Kala Philo’s Farm Shorts tell the stories that grow from the ground.
“The first rule of farming is: close the gate,” says Deborah Walton. “The second rule is: animals die. And down the list, there’s things like: don’t look up the row to see how far you have to go; look down the row to see how far you’ve come.”
Walton and her husband, the artist Tim Schaible, own Canvas Ranch in Two Rock. Canvas is renowned for its innovative CSA program, its community outreach, and of course, for its Lamb Camps and Sheep Schools. But what folks might not know is that Canvas was born of grief.
Walton and Schaible had owned an advertising agency for some 20 years when their only child, a daughter, contracted a brain tumor and quickly died at age 12. They turned to the hard work of the ranch to help assuage their grief and, Walton says, it still does, some 13 years later.
That moving insight comes to us via Farm Shorts, a video project devoted to helping North Bay farmers tell their stories.
The work of Santa Rosa filmmaker Kala Philo, Farm Shorts got its start in the spring of 2013 when Philo—who, with her husband Scott Collier, was already involved in the Slow Money movement that helps food producers find new sources of income—realized that most farmers hadn’t taken part in the video revolution. You know, the one that anyone with a smart phone can join.
“Video on the web is becoming ubiquitous and it’s becoming the way that people choose to get their information,” Philo explains, settling down on a wooden chair in a local coffee shop. “And if a certain type of business doesn’t have quality messaging videos online, I feel that they’re at a competitive disadvantage.”
There’s a lot of ag video out there, but none of it is like Farm Shorts. Kala Philo
Philo, a pretty brunette, cracks up at her own marketing-speak, suggesting that the interviewer could make what she says sound better. But there’s no need.
Midwestern by birth and an Austin, TX, native for years, Philo and her family moved to Sonoma County just two years ago. She quickly became a supporter of the Imaginists theater company and dove into other efforts to support local arts and foods.
Involvement in Slow Money introduced Philo to area farmers and she soon realized that “none of them had any video on their websites. And they have these amazing stories, eye-candy visuals, and no video.”
She laughs. “And, it’s totally understandable. They don’t have a budget for it, usually they don’t have a budget for marketing at all, and they don’t have time or expertise. And across the spectrum, that’s the case. There’s a lot of ag video out there, but none of it is like Farm Shorts.”
The focus of Farms Shorts . . . is short. “It’s what you do, why you do it, and what makes you different,” Philo says. But from these two-minute glimpses into farm life, viewers come away with a luminous sense of what makes these hard-working people work so damned hard.
Philo “bootstrapped” the project herself with $7,000 from an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and a determination not to just make a video or two, but to make at least 15 short films about North Bay farmers.
“I wanted to do a critical mass,” Philo says. “Not only would they be a kick-ass opportunity for the farms, but taken together, you begin to literally see what the landscape of sustainable agriculture in this area really looks like. The videos are quick and fun; they’re like eating Fritos—or organic corn chips,” she laughs.
“You see the face of the farmers and their farms and their amazing animals and you realize that not only is this possible, but that we have to revert back to the small farm in a large way.”
Shooting occurred in four counties on 15 farms, at the fast clip of three farms a day in just a few weeks. Philo used her Indiegogo funds to hire James Simmons as director of photography, a glamorous title that actually involved sitting in a lot of chicken poop. And, she says drily, “I developed a very efficient style.”
Philo credits Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma as a catalyst for her activism, but adds that it really comes closer to home. Her family.
Philo says that her best friends are still her Iowa cousins and, as a child, she visited them each summer and winter holiday. She remembers attending a family reunion when she suddenly realized that everything was different.
“It was so sad,” she says, “because my cousins were depressed and overweight and the landscape had completely changed because there was so much consolidation in agriculture that had happened in the ’70s and ’80s and the small farms had all gone away and you’re sitting there in the ‘Breadbasket’ of the country in an Applebee’s with the worst food in the world.”
But Philo isn’t interested in dwelling on the negative. She’d much rather highlight than lowlight. “Farm Shorts is a positive project,” she says. “I don’t go huge on the GMO side; I’m more about truth in labeling. We just want to know. “
Philo hopes to take Farm Shorts national and to find large-scale funding. But for now, she’s giddy at the opportunities that her first pass has given her. Stanford has called and she’s become involved with the Farmer’s Guild.
Regardless of where Farm Shorts goes, one thing is certain: Philo will continue to tell the stories that come from the dirt and grow into beauty. And yes—she’ll always remember to close the gate.