In 1909 my great-grandfather Cassius Marcellus Forbes purchased 120 acres of Iowa farmland. He was a school teacher, not a farmer, and he deeded the land in my grandmother Erma’s name. Perhaps he was looking to the future, or maybe he liked having a stake in the agricultural community that surrounded him. Regardless, that piece of farmland stayed in my family for generations, even after my grandmother left Iowa. Since the 1930s, the land has been farmed by multiple generations of the same family, the Swansons.
This is how I came to meet the central subjects of FIELD WORK: A FAMILY FARM. We had no relatives in Iowa when I was growing up, so I had never had much contact with the farm. In 2008, I decided to visit the current generation of Swansons. I’d heard a lot about how we’re losing family farms in this country, but here was a family who had a clear vision of staying family-sized. Their dream, they said, was to bring their two sons back into the operation and farm as one extended family. That year, I started shooting FIELD WORK, ultimately following the Swansons through the recession years as their sons grow up and set out on their own, and they work to pursue this dream of farming together. Meanwhile, the financial crisis hit, and crop prices and expenses were a roller coaster. Unable to afford more land, the Swansons had to get creative about what direction to go. I had the opportunity to be in the field with the farmers through several growing seasons, observe their challenges and joys, and see farming first-hand through their eyes. I met and talked with other farmers in the area, bigger and smaller, as I began to put together a picture of one farming community.
Old friends Lauryn Shapter and Dennis James, the Iowa-based duo Truckstop Souvenir, joined in to create amazing, heartfelt score and songs that capture the feel of the landscape.
FIELD WORK: A FAMILY FARM debuts on Iowa Public Television this week, Sunday April 12 at 1pm statewide. I’m thrilled to bring this story back to Iowa where it all began.
Huge thank you to all the farmers and folks who took time to appear in the film, as well as to Humanities Iowa, Seattle Arts & Culture, 4 Culture and Artist Trust for making the documentary possible.