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The Milk House: Farm films to enjoy this winter

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 November 2018

The baler greased and put in the shed. The insulated boots dug out from the cellar. The barn battened down and winterized.

The Netflix subscription renewed.

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If you’re feeling guilty for not being in the field while the snow flies (probably not), or getting antsy for spring to start (depending on the weather), or if your idea of relaxing when not farming is watching other people try to farm on the television set (misery loves company), consider a farm film.

Yes, it makes one cringe at times the ways farmers are represented or just how wrong they get the farming itself. Still, we have to work with what we got. If you’re looking to pay homage to the genre of the farm film this winter, here’s a diverse list to help you decide what to stream or rent.

The most original and entertaining farm film

What happens when the farm crisis reaches a peak? Simple: You go to outer space.

The “science” presented in Interstellar (2014) might be hard to unravel by the time the credits roll, but there’s enough action and intrigue to make for a good time. The human race faces definite extinction due to crop blight and other manmade disasters.

A farmer/astronaut named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is called into action to find a new planet that might sustain life. (Farming always was a demanding occupation.) Directed by Christopher Nolan and co-starring Anne Hathaway, Interstellar is your best bet for a fun movie with the broadest appeal.

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The weirdest and most accurate farm movie

I mention Isolation (2005) a lot to people, but that’s because I can’t help it. Not only does this Irish horror film have the most bizarre byline, but it is also one of the most genuine portrayals of dairy farming on the screen. Sure, a down-and-out farmer must battle a killer calf fetus that results from scientific experiments gone wrong in order to save the life of an itinerant girl, but many of the scenes are shot on an actual farm, from the milking parlor to the manure pit.

The only thing that might raise an eyebrow (other than the fact the fetus gets around pretty well for not having legs) is: There only seems to be a few cows on this farm. Still, as a well-made and strange commentary on the economics of modern dairy farming, it deserves an enthusiastic mention.

The most classic and most ’80s farm film

It’s been almost 30 years since Kevin Costner was told “If you build it, they will come,” yet it remains one of the most iconic movie lines of all time. Field of Dreams (1989) might contain ideas that are counterproductive to increasing corn yield, but it combines two things at the heart of being American: baseball and farming.

In this old favorite, Ray Kinsella hears voices that encourage him to create a baseball field and, after doing so, the ghosts of many of the all-time great players emerge from the corn to play. Yes, the film feels dated by now, but few would disagree Field of Dreams has earned its immortality in film culture.

“Is this heaven?”
“No, it’s Iowa.”

The most realistic and depressing farm movie

Young Irish director and writer Gerard Barrett provides a great service to the international dairy farming community in Pilgrim Hill (2013) by providing a genuine and accurate look at the difficulties of running a family dairy farm.

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Shot in a mockumentary style, the film follows Jimmie Walsh through his daily routines, sharing the despair that comes from the isolation of being a farmer. Although a bit trying to watch at its full length, Pilgrim Hill is a commendable piece of social realism that breaks down the pastoral and idyllic romanticism sometimes still associated with farming. And if you’ve ever wondered what Irish dairy farming looks like, this is your chance to find out.

The most heart-warming and family-friendly farm film

I never checked up on this, but I suspect bacon sales were down in 1995 after the release of Babe. Can anything be more gratifying than a kind, hapless piglet trying to find his place in the world? We might live in an ironic post-modern age, but we all had a special place in our heart for that pig that learned to herd sheep and refused to conform to a farm’s social hierarchy.

It’s still hard to walk by a sheep and not think “Baa Ram Ewe” (even if the sheep password might have changed since then). I don’t know what kids are watching these days, but I’ll take the pig over The Lego Movie any time.

Bonus: A good foreign farm film you might not have heard of

Watched all the above? An insider tip, exclusive to readers of the column: Hrútur (Rams) (2015). This Icelandic film, while somewhat unknown outside the island, provides an interesting narrative, a glimpse into Icelandic culture and shots of the harsh and magnificent landscape. Rams follows the story of two estranged brothers with competing prized sheep herds that trace back to the same line.

When a case of scrapie causes all of the herds in the valley to have to be destroyed, extreme lengths are taken by the brothers to preserve their agricultural heritage. Even those usually reluctant toward subtitled films should find pleasure in this one.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.

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