As dairy industry reels, new film details one family’s struggle to make it work

Farmsteaders” is a new documentary that tells the story of Celeste and Nick Nolan and their four young children, who run Laurel Valley Creamery in southeastern Ohio. The 110-acre dairy farm belonged to Nick’s grandfather, who died in an accident on the farm in 1994. In the years since, agriculture has continued to move away from small operations like the Nolans’ to the sprawling industrial farms that dominate today. The dairy industry, in particular, has been decimated by consolidation, resulting in the collapse of family farms and a spate of suicides as farmers become increasingly desperate. In 2001, Celeste and Nick moved to the farm to raise their kids. They hobby-farmed for a few years, but when Nick lost his job they began farming full-time, turning to cheesemaking to sustain the operation.   

“Farmsteaders,” which airs Sept. 2 on POV, is the first full-length film by Shaena Mallett, a documentary storyteller, teacher, farmer, and mother who grew up between the Rust Belt and Amish country on a small family homestead. FERN interviewed Mallett about the film via email.

What do you want viewers to take away from this film?

I want viewers to walk away with a deeper sense of empathy and compassion for farmers who, just like the Nolans, fight an uphill battle every day to keep the lights on. I hope through that sense of connection and seeing the precariousness of keeping a farm alive, people can begin questioning where their food is coming from and if they have the ability to do things differently. Another point I hope comes across is the importance of investing locally. When you buy from local farmers, you are directly supporting people. It’s an opportunity to redirect money from the CEOs of major food conglomerates and instead support that family farm down the road. Every time we buy groceries, we have the opportunity to vote with our dollar to support hardworking folks who are growing and raising food that is ethically sound and nourishing. We are in a time of climate crisis, and we need to learn from the folks who are thinking forward by looking back at traditional methods of animal grazing and land stewardship. The Nolans work hard to keep their cows on grass, staying mindful that the health of the soil and the health of the animals is everything.

Many Americans are nostalgic about “life on the farm.” Was that something that factored into your storytelling choices? If so, how?

It’s easy to romanticize farming — how independent, bucolic, and charming it seems — the strolls through the farmers market, the rolling green pastures people see on labels at the grocery store. Many Americans are nostalgic for the farms that live in their childhood memories, yet they remain unaware of how tenuous our food system actually is. I wanted the film to build on those sentiments, to develop that initial connection, in hopes of taking general audiences a bit deeper into some of the realities of life on a farm. I wanted to be tender without being overly sentimental and to show some of the mess alongside the stunning beauty.

The context for the Nolans story is consolidation in the dairy industry. This has led to all sorts of tragedy, from farms closing to suicides. You never really spell this out in any detail in the film. Why not?

Other films have done an incredible job laying out how we got here as a nation in terms of our current food crisis, including documentaries that have specifically focused on the current hardships within the dairy industry. My film was always meant to stay deeply intimate, right there with this one family and their lived experience. This film is a portrait, not a topical or pedantic exposé. Two percent of Americans live on farms. Most people I talk to have never actually stepped foot on a farm. There are so many small farms out there like the Nolans, struggling to survive and make sustainable, ethically aligned decisions in the shadow of corporate agriculture. I want to connect viewers on a fundamental level to some of the daily struggles of farmers — farmers who are growing food at a time in history when corporate-driven motives have severed rural people’s deep relation to the land, filled the spaces with monocrops and decaying farmhouses, and piled animals on top of one another in CAFOs. I think most people know we are living at a time of environmental crisis with a changing climate, but I don’t think the majority of those people relate food as a part of the problem or the solution. Changing how we eat can change the entire system. I wanted this film to help encourage people to consider eating mindfully while supporting local economies and their neighbors over corporations.

Do you think viewers will understand that Laurel Valley is an exception, not the norm, these days? In the sense that their endless struggle has actually resulted in a viable operation, albeit one that still has a feeling of precariousness.

Celeste [Nolan] informs us in the film that cheese was the only way they were able to survive in dairy. While Laurel Valley Creamery was able to create a niche-product business to help sustain their farmstead, their story is by no means over, and they continue to reflect on how to sustain through changing markets, a growing family, and an unknown future in the years to come. For most small farms, like the Nolan family, there is no safety net. There is no Plan B. They are giving everything they’ve got every day to put supper on their table.

Did you come away from making this film with clear ideas about how to support operations like the Nolans’ from a regulatory standpoint?

The dairy industry is incredibly complicated, fraught with animal welfare issues, environmental issues, and can just be downright brutal on the people working hard to keep the lights on. I’m a storyteller and a filmmaker. I’ve witnessed and listened to many personal experiences from dairy farmers, but I am not an industry or policy expert. In the years I spent making this film, I’ve seen more and more dairy farms turn to value-added products and cooperative business models to survive. While regulatory support is crucial to the survival and well-being of dairy farms in the United States, my intent was to focus this film on connecting the viewer to a family farm on the most basic level. Our legislators will not put forth the systems to enact change unless we demand it. It is my hope that this film can help connect viewers emotionally and empathetically to farm families like the Nolans wherever they live, and that we can build a unified community that believes in and works toward building regenerative farming practices and culture, while challenging those injustices within our food system.