Durham County

Film celebrates ‘farm advocates’ who fought back against rural crisis

John Mellencamp sings at the Farm Aid concert in Camden, N.J., in this Saturday, Sept. 30, 2006 file photo.
John Mellencamp sings at the Farm Aid concert in Camden, N.J., in this Saturday, Sept. 30, 2006 file photo. Associated Press, 2016 file photo

The farm crisis of the 1980s never really ended. And with another perhaps just around the corner, filmmakers at Duke University have put the finishing touches on a short documentary they hope sparks a new wave of activists to step forward and help farmers fend off foreclosure.

Thursday evening, its director, cultural anthropology professor Charles Thompson, joined singer/songwriter John Mellencamp and other activists on the stage of the Bryan Center’s Griffith Film Theater to debut the project, “Homeplace Under Fire,” which celebrates a handful of people who’ve joined with farmers from the 1980s to the present day to face down bankers, government regulators and in some cases the thought of suicide.

The “farm advocates” of the story are part of “the America I celebrate, the America where when people are in need, their neighbors step up and help them, where when people are suffering, they don’t allow them to do it in quiet,” Thompson said. “This is the America I pledged allegiance to.”

The farm crisis was the wave of foreclosures that rolled through the Midwest beginning in the early 1980s, when government-encouraged over-production combined with a drop in land prices to leave many growers unable to repay the loans they relied on for each year’s seed money. Banks and federal regulators alike were quick to put farms and farm equiment under the gavel, and farm families off their property.

Back in the day, the situation caught the attention of musicians like Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young, who joined forces to organize an annual series of “Farm Aid” concerts to raise money for the cause. Their nonprofit endures and produced Thompson’s film in conjunction with Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies.

Mellencamp said that in 1984, he noticed that a lot of the smaller towns around Seymour, Indiana, his birthplace, were starting to lose population and disappear.

“All these towns were farming communities,” he said. “It didn’t take me too long to find out what was happening.”

But some of the farmers and their wives fought back, combing through loan documents and government regulations to figure out their rights, and eventually finding that in a lot of cases, they knew the rules better than bankers and federal underwriters did. In time, word about their successes and methods reached neighbors, who turned to them for help.

Not that the Midwest was the only region that suffered, then or now. In the South, Georgia civil rights leader Shirley Sherrod found herself facing down local bureaucrats who refused to help black farmers. Here in North Carolina, Oak City farmer Benny Bunting also wound up counseling fellow growers.

Usually, “when we first meet farmers, it’s really at the last minute, too late, really,” Bunting said. “They think they have no control over anything at that time. They’re just desperate. Most of the time you’re trying to develop [things] to where they can make a decision.”

Both Sherrod and Bunting figure prominently in Thompson’s film, a mix of present-day interviews and from-the-era photographs, some by North Carolina documentarian Rob Amberg, others by former Des Moines Register staffer David Peterson, whose work on the crisis won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography.

Farm Aid produced the film with the idea that it’ll take it on the road, to the communities where the advocates it profiles live and work, to honor what they’ve done there. The organization also wants showings at universities like Duke, in hopes of inspiring present-day students in law, mental health and other professions to consider lending a hand, said Jennifer Fahy, Farm Aid’s spokeswoman.

There’s no time like now for “getting with a Benny Bunting and trying to learn everything you can from a Benny Bunting and the other advocates out there,” said Sherrod, who admits to pushing 70. “We are getting old.”

And there’s no time like now to get involved because the makings of another farm crisis are out there, said Scott Marlow, executive director of the Pittsboro-based Rural Advancement Foundation International.

With so much of North Carolina’s farm economy reliant on livestock, hogs, chickens and turkeys in parrticular, “we’re headed into a very dark time” for the remaining family growers, Marlow said. “The banks are saying interest rates are low and farm prices are high. Does that sound familiar?”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg