‘The Organic Life’ documents a couple’s year on the farm.
When Austin Blair met Casey Beck in college, he had just dropped out of an engineering program and she was studying to be a filmmaker. When her The Organic Life documentary about their lives together debuted last fall, they had both graduated college, he was a full-time farmer, and yes, she was a filmmaker.
Still in their 20s, Blair and, to some degree, Beck, are the subjects of her new film documenting one year in their lives on a Sonoma Valley farm. This look at everyday farming is emphatically not mawkishly glazed with Vaseline or even tears. Sure, there are gorgeous shots of morning dew and thriving plants and even the idyllic sun-over-the-fields rack we’ve come to expect, but The Organic Life’s main examination is of much tougher stuff. How, it asks, is small-scale modern day farming possibly a sustainable way of life?
A sweet man who is seen chewing right off the plant in nearly every scene, Blair just really loves food. He loves to eat it, he loves to cook, can, preserve, transform, and dry it—and he certainly loves to grow it. But the question arises: With his farmer’s income hovering just above the poverty line, does it love him sufficiently back for he and his sweetheart to make a life around it? That’s a question that The Organic Life doesn’t answer; it can’t—this is all still a work in progress.
Blair works for Paul Wirtz and Candi Edmondson, co-owners of Paul’s Produce in Sonoma. “If people of our generation don’t carry on what Paul knows,” Blair tells the camera thoughtfully, “that would be knowledge lost.”
Of course, back when Wirtz was a young farmer, he didn’t have the effects of climate change to deal in addition to all the other hardships of farming. But he probably did lack time.
In the film, Beck bemoans that, unlike other 20somethings who take three-day weekends to go camping or stay out late on Saturday nights, she and Blair are too tied to the land to take a three-day jaunt and too physically exhausted to even go dancing. A crisis of small measure arises around this and, in what passes for drama in this affable little film, he agrees to quit working four extra hours each day on their home garden after returning from his job at the farm.
Reached during a break from her job working for a youth center in Richmond where she teaches video production to underserved youth, Beck sighs comically about her man’s obsession.
“He’s now open to planting flowers,” she says, “when before it was just more food, more food, more food.”
In the film, Blair confesses that he had the Taco Bell menu memorized as a kid, loved junk food, and had probably never eaten a “real” carrot. There was nothing special or artisanal or natural about Beck’s childhood food, either. But once they began to eat straight from the land, they never looked back.
After college, Beck won a Fulbright that sent her to Argentina. Blair was still unsure of his future, so she encouraged him to accompany her. At night, they would gaze out at the city’s rooftops and wonder why that real estate wasn’t being used to grow food. But the transition really happened when they volunteered on a South American farm and Blair caught sight of the host family’s root cellar.
“It was filled with their home-cured meats, their prosciutto, their salumi, their jams, their sauces, their vegetables, their pickles,” Beck says. “When Austin saw that, it kind of clicked. He said, ‘I want this!’”
Ever loyal, Beck willingly went along when Blair proposed coming to California to try his hand at farming. But the passion doesn’t translate: She’s no farmer.
“If he needs help, I’ll go out and help him,” she says. “In the same way that he doesn’t enjoy filmmaking, I don’t really enjoy farming. And, farming is really a profession where people want you both to do it. And it’s like no, we can’t do this together. You don’t expect that of any other profession.”
Blair doesn’t expect it. One of the many pleasures of The Organic Life is watching the two of them interact as they sort out the tension between their two different paths.
“I did this partly to comfort myself,” Beck explains about the film while on camera, “partly to show other people, and partly out of complete awe.”
The film took two crowd-funding rounds, two fundraisers, and all of Beck’s savings to complete over a three-year period of time. Premiering last October at the Mill Valley Film Festival, the documentary has since screened at the Sonoma International Film Festival and those in Oakland and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Beck continues to show it at community screenings, replete with a chance to speak afterwards.
“It really never gets old to have that light bulb turned on with audiences,” she says. “On some level, we all know [what farming might entail], but when you actually see it, there’s a Eureka moment. There is a person out there growing my food! It’s so incredibly rewarding to have people say, ‘Now I want to go to the farmers’ market.’ It’s just really beautiful to witness that.”
There’s a nice convergence here as, in the film, Blair explains his choices by saying, “I want what I do to make a difference for people, even if it’s just a couple hundred people at the farmers’ market.”
Back on the phone, Beck says, “The real goal of the film is to encourage people to go out and meet their own farmers.”
She gives a merry laugh.
“I know mine pretty well.”