WGBY documentary on farming in the Connecticut River Valley, gets warm reception

The Daily Hampshire Gazette. July 10, 2014. By Rebecca Everett.

There was no red carpet, but local farmers got a taste of star treatment Wednesday night at a premiere screening of a WGBY documentary on farming in the Connecticut River Valley.

Approximately 130 people, including many of the farmers featured in the film, filled Hampshire College’s Red Barn to watch “A Long Row in Fertile Ground” while munching local popcorn and sipping local beer.

The 45-minute documentary produced by Emmy Award-nominated WGBY producer Dave Fraser aired simultaneously on WGBY Wednesday night and will be replayed in the future. It tells of the Valley’s agricultural history but focuses mainly on the current state of farming here, touching on issues from the preservation of farmland to the rise in community support for agriculture.

In the film’s opening scenes, Hatfield dairy farmer Darryl Williams of Luther Belden Farm recalls his decision decades ago to take over the family farm instead of being a teacher. Moments later, Rob Lynch of Riverland Farm in Sunderland is seen tilling a field and admitting that the work during the growing season is so hard that he sometimes second-guesses his career choice.

“But there are so many good moments, too,” he says in the documentary.

At the premiere Wednesday, Lynch said he was excited not just to see the film himself, but to see what the other farmers had to say.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” for a documentary, he said. He said that when he and his wife, Meghan Arquin, did the interviews and shot footage with Fraser, they were fascinated to hear about the other farms and focuses the film included.

For instance, Sarah Voiland of Red Fire Farm in Montague and Michael Docter of Winter Moon Farm in Hadley explain the value of the fertile “sandy Hadley loam” soil that makes for such good farming near the Connecticut River Valley. Michael Wissemann of Warner Farm in Sunderland described how the price of renting farmland has gone from about $100 per acre to over $500 while he has been farming. Lucinda Williams of Luther Belden Farm said on camera that she and Darryl Williams could make a pretty penny selling their farmland for development, but that wouldn’t be right. Philip Korman, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) executive director, said it is the nonprofit’s goal to increase the among of local food consumed here from 10 or 15 percent to 25 percent in 20 years.

At the premiere, Benjamin Clark, who runs Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield with his father, Thomas Clark, said he was very pleased with how the documentary turned out.

“I was thinking of it compared to ‘Root Hog or Die,’” he said, referring to a WGBY documentary that aired in 1973, depicting a year in the hard lives of Franklin County farmers. On Wednesday, WGBY aired the 1973 documentary immediately after “A Long Row in Fertile Ground.”

“That was an older generation of farmers, a lot of them scratching to get by,” Clark said. “But this documentary is a whole new generation… There’s a resurgence of agriculture in the Valley, and this is a positive story of farming in the Valley.”

Backed by footage from the Amherst Farmers Market, Mapleline Farm in Hadley, and CSA farms, farmers in the documentary tell of their decisions to utilize direct marketing to increase their profits and remove middlemen, like milk processing plants or trucking companies. The reason farms can sell directly to their customers is because people in the community care about supporting local farms, Clark said, and that hasn’t always been the case. “Now, through the work CISA does and citizens, we have great support from the community,” he said.

“Our farm has changed a lot. When my grandfather ran it, it was all wholesale. We would bring fruit to markets in Boston or Hartford,” he said. Over the last 30 years, the orchard has transitioned to selling apples at the retail level, including at their farm store. “And the only reason we can do it is because we have such a dedicated customer base.”

Ernest Zuraw of Cranberry Moon Farm said he hopes the film helps promote local agriculture, and he won’t mind if the footage of the sheep he raises with Lisa Westervelt is good exposure for her wool business.

“That would be nice, because we’re kind of isolated up in Cummington,” he said. Other interviews and TV spots have helped, he said. “A lot of people call us and say, ‘I saw you on TV!”

Korman said that while watching “A Long Row in Fertile Ground,” he was struck by the beauty of the farmland and the amazing commitment of the farmers who are its stewards. “I realized, ‘I call this place home,’ and this movie reminds me why,” he said.

“These farmers are getting the respect they deserve,” he said. “Farming is hard work and I think finally the community is more and more in it with them. That’s what’s needed.”