I wondered if the whole enterprise wasn’t a little mad. But if so, it’s the kind of craziness you want the universe to endorse. I met Don Roberts one windy spring afternoon on his farm, Elsie’s Farm. At the time, he was rapturous with possibilities. It was first time I’d heard the term “CSA,” community supported agriculture, and while Elsie’s Farm was not the first CSA farm around the Twin Cities, at its founding in 2000 it was well ahead of the curve.
Subjects in a documentary film are actors. That is, they exert considerable control over how and who they present themselves to be. Even so, a director who sets out to discover a subject with an open mind, however, still ends up having to struggle with narrative elements they could not have anticipated and which can’t be controlled. There’s no better way to understand that than to watch Werner Herzog’s film, Grizzly Man. The protagonist, Timothy Treadwell, is utterly charming until you gradually realize he’s lost in the fantasy of the role he plays. When reality steps in, the film turns, well, grisly.
We live in an age where it’s difficult to tell lies from truth. We are presented with mediated images, embedded frames, so many memes and tropes, that very little of what we know anymore comes from direct experience. Documentary film has always been part of that construction of reality. At best, it is a theatre of snatched fragments of actuality, albeit consciously chosen and aligned to make a narrative. It’s the art of these films to use questions that may provoke the subject into a moment of truth. Sometimes the subjects, themselves, offer up epiphanies unprompted. In my film, Dirty Work: the Story of Elsie’s Farm, I wanted to make a documentary that, like narrative film, told a story through one character. But the intrigue and challenge of creating a documentary is the dance you do with what actually happens. As the filmmaker, you have to make sense of real life, with all its raw and contradictory facets. That’s why, despite the inevitable erasures, invisible polemics, and rickety scaffolding behind the scenes, the words “a true story” still have power to draw us in.
Don, the farmer and narrator of my film, gets a letter, one that turns out to be from the Internal Revenue Service. Up to point, both he and the film have portrayed the farm in terms that are singularly upbeat. But in that scene, we see the worry that appears in his face. The larger local food movement may also be at a point of reckoning. In a recent Salon article, “What Nobody Told Me About Small Farming,” author Jaclyn Moyer wonders if the current locavore trend might follow the same arc of disillusionment as the back-to-the-land movement of the ’70s. She writes: “What the reporter didn’t ask the young farmers was: Can you afford rent, health care? Can you pay your labor a living wage? ”
Dirty Work centers on a CSA that operated in Ridgeland, Wisconsin in the early aughts. The film is all about the feel-good magic of a an organic farm, but it poses Moyer’s very question: Can a farm based on ideas, even meaningful ones, make it in the real world?
When I started shooting, I knew I was taking a risk. There were nagging clues: “CSA farms come and go,” Don says. His neighbor, a conventional farmer, puts it more bluntly; he thinks Don’s a fool. Even Don himself describes what he’s doing as tilting at windmills. In every film I’ve ever made there comes a nadir — a middle-of-the-night reckoning. Maybe the funds you hoped for don’t come through, or you missed a key scene. However it happens, there inevitably comes a moment when you realize the film you had in mind when you started is not the film you have in the can.
When Elsie’s Farm was shut down, I was devastated. Not only had I lost my CSA — I didn’t have a film. I packed away the tapes of footage in a boot box and didn’t open it up again for over a year. I’d been invested in having the farm succeed; I simply could not see my way toward making a film about sustainable agriculture where the farmer at the story’s center throws in the towel.
There inevitably comes a moment when you realize the film you had in mind
when you started is not the film you have in the can.
When it was in operation, Don and Joni didn’t live on-site at Elsie’s Farm. Instead, the farmhouse was filled with “wwoofers” and interns and students from University of Wisconsin-Menomonie who came to help out on weekends — young people who worked hard and partied hard and lived the life of 19-year-olds. So, Don and Joni lived instead in a farmstead they’d purchased in Otter Creek. People ask me at the screenings of my documentary why, after six successful years, Elsie’s went under. The truth is I never did get a straight answer from Don. It could be the couple’s second mortgage that did the farm in. The price of gas, extra cost for the organic sweet corn they’d had to buy when a neighbor over-sprayed. What Don talked about, when asked, was garlic, one of the most expensive seed crops they were planting. Garlic was the soul of the farm, he said. When the farm’s board members told him he’d have to skip the garlic next year, he decided to pack it in. Certainly, it was also on Don’s conscience that he wasn’t able to provide benefits or a living wage to the people working the farm. He gave out a lot of in-kind shares, trading for labor, and the farm needed more paying subscribers.
All these things added up.
“Just another hippy-dippy dreamer,” grumbled one New Hampshire farmer who came to a screening. But whatever the flaws in Don’s overall logic, he turned out to be pretty shrewd. The farm had a board of directors crunching the numbers and running the farm accordingly. Don got out well before the ink on the CSA turned red.
The going rate for a CSA share has jumped by 30% since my film was finished. The Seward Co-op now hosts a CSA fair where folks can meet farmers, and farms can attract new members. The Land Stewardship Project and state of Minnesota have both compiled directories, so it’s easier than ever to find local food. That sort of infrastructure and support simply wasn’t there when Don and Joni were trying to figure out how make their CSA work. Even in the end, Don wasn’t disillusioned about sustainable farming. No saint, he could be irascible as hell, demanding of himself and his workers. Yet faced with bitter defeat, he hugged everyone and gave away his last pumpkins. He packed all the compost into a truck and hauled it on over to his place in Otter Creek. And then he started again.
“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures, and the grinding down of the poor and marginal... To hope is to give yourself to the future - and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” —Rebecca Solnit (Hope in the Dark)
Now that I think about it, the question at the heart of the Dirty Work: The Story of Elsie’s Farm isn’t so much whether you can make a living this way. It’s a question that artists also wrestle with: What is our work for? No one works harder than a small farmer. If they are doing work that matters, that brings vitality to our cities and honors the green earth while healing the wounds in ourselves and our communities — and they still can’t make a living wage? Mark Bittman of the New York Times wrote recently: “If we had a national agreement that food is not just a commodity, a way to make money, but instead a way to nourish people and the planet and a means to safeguard our future, we could begin to reconfigure the system for that purpose.”
Dirty Work only glances at the questions of why conventional food is so cheap, or to what extent the agriculture that generates wealth is actually making food. Other documentaries have addressed those issues. The message I hope comes through in my film is that, sooner or later, when you take on the hard work of living authentically in the world, the world will surely break your heart. And sooner or later, you’ll find yourself at a place where you have to pick up the pieces and start over.
A year after the farm was sold and I’d packed my tapes away, I finally went back and started looking through my footage. That’s when I came across the last interview I did for the film: Don is in a lumber jacket, standing outside in the cold wind. At that point he knows he’s going to sell the farm, but I don’t, and he isn’t quite ready to say the words that would make it real. But what he does say to me, I realized as I watched, is worth the whole film.
Toward the end of the documentary there’s a Victorian puppet theatre. The film’s narrator recites Shakespeare’s famous line, “All the world’s a stage… and one man, in his time, plays many parts…”
We have to reconcile ourselves to those things that seem, at first, impossible to face or take in. Don didn’t shirk from that difficult task. The farm mattered, but the person the farm made of him mattered more. That’s what I had missed when I first packed away the tapes. So, a year on, I listened. And then I picked up the pieces of my shattered dream, and I started again.
Dirty Work: The Story of Elsie’s Farm airs on TPT 2.2, the Minnesota Channel, on July 16 at 3 pm and 9 pm and August 4 at 8 pm.
Deb Wallwork is a an independent video producer. She has an MFA in Film at the School of the Art Institute In Chicago. Her work has been shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Walker Art Center, Plains Art Museum, American Museum of Natural History among others.