Interview with the folks that made the docuseries "On the Farm"
I spent the last two days at the headquarters for the USDA. The sheer mass of the USDA complex at the Smithsonian Metro Stop, and aligning the mall along with the Smithsonian Museums reveals the mass of its undertakings. In Big Rural I critique one agency having so many disaprate missions. Chatting and listening to USDA reps from a range of its departments tieing in their office's link to combatting rural suicide, especially suicide among farmers, demonstrated the breadth of what the USDA is tasked to tackle. The panels I attended seemed as much for sections of the USDA folks to learn what other sections were doing as it did for parties seeking to or working on this issue on the ground.
The highlight for me, and also mentioned to me the next day by another person in the room who let me know that along with being a counselor, she also farms professionally, was the pre-panel viewing and discussion of a section of the docuseries "On the Farm" (discussed in the video above). The section we saw tells with story of the Gilmer family in Alabama and theitr struggles to remain lucrative as a smaller conventional dairy. What stood out to me and the farmer/counselor woman was the discussion in this video of the younger Gilmer farmer discussing their choice to switch to beef cattle and to give up dairying as this choice enabling him and future generations to remain on that farming. The younger Gilmer also happened to be in attendance and a speaker at this event, and I approached him afterward, asking whether the highlighting of having options had been something he offered the filmmakers or something they elicited from him.
In the film he pointed out his father's reliance solely on the farm for income, and when he spoke to me he pointed out his father was still the principal farmer. I asked if he had gotten any assistance from any agencies or anyone to help him see that his farm had other options. He replied that, no, no, but this had been something that he and his dad had been mulling over for some time.
I brought to the attention of folks in the room that for this issue of rural suicide deterence, and I would argue more broadly in the rural, folks need this message that there are options beyond what feels as though "it" (whatever it is!) has always been done this way, done here, done by these people...when we know that for most of us, that is simply not fact.
Part of the myth creating for a legacy farm, or, working in single sector industry that can take on the kinds of indentity, place-based associations, family commitment of legacy farm work, is the manufactured tale, a tall tale, of doin' what has "always been done" even if always may only mean a couple of generations. Yes, that pressure is real in the mind, in the hard work put in by prior generations, but what was smart about this video, as the identity was reframed as place-based, not particular farming based. The younger Gilmer discusses his commitment to wanting to have his children grow up in that place, even it it means changing up what kind of farming was done there.
What might that mean in other situations, like for farmers that can no longer do the kinds of work they were capable of when younger, work that may be too hazardous now? How could they be supported to still farm, or, even better, to start planning early on for farming though the stages of their lives?
And places--what can be rethought of places, early on, before their fiscal viablity tanks, and people must leave that do not want to leave? What if places were planned from their onset with the recognition that what seems lucrative now may not last? What if envisioning other options, and, support for other options, became touchpoints? What might any of that mean for rural single sector places, or, single production farms, as the inevitable happens, and things beg for change? Beg for options?