A new documentary film about a Southeastern Ohio dairy farm explores family legacy, sense of place, and making the decision to make a farm your home.
Shaena Mallett is a photographer and filmmaker based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Four years ago she started shooting a film about the Nolan familly and their small dairy farm in Southeast Ohio, Laurel Valley Creamery. Last week she launched a Kickstarter campaign and quickly reached her initial goal to pay for editing the film. We talked to her about making the documentary and why she thinks its message is important.
Daily Yonder: Describe the movie for us.
Shaena Mallett : [It’s] a documentary film that I've been working on for four years and it's a really intimate look at one family and their experience surviving as a family farm in a rural food desert.
It revolves around the characters. One of the main characters is the father of the family [Nick]. I describe him as a farmer/philosopher. He is just a very wise, well-spoken character who will go about his day very quietly, milking the cows and working out in the field and then just sit and look off into the distance and then just drop deep wisdom about farming and life and legacy. He's just a really philosophical character. The other main character, Celeste, is the mother of the family. She is really down to earth, very soulful, hard working person and just a really wonderful mother and cheese maker.
They're a multi-generational family farm. And Nick grew up on the farm. It was his grandfather's. His grandfather bought it in 1947. Nick grew up right next door to the farm on the end of a dead-end dirt road and dreamt of a life far away and the great world out there. He eventually got into working as an engineer in a food manufacturing plant and worked in corporate food for many years, throughout all of his 20s, and he ended up moving away to Florida. He was the person who helped work on the machines that made Totinos pizza rolls and convenient frozen entrées. He was still working in food, but as far away from the family farm style of producing food as you can get.
His grandfather died in a farming accident and Nick, over the coming years, had a major transition and ended up taking over the family farm. He was laid-off from his job, so he took his severance package and invested it all in a herd of dairy cows and decided to go back to what he knew and what he did in childhood. They invested in cows and decided that's what they were going to do. Everyone told them not to do it. The people buying the milk told them not to do it, grandma told them not to do it, the people who sold them the cows told them not to do it. … But they did it anyway. They worked for several years just selling milk and trying to bring in all of their income from selling milk and just couldn't make it, which is a really common story for a lot of small-scale dairy farms in the U.S. right now.
Now they take all the milk they produce and 100% of the milk goes into making farmstead cheese. "Farmstead" meaning all the milk comes from the farm and all the milk goes into the cheese and it's all made right on the farm. They've been doing that since 2010 and they finally are starting to rise up out of the initial costs of starting that. They're finally starting see the light of day financially by making cheese.
DY: Why do you think they went against all that advice and start buying cows?
SM: That's a question a lot of people ask a lot of dairy farmers these days, because it really seems like an impossible struggle to make it in small-scale dairy. I've heard several reasons from the Nolans. One of them, I think, taps into legacy. It's what Nick grew up doing, it's what he grew up loving, and really knowing, and I think it helps Nick feel very connected to his family, connected to his grandfather, who was one of the closest people in his life, by continuing on that family tradition. I also know that Nick really likes working with the animals. …There's just something about working in a very reciprocal relationship with animals. Opposed to making all the income, let's say, selling meat (Ed. Note: They do sell some meat). But something like that, the relationship with the animal has a finite end, and you're raising animals to slaughter and that's the end of the story. Whereas, for milk, the way that they raise the cows, they raise most of the cows from calf. The cows are on the farm from the day they're born till they day they die and they have many years of working together. They really get to know the animal and it's much more of a symbiotic relationship. I think there's something about that that's really appealing to the Nolins and to some other sustainable dairy famers.
DY: How did you find this story?
SM: I actually met the Nolans when I lived in Southeast Ohio. I was in my early 20s and, funny enough, I actually worked for them. We just established a really close friendship. It wasn't until after I moved from Southeast Ohio to North Carolina [and] was starting a bigger project about rural food deserts that I went and filmed at the Nolan's farm once and we just started throwing the idea out there that what if we did a project that was really, really, focused on the one farm, and it just kind of grew from there.
DY: In the trailer, the movie seems like it involves very intimate moments.
SM: Our relationship changed when I came in with a camera. Because video is an interesting process, you just spend so much time watching people, pointing a camera at people in intimate but everyday moments of their lives. It definitely changed our working relationship. And I think it took a little time to get in the rhythm of working together and them feeling very comfortable and able to be candid. There are some pretty intimate scenes in there, and it's been a process of building trust together along the way. I’ve been trying to film in the cinema verite style as much as possible, so just very fly-on-the-wall style, without being imposing with my presence with the video cameras. Which is also part of why the project has taken so long, because I think that kind of storytelling takes a lot longer. It's taken almost four years to get to the point where we can really tell a cohesive and in-depth story.
DY: There is a part where in [the trailer] where you are talking about the kids and how awesome they are and a little boy is wearing like a Superman cape and I love just rewinding that part and just laughing. I love that so much.
SM: You know I found myself spending a ton of time with the kids and just trying to be in their world, which is just so fun. This is my first really big video project and I just decided to dive in the deep end and it has been a long journey and pretty exhausting at a lot of points, but I find myself just having so much fun with kids and that has been a big joy as I have been filming. Just spending time with them and getting totally absorbed in their world and in a different role behind a video camera where I can just hang out and watch and observe and let them do their thing. They are hilarious and just really vibrant. They have a lot of magical thinking and are super creative and fun.
DY: What do you see of being your major themes of the finished piece, if you have even thought that far yet?
SM: I think some of the major themes are family legacy [and] having hope in hard times. That area where they farm was once based on agriculture and now there are hardly any farms left. Farms have been abandoned and people have moved on to try to survive in other ways. In a lot of ways it can look pretty hopeless, and the Nolans have really chosen hope. I think that is a big theme: Finding hope and finding a way to make it in an area that has seen so much loss. The Nolans really believe in the power of choice, and I think for them that is a really important message of the film that they want to convey, is that you have a choice.[Another theme is] relationship with place. Something that I am trying to be conscious of while I'm editing is what makes that place so special and the foothills so special. The culture of that place and how that speaks through the family and their story and why they have chosen to stay there even though it can be a really difficult place in terms of the economy to survive and to thrive, but that they have chosen to stay there anyway and they love it and think that it's home.
DY: Why is this story important and do you think it will translate to other small farms?
SM:I do feel like this story is really important because the people who are working as farmers have to work so hard just to make it, just to get by. …When you are the person working the fields or making the food, you just don't have time and energy to share your story and your perspective or the resources with time or finances to be the voice of the campaign or a politician fighting for better food. So I see this film in some ways as being advocacy for family farms and a voice for this one farm in particular but I think they are very representative of many family farms and small-scale sustainable farms especially in that region of the country right now. I've been working to make the film a very intimate and honest look at the hardships and the struggles and also the benefits and the joys and the beautiful moments to create a more holistic look, because I do think a lot of media around farming can either be pretty doom and gloom or way overly bucolic. …And you know what? It can be both or its somewhere in between or sometimes all of the things. I hope that the film can lend itself as a voice in the larger conversation happening right now of where do we go with our food system? How do we repair a broken food structure in the United States and how do we help family farms survive? I hope that for viewers it can help people connect to this one family and have a more thoughtful perspective on what it means to run a family farm and maybe make a few better choices about food and about supporting the people that are trying to feed America.