It was 2008 and documentary filmmaker Chuck Schultz was trying to plan his next move. He’d just finished up movies in New Jersey and Alabama. He got in touch with a couple old friends who lived near Sacramento.
And my friends who are Annie and Jeff Main’s (the central characters in our film) CSA members, said ‘You should read Annie and Jeff’s newsletter. They’re great. You could get to know them a little bit, but you should come out here and look for a story.’ And I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll look and if I can find something I think is interesting, then maybe I did find a place I wanted to spend the next four or five years,’ not knowing it would be eight.
That’s how he started work on The Last Crop, a documentary about the farm Good Humus Produce and farmers Jeff and Annie Main. It’s a 20-acre organic farm that the Mains started in 1976. They have three children — Zach, Alison and Claire — none of whom have committed to taking over the farm when their parents retire. Schultz spent eight years filming Jeff and Annie working with their local land trust to write a conservation easement that would protect the farm for generations. He visited Earth Eats earlier this month.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Annie Corrigan: The story starts out like we’ve heard it. Farmers are aging. Who’s going to take over for them? How are we going to feed all these people? But then your story takes a turn, when Jeff and Annie are trying to find a way to not just conserve their land and their farm, but their way of life. And here’s where they get into a bit of a struggle with the land trust they’re trying to work with. Can you describe how their situation and their conservation efforts are different.
Chuck Schultz: I think it’s important that people realize that the human element here in conservation has sort of been missing. It’s habitat we want to visit, but we’re not at this particular moment in time supporting farms and the farmers who are on that land, or who want to be on that land, and preserve those working farms into perpetuity, at least if they can. Annie’s and Jeff’s easement requires many restrictions. Whoever they’re going to sell their easement to will only have the right to live there and the right to farm, and they have to make approximately 50 percent of their income, so it’s an active farm. The farmers in return only pay the ag value for the property, versus the market value of the property. And in the end, they can only sell it to the next farmers at its agricultural value.
Corrigan: Could you describe why the land trust had a problem with this?
Schultz: I think within the land trust board it was discussed heatedly whether or not they should take this easement on. Ultimately, the land trust decided not to. The big issue is that there’s no legal precedent in California for this type of easement. Again, conservation easements protecting land, but not really ensuring that it’s going to be farmed and there’s going to be a farmer living on it and working the land. That’s a new wrinkle, a new development. So Annie and Jeff’s easement is a model, and the land trust I think in the end what I’ve learned is they’re not so worried about Annie’s succession with the next generation of farmer. It’s the third or fourth generation of this transition where someone from the outside with money could question whether or not they should be able to purchase the land. That’s when there could be severe financial cost to the land trust to enforce the easement because if someone comes on the land, if they can’t live up to the agreement of the conservation easement, the land trust then has the option to purchase the land back at its agricultural value and have another farmers take over the land. So that’s a big chunk to take on, although I think there are a lot of land trusts in California that are waiting for one of these, someone to make this happen.
Corrigan: That’s the business side of the story, but the heart of your movie feels like a conflict between one generation and the next. You got on tape probably the emotional climax of the film was in the kitchen. No one was really looking at each other. The kids were not really speaking, and Annie and Jeff were saying, ‘Alright, here’s the moment. What are we going to do about this farm? We need to talk about this easement.’ What was it like to be there for that?
Schultz: I’ve had other farmers, young farmers, children of farmers, said, ‘Wow, you got in there and you actually got that conversation. That’s a hard one to get.’ It was kind of spur of the moment. But I think we captured the parents need for the children to actually at least think about it. There’s always pressure for a child. Any family business, there’s pressure. This one, if you’re a graphic arts major or you’re a fireman or you’re a communications major, that’s a big step to come back to the land. As far as their children go, Annie and Jeff would like nothing more than to have their children succeed them. But the realities are, there’s are lots of choices. They support their children’s idea to do something else. So, as difficult as it is for the kids and for them. The children realize that their parents have actually built this farm from the ground up.
Corrigan: We’ve aired stories about young people going off and having a career and then knowing that they have this land, and so they come back to it and rejoin farming on their family land. Do you see that happening with the Main children?
Schultz: I actually do. They all love the land. They’re all circling the farm, but no one’s really made the commitment yet. Because it’s a big commitment to farm. It truly is. And I think Annie and Jeff have no immediate plans to retire.
Corrigan: You’re a filmmaker. Are you also an advocate for this farm and this easement?
Schultz: I’d say yes I certainly am. As a documentarian, you either want to make a film to tear someone down or tear an issue down or expose some issue that you think is important for people to know. Or, you really find a character or a story that you really want to share with people and you really hope for, you’re in their corner. I was in their corner. What I can do is make a film that will hopefully be shown in communities around the country, where after the film’s over, we can talk about the film for a few minutes, but then hopefully the conversation will revolve around what’s happening in your particular community about farmland, preservation and succession, and how can you actually support your local farmers.
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