Family Dairy Farming Makes A Comeback Against Corporate Agro-Businesses in ‘Farmsteaders,’ Premiering Monday, September 2, 2019
The Nolans return home to save their family’s farm from extinction.
Farmsteaders captures the enchantment of rural life in southeast Ohio against the arduous realities of sustainable farming. For Nick Nolan and his family of eight, maintaining a farmstead becomes a revealing cycle of ups and downs in the shadows of corporate agriculture. However, the Nolans are determined to reinvigorate their family dairy farm in the spirit of generations before them.
Directed by Shaena Mallett, Farmsteaders will have its national broadcast and streaming debut on the PBS documentary series POV and pov.org on Monday, September 2, 2019 at 10 p.m. (check local listings). The film is produced in collaboration with milesfrommaybe Productions in association with American Documentary | POV. POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series now in its 32nd season.
Returning to his childhood home, Nick Nolan reconnects to the feelings and experiences that marked his happiest times. Having lived through an era when hundreds of dairy farms dotted the region, Nick pines for a familiar past where farmers were personally and closely involved with the land and livestock that nourish the community. Emotional ties to his grandfather’s land fuel Nick’s ambition to revive the practices that supported his family. However, he must operate against new competition: the large-scale corporate farms that have pushed small dairy farms out of the market for decades. The experiences of the Nolan family reveal the many challenges of maintaining a dairy farm, including the risk of failure and pressures of success.
Through financial strain and time limitations, the Nolans resurrect the dairy farm and launch a farmstead cheese operation, Laurel Valley Creamery.
Each member of the family must wear many hats for the business to thrive. Mallett captures moments with the Nolans as they navigate between two extremes of hardship: from having too little business to having more shipments than they can handle.
Despite it all, Nick and Celeste’s strength in parenting remains steady, balancing work and family with tremendous grounding. As both intent observers and active participants, the Nolan children play central roles at Laurel Valley Creamery, learning and growing through their involvement on the farmstead. Nick’s reflection of his own childhood experiences parallel scenes of his children, who establish a natural bond with the livestock and landscape. To the Nolan children, farmsteading is an inherent part of their lives.
The concept of symbiosis stretches through the film–from its relevance in the family’s deep attachment to the land and its animals to their relationship with clients and local consumers. In this natural cycle, everyone and everything works in tandem. Through the Nolans’ experience, Mallett shows a “return to our roots,” one that results in food that is rich in heritage and heart.
“More than a story of sustainable food production, Farmsteaders is a story of resilience,” said Justine Nagan, executive producer/executive director for POV/American Documentary. “Viewers will be left in awe watching Nick and Celeste, building their farm while raising their family. Farmsteaders is a proud declaration of rural American perseverance.
I am one of them. I grew up on a small family farm in rural Ohio – the heartland of America – a kid of homesteaders, reinventing their suburban lives: raising hogs, growing heirloom tomatoes, defying the expectations. As I grew and moved farther away from the bones of that little farm town, I watched as one after another of our neighbors had to close the farm doors as they were forced to sell.
As I grew and moved away from the bones of that little farm town, I heard stories of our neighbors shuttering barn doors and selling generational farm land.
The land grew fallow until it was either forgotten or turned into sprawling suburbs – full of cheaply built houses, with cupboards and refrigerators full of cheaply made food. It stirred something in me. As the years passed, I found myself on a soul quest documenting some thread of humanity’s entangled relationship to the land.
When I began filming the Nolans in 2011, it felt like home. For years, I’d work solo, steady and quiet (my visual background is as a photojournalist). I was able to document their intimate, unguarded moments: Nick sick in bed, Celeste crying as she reaches her breaking point, the kids lost in play and wonder. I watched the children grow as quickly as the weeds in May, the intangible magic of a summer morning still clinging heavily to the spider webs in the pastures, and the same cycles of hardship and abundance repeat over years. Throughout filming, they knew that I understood the weight of the struggles, as well as the bliss in between. With ease, we talked farming and factories, beauty and loss. They trusted me to understand and to translate the nuances of their lifestyle, their sacred relationship to the land, and their Sisyphean effort to survive as a small sustainable farm in today’s corporate climate.
Only one percent of Americans are farmers. Our food industry is largely insidious and unethical, built as an extractive industry chock full of human, animal and environmental rights issues. Many Americans are nostalgic for the farms that live in their childhood memories but are unaware of how tenuous our food system actually is. Layer that misunderstanding of rural America on top of our current political climate, and you end up with an uninformed and narrow view of the majority of the country. This story is the antithesis of the exhausted “Trump country” narrative. Nick and Celeste’s meditations on life, legacy, and resistance offer an unexpected voice at a time when the country is so deeply divided. With much of the current rift falling along demographic lines, there is an escalating clash between the two Americas. And yet here this family stands in contrast to all of our expectations – heroic, benign, accessible.
This is a story about my home as much as theirs. And it’s the story of many Americans straining against the ebb and flow of an uncertain economic system. I made this film to exalt the farmer, to challenge the stereotype, to celebrate the working class hero – the one who fights for sovereignty of labor and mind.
—Shaena Mallett, Director, Farmsteaders
About the Filmmakers:
Shaena Mallett, Director/Cinematographer
Shaena Mallett is a documentary filmmaker, photographer, educator, and farmer. Her first feature-length documentary film, Farmsteaders, has screened at national and international film festivals and received the Best Feature Film Award and the Audience Choice Award at the Indie Grits Festival. The film also received the Jack Spadaro Documentary Award from the Appalachian Studies Association.
Shaena is a graduate from Ohio University, where she studied photojournalism and anthropology, and taught in a therapeutic photography program for adults with severe mental illness in the recovery process. She's worked as a documentary photographer and an agriculturalist, an adjunct professor in Visual Communication at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and as a freelance video editor, working with clients from the Open Society Foundation to the Maine Farmland Trust. Her stories are usually found on back roads and explore humans’ relationships with the land, memory, motherhood, and finding the way home. She and her husband – filmmaker and producer Chad A. Stevens – are currently building an organic orchard and medicinal herb farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
Chad A. Stevens, Producer/Post-Production Supervisor
Chad A. Stevens is a North Carolina-based filmmaker and educator. Stevens’ first feature-length documentary, Overburden, premiered in 2015 at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Overburden – described by the Huffington Post as “One of the most timely, poetic and informed film documentaries of the year” – has screened around the globe and was broadcast on the WORLD Channel in 2017. Stevens is an Associate Professor in Visual Communication at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His work has been recognized in national and international competitions including an Emmy in New Approaches in Documentary. Overburden received the Special Jury Prize at the Banff Mountain Film festival, Best Environmental Film Award at the New York Wild Film Festival and Honorable Mention for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Nicholas School for the Environmental Award.
Director: Shaena Mallett
Producers: Chad A. Stevens
Editor: Kelly Creedon
Executive Producers for POV: Justine Nagan, Chris White