doesn’t cope well, we could all end up very hungry. So, my hope is that COVID-19 will force our food system to treat farmers a bit better, and maybe we’ll end up with a food system that is more local and more resilient.
I’ll be vlogging from behind the scenes
Filming The Hands that Feed Us means I’ll basically be embedding myself on a farm for the next nine months. The safest way to film during a pandemic is to minimize the amount of people and the amount of travel. The best way to do that is for me to live and work on the farms where I’m filming. There is also the question of how I’m going to support myself while I’m on the road, and that has a rather elegant solution: I’m volunteering my labour in return for room and board.
How is a city boy like me going to cope with farm life? There’s only one way to find out… In all honesty, I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty. I’m sure the real-life experience of doing farm work will benefit the project as well. I’ve always been a bit nervous claiming to speak for farmers when I don’t have any farming background. I guess I’m changing that!
Want to join me on this learning experience? I’ll be vlogging about what it’s like. I recorded my first vlog a couple days ago, so you can get a preview of that below. Follow the YouTube channel for instant updates. I’ll be sending out regular updates via this newsletter too.
Farmer profile: Arzeena Hamir (Amara Farm)
So … I’m sure a question you all have is where am I going to be filming? You can’t make a film without farmers, so who are the farmers I’m going to be filming?
I’ll be starting by spending two months with Arzeena Hamir on Amara Farm in the Comox Valley. You may remember Arzeena from such films as The Hands that Feed Us: Amara Farm. I’ve circulated this film before, but it’s the best possible introduction to Arzeena (and the rest of her family) that you could wish for.
Arzeena has been a strong supporter of The Hands that Feed Us from the very beginning, and she’s been one of my ongoing advisors. She’s also an inveterate community builder, doing advocacy with the Richmond Food Security Society even before she started farming. Since then, she’s been president of the Certified Organic Association of BC, started a marketing co-op with her neighbours, and is currently a councilor for the Comox Valley Regional District.
In the film, I’ll be asking her about the mythical “farming lifestyle” that keeps so many farmers on the farm even when it might not make economic sense to keep going. I’ll also be asking her about selling direct to consumers at farmers markets. Unlike most farmers, she is in direct contact with the people who eat the food she grows, and that puts her in a better economic position compared to farmers that sell through distributors. We’ll likely see this play out directly in the film — one of the effects of COVID-19 is that customer numbers at the Comox Valley farmer’s market are way down, so it’s likely she’ll end up having to sell more of her produce through wholesale channels.
How The Hands that Feed Us has changed in the last year and a half
The Hands that Feed Us has evolved and matured since my last newsletter a year and a half ago. I’ve already mentioned the most salient change: I’ll be incorporating the COVID-19 crisis into the film and using it to put the economic struggles of farmers into the larger context of a much bigger economic struggle.
I started actively working on the project again late last year when I attended the National Farmers Union Convention in late November. This was an eye-opening experience. In some ways, it felt like coming home. Despite my total lack of farming-credentials, the Farmer’s union welcomed me with open arms and enthusiasm, and it’s clear that the organization is a family. I’ve worked a lot of coventions and conferences in my time, and I’ve never been to one where so many people were greeting each other and hugging with such warmth. I was also very impressed with the “union” part of the convention. It’s clear that advocacy is deep in the DNA of the NFU, and much of the convention was given over to genuine, well-organized, respectful debate on any number of different resolutions that affect farmers.
I left the conference having made a great deal of progress: I found new subjects for the film, I secured an interview with the person whose research impressed me the most (Darrin Qualman) when I was doing my preliminary research for the project, and I came away with an entirely new project: The Rise and Fall of the Canadian Wheat Board. Most importantly, I finally figured out the key message of film: That farmers do better economically and politically when they work together. An advocacy film needs to advocate for something, and I hadn’t figured out what that for was until I saw the strength of the NFU in action.
The Wheat Board film is on the back burner while The Hands that Feed Us gets made, but I did do some initial research, and it gave me a much better sense of what it’s like to farm on the prairies as a commodity grain farmer. This has always been an important part of The Hands that Feed Us as well, but I hadn’t researched it well enough until I had a reason to focus on the Wheat Board.
As it stands now, The Hands that Feed Us will cover three common business models for farms: Market farmers who mainly sell direct to consumer, commodity farmers who export on the international grain markets, and supply managed farmers who work within the government managed quota system. The economic situations of each of these is unique, and each has their own challenges, and policies that benefit “farmers” usually only have a single type of farmer in mind. I think the documentary needs to spell this out explicitly, especially as an advocacy film.
I’ll be filming with five farmers in total, each with a different economic situation and business model. I’ll introduce all of them to you over the coming weeks, starting with Arzeena Hamir, who you met above. My focus with Arzeena will be on the farming lifestyle and some of the non-monetary benefits that may (or may not) help offset the difficult financial situation that many farmers face.
Everything is next! It’s all happening at once!
In the immediate future:
- I’m giving up my apartment and moving to Amara Farm for the next two months.
- I’ve partnered with a producer in Nova Scotia, Walter Forsyth, who will be pitching the film CBC’s Documentary Channel in hopes of getting some more stable funding. He recently completed an episode of Land and Sea that looked at the challenges faced by Farm Workers.
- I’ll be vlogging my experience as a city boy working on the farm.
How can I help?
- Know any dairy farmers in Québec who would be interested in participating? I’m offering a month of my labour in return for room, board, and the ability to film them on their farm. Le bilingue est préféré. Put them in touch.
- Spread the word! I’m looking for farmers, foodies, and anyone who thinks the financial health of our food system is important. In the long term, I’m building a movement, so I want people to know what the project is about. They can follow the project here.
- Spread the word, part II. For the first time in years, I’m back on social media. So, if you prefer to hear about the project on Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram, follow me there. Social media will tend to have more personal and behind-the-scenes material — my impressions of working on the farm. This newsletter will continue to be a source of information for the project itself, and for the advocacy movement that is part of it.