Tag Archives: Farming

Movie Review: At Any Price

I really didn’t feel like seeing Pain & Gain this weekend, but the theater by my house wasn’t showing any other new movies. So I rode my bike downtown to one of those places where they show independent movies. I think they call them film houses or something. I’m glad I went out of my way – even though the concession stand only sold espresso and biscotti when I really wanted an extra large Cherry Coke – because Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price opened this weekend, a pretty powerful story about family, about business, about the American dream.


Dennis Quaid stars as Henry Whipple, the current patriarch of the Whipple family farm. It’s the same family farm, but this isn’t the same farming business that Henry’s father or grandfather ever had to deal with. “Expand or Die” we are shown on an overhead projector at a local farmer’s meeting. Big Agro is only getting bigger, and Big Agro’s advice to Whipple and all of the other local Iowa farmers is, “Get big, or get out.”

It’s against this backdrop that the family drama plays out. Whipple has two sons. Grant, the likely scion to the throne, leaves for college but winds up retreating to South America after graduating rather than return home to inherit the family business. Standing next to an actual red carpet that Henry has laid out for his firstborn, realizing that he’s not coming back, his attention turns to his second son Dean, played by Zac Efron.

But Dean is a racecar driver and wants nothing to do with farming. He’s reckless and impulsive, tinged with a more-than-mild criminal streak that manifests strongly in the beginning of the movie and overwhelms toward the end. Henry tries to get closer to Dean. In an effort to lure him to the family business? To be a father and actually support his fledgling racing career?

We never really find out the specifics of Henry’s intentions – he doesn’t even really know what he wants in life himself – but his motives are painted by very broad brushstrokes of a desire to have an unconditional support for his son. How that desire translates to action, how it sometimes fails to live up to the ideal, how it ultimately costs him … everything?

Because we never really find out what everything is. Henry has the farm, but he doesn’t. It’s a family business. It’s his but it’s not, as we kind of glimpse with Henry’s elderly dad’s occasional intervention. He has an idyllic wife and family, and yet it’s plain to everybody that for Henry this isn’t enough. We’re given a taste of Henry’s past as a high school football champion. Similar trophies decorate Grant’s empty bedroom. When Dean wins one at a local race, Henry is shocked that his son is an actual driver. But Dean dismisses his father’s praise, telling him that he wins one every week.

At Any Price is about what motivates us, as members of a family, as parts of the economy, as human beings. Do we chase our dreams or do we succumb to the duties and responsibilities life has preordained for us to shoulder? In an era of “expand or die” how can we be happy with what we have in front of us?

Nobody really gets anything, and nobody gets off clean. There’s aggression, there are consequences, and the only people who aren’t screwing over anybody else are the ones at the bottom, the ones getting screwed so badly they don’t have any power or leverage to inflict harm upon somebody else.

At one point, as Henry laments to his father, wondering why things couldn’t be simple like they were when he was a kid, the old man interrupts, reminding him that farming was backbreaking work, that chemicals and GPS driven trucks and genetically modified seeds are better. And it all made me think of us, as a society, about progress. We have so much, everything’s getting bigger, constantly bigger, and better, there’s no doubt that quality of life has gone up. But at what price are we paying for such comfort? Who’s in charge now? What are they exacting for such luxury? Are we raising kids to chase dreams or to push the status quo, to deny their true natures in favor of the ever-climbing bottom line? Is our exponential rise heading us in the right direction? Is it possible for this giant, hurtling machine to change course even slightly? Or are we merely cogs, playing out our individual dramas, pointlessly, unable to right any wrongs? To expand or to die. Or like the prodigal son, to get big or to get out.

Farmer’s Revenge

I got so sick of taking care of my farm, day after day. Those ungrateful plants. Every single day I had to walk outside and turn the hose on. And they were never happy to see me, always sagging down, so dramatic, like a whole night without water has really taken it out of them. That would be like me pretending to be dying in bed every morning until somebody came in and gave me breakfast. Do you know how many times somebody’s done that for me? Zero times.

But I had to do it for these plants every day. And I would get out there and as soon as the hose started and the water hit the plants, all of these mosquitoes, thousands of them, would get woken up by the water and turn into this cloud of pests that would fly immediately right over to me. I’d try to shoo them away, but it was absolutely futile. Even if I were to constantly rub both of my arms, I’d still miss three or four mosquitoes every time. And I don’t even have two free arms, I only have one, because the other arm is busy working the hose. Hey plants, why are you always letting the mosquitoes hang out anyway? It’s like, what’s my daily reward for feeding you, getting a million bug bites?

So finally I had enough. I let a day go by where I didn’t even go outside. Take that plants. Maybe you can get your stupid mosquito friends to go find you some water. But it rained that day. And as the rain poured down, the plants all stood up really straight, straight to the sky, as if to say, “Thank you mother Earth for feeding us!” and then the wind kept blowing them so they were all facing me from the kitchen window, taunting me, going, “Ha! We don’t need you Rob, you and your pathetic hose, you loser.”

And I thought to myself, drink up boys. Every farmer knows that the rain’s got to stop eventually. But it rained that whole week. Sheets of rain. How else can you describe heavy rain? It’s always in sheets. Or in buckets. You never hear any interesting new ways of describing a storm. Nobody ever says anything cool, like a five-alarm rain. No, they always say five-alarm chili. Why not a five-alarm rain?

Finally it stopped raining. I woke up on that first dry day and pressed my face and hands against the window. Are they dead yet? I hoped and wished that I’d gaze upon empty dried out husks, but all of the plants were fine. They looked better than ever. And the wind was moving in such a way that it looked like they were all dancing. And I could hear them singing, taunting me, “You idiot! It’s been raining for a week straight. The ground’s supersaturated with water. We’ve got plenty to drink. Come out here and have some water. There’s enough to go around! Hahaha!”

I was so pissed. But I knew that I just needed to be patient. Drought’s coming boys, drought’s right around the corner. I stared out at the farm and pressed my hands against the window even harder. It was probably a little too hard. I could feel the glass start to bend, so I released some of the pressure. But just some. I was still pressing against it pretty hard. I thought, all I’ve got to do is wait this out.

And sure enough, one day turned into two days and four days later, not a single drop of rain, those plants started looking a little thirstier than usual. On day five I walked outside. The garden tried it’s best to act like nothing was wrong, but it was obvious what was going down. All of those bugs were starting to make holes in all of their dried out leaves. None of the plants were standing up straight. Flowers were wilting. I could tell that some of the smaller plants wanted to cave, to apologize to me and beg for water, but the bigger ones remained defiant. “We don’t need you!” they cried, “There’ll be more rain! You’ll see!”

So I walked right into the garden and I started weeding. After all of that rain there were a ton of tiny weeds. I plucked out all of the weeds and my plants were having a great time of the whole thing. I’d pick out a weed that was really close to one of the plants and the plant started mocking me, “Oh yeah, that’s it right there. Oh yeah, just a little to the left. Yeah, that’s the spot,” and all of the other plants would laugh. Keep laughing boys.

Then I got a bunch of pots and some soil. And I replanted all of the weeds. The plants got real quiet after that. Then I got out the hose. Those plants had been so busy having their fun they forgot just how thirsty they all were. And I turned on the hose real slowly. I brought it to my lips and took a nice big sip. After my drink I started watering the weeds. And I came back the next day and did the same thing.

After a couple of days my farm looked terrible. All of the plants, they couldn’t even stand up anymore. They were all losing their color, fast. One day it looked like it might have rained, but it was just cloudy, and the sun broke through before even a drop came down. Finally the plants broke down. “Please! We’re sorry! Give us some water! We’ll do anything!” And I said “OK, sure thing boys.” And I got out the hose and pretended like I was going to feed them, but then I said, “Just kidding,” and I went to water the potted weeds, which, by this point were bigger than any weeds had ever gotten before. And they were grateful for it. Their whole lives, it had always been simply whatever they could get, a few drops of water here and there, if the plants weren’t using it. This was a different story.

Right before the plants died, I went outside with some lighter fluid in a bucket. I went out and splashed it all over the farm. The plants must have been so deliriously thirsty that they couldn’t tell what it was. Those stupid bastards, started sucking it right in, right inside. By the time they all started choking, it was too late. I struck a match and it went up all at once, combustion from the inside out.

Farming was cool, but the whole thing got out of control. Next year I’m going to pave the whole backyard and make a basketball court. I was going to say a volleyball court, but I went to the Sports Authority to check out volleyballs, and I couldn’t help but thinking they were all looking at me funny, like not even really caring if I bought them or not, imagining to themselves that I’m not even good at volleyball anyway. Stupid balls. I came back with a tiny pin and, while pretending to check them out, poked a bunch of really small holes. They wouldn’t deflate right away, but they’d fall flat by the end of the day, and the manager would find them, scratch his head, chalk it up to a bad day at the volleyball factory, and dump the whole supply in the trash.

Lessons I learned while farming

I had a garden this summer. Well, it was really a farm. Well, not really, but, and I’ve said this before, but farming is so much more manly than gardening. And what is a garden if not a small farm anyway? Please, nobody correct me. I’m very set in my ways here.

Anyway, I planted stuff. For a first attempt it was, I’d say, a pretty successful experiment. During the first few days of warm weather last March, I hacked at the tiny piece of land in my backyard, getting rid of as much grass and random shards of glass that I could. After that I put down a few sacks of compost that I bought at the Home Depot. And I started planting stuff: lettuce, radishes, Swiss chard, all sorts of random stuff. Some grew, some didn’t, whatever, I was happy that I got anything at all.

After that first round of spring veggies, I planted tomatoes, sunflowers, peppers. The tomatoes grew like weeds, to the point where they wound up consuming the majority of the garden. Once they really got going, all I could do was water and wait. It was too late to even attempt cultivation. This thing was on its own.

I got a lot from the garden, I got tons of tomatoes, some peppers. I thought that some of my plants were peppers, and they got huge, and started to bear fruit. But it turned out that they were just little berries, the poisonous kind, the weed kind, and here I was, thinking it was something valuable, and I was clearing space for it, making sure the tomatoes left just enough space for this weed to blossom and make a mockery of my whole project. But, not a big deal, a minor setback, lesson learned. I cooked the berries into some poison jam and sent it over to my neighbor’s. Then I called poison control and claimed that I had saved their lives.

I would go out at night sometimes and look at the plants. Whereas during the day, the plants would always face the sun’s trajectory, bending over in weird ways, twisting themselves to soak up as many rays as they could, at night, everything would be standing upright, straight up, always looking fuller somehow than they did during the day.

And you know, when you look at something everyday, especially something that’s growing, you don’t notice the growth. My sunflowers were a good example. They start out so small but wound up at like twelve feet tall. And I only noticed the growth when I went away for a week’s vacation. I came back and was like, “What the …”

And I’m thinking, what’s it like from these plants’ perspective? I mean, they’re alive, right? So they’re growing, but it must not be slow motion to them. Look online for any of those time-elapsed plant videos and you’ll know what I’m talking about. You watch a plant grow in fast-motion and it looks like it’s moving, like it’s really alive. And at this rate of time perception, you can’t even see the humans tending to it. We’re just an invisible blur, moving way too fast for anything to see. The plants are living and growing and moving, but do they have any idea that they’re being shaped and cultivated?

And then I’m thinking, what if human beings are like seeds, and there are some greater beings cultivating us? Like these higher intelligences are moving so fast that we can’t see them, we only just kind of have an idea that they might exist. And they’re watering us and moving us around, trying to make us blossom and bear fruit.

But then I’m also thinking, what if the higher intelligences aren’t really higher, but just faster? What if they’re like me with my garden, not really knowing what they’re doing, just kind of putting random seeds in the ground and throwing some water here and there and hoping for the best? What if I’m some higher being’s first garden, and I’m coming out all wrong? Like, if the expert higher beings went to the higher being that was cultivating me they’d say, dude, what have you never raised humans before? That’s not how you do it at all.

Or even worse. I remember in high school whenever it was that time of the year for the science fair, I would just throw a bunch of seeds in a bunch of cups. I would feed one water, one of them would get soda, one of them would get beer, and one would get Windex. Bam, B minus please. It was obvious. The one that got water would grow, the one that got Windex wouldn’t even germinate, and the soda and beer seeds would come out all puny and deformed. What if we’re all just some half-baked higher being’s last-minute idea of a science fair project? Are we all just going to get tossed in the trash as soon as this higher creature gets his or her B minus?

And then I look out at the natural uncultivated world. The wild corn and the weeds and all of those plants that just grow without any help at all from us humans. What if that’s us? No higher beings, we’re all just going whichever way the wind blows us, in desperate need of even a little cultivation. Like, maybe we just all need to be six to eight inches apart, like tomato seeds, and if we’re too close together, we’ll all germinate, but only one or two of us will really grow up into anything capable of producing fruit.

Aren’t I so deep? Isn’t this one of the most fascinating, deep, mysterious essays that you’ve ever read? Aren’t my ideas so novel and unique? I just keep going back to the sunflowers, what if they do have a consciousness, what if they experience the world but much faster than we do? They’re sitting around talking to each other, noting that the water comes at a certain time everyday. It must be a higher power! And they get in fights over how a higher power could exist and all of the different possibilities that might explain such a higher power. And maybe I’ll forget to water them one day. Because I’m not higher, I’m just regular, and I get lazy sometimes and forget to feed the plants. How thirsty do they get? They’re tall enough, so do they look inside the window and see me sitting at my computer for hours, all while they’re thinking I’ve abandoned them, I’ve forsaken them, they really want a drink and I’m just sitting here looking at photos on Facebook.

Gardening, farming, glass eating, and gender equality

It’s been like three days since I’ve had anything even remotely resembling an idea of something interesting to write about. I hate coming back to this, but here it is, another one of these “I don’t know what to write about,” pieces. It’s like, OK, I’ll sit down to write. And the page is blank. And there’s plenty of time before I have to go to work. So just don’t freak out, just take a deep breath, look out the window for a second. You know what? Maybe I should water my plants. I have a garden. A small garden. Well, I guess it’s not the smallest garden. It’s big enough. I don’t like calling it gardening though, because I feel like I’m being robbed of my masculinity just a little bit. So I call it farming. Because what’s manlier than farming? Nothing. Well, maybe knife-fighting. Or alligator wrestling. Or motorcycle stunt driving. Or glass eating. And I’m not saying that women can’t do any of the above professions. I’m just talking about gender stereotypes. But now that I mention it, I don’t think I’ve ever met any female glass-eaters. But now that I mention that, I can’t really remember meeting any male glass-eaters either. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever even seen anybody eat glass, or if I’ve only heard about it maybe, or perhaps I saw something on TV once, but that’s not really saying much, because you can see anything on TV, and for me to make these sweeping generalizations about the genders based on a fleeting idea about some manly glass-eater who may or may not exist, well, this is probably an all-time high for me in terms of ignorance, in terms of gender insensitivity, and so I’d like to offer an apology, a brief apology, brief but sincere, to women, but not just to women, but to men also, to all humans really, because in running my mouth about accepted roles for men or for women, I’ve done a disservice to both men and women. But more of a disservice to women. In fact, I’m going to make a pledge right now, to myself, to the world, to my future unborn daughter, sweetie, when you grow up, I want you to eat as much glass as possible. I’m going to be right there behind you, every step of the way, I’ll get you regular shards of glass, but I’ll also go to the beach and look for really cool green pieces of sea glass that have been polished and smoothed down by years of slowly getting caressed by individual grains of sand. You’re going to be the best glass eater in human history honey, and you’ll show the world what glass eating is really all about, and I’ll have showed you, so I’ll indirectly have showed the world, and by that point in my life, hopefully I’ll have made up for my completely unacceptable remarks above about manliness and farming and … you know what? I should just come clean, a blanket admission. I have a garden. I enjoy gardening. There, I said it. You know what? I actually don’t think I’m really comfortable with that, I don’t think I’m ready for that big of a leap. I’d like to backtrack a little, if I could still refer to it as farming, I hope that’s OK with everybody. I still stand by all of the things that I wrote about gender equality and acceptance, but there’s just a part of me that still cringes inside when I picture myself telling people that I like to garden. What’s next? Gardening gloves? A nice handcrafted gardening spade? With the handle having the same matching pattern as my gardening gloves? And I may as well buy a gardening apron while I’m at it, you know, just make sure my clothes don’t get all dirty. And a nice floppy hat, because seriously, if I’m spending all of that time outside, well I don’t want to get too much sun, I don’t want to suffer any more sun damage than I already have. Yeah, you see, this isn’t really rolling off the tongue the same way farming does. I can’t see myself gardening, but I can totally see myself farming. I’m picturing myself in nothing but overalls, one strap undone, no shirt on underneath, and I’m barefoot, and I’m not even using any tools, I’m just plowing the soil with my bare hands, and I’m covered in sweat and my fingernails are blackened with dirt, and I’m not even harvesting vegetables, I’m growing steaks. They’re coming right out of the ground and landing straight on the grill. And then I’ll pick them right off the coals, again, no tools for the grilling either, and I’ll just chow down, no utensils, no napkins, no plates, just me, overalls, and a perfectly cooked steak. Alright, maybe a little salt and pepper, just a little, just for some seasoning, just to really make those natural flavors pop.