‘On Her Own’ documents the last generation on Gleason Ranch.
If one were under any misapprehension that farming is romantic work in which one dreamily moves from field to flower in a fresh gingham frock finding rosy-hued eggs in clean straw nests before leisurely baking pies, On Her Own, the new documentary film about Sebastopol’s Nancy Prebilich, quickly pours a thick bucket of stinking pig slurry right on it.
On a real ranch, pallets need to be moved, chickens shooed and fed, sows helped in birth, manure shoveled, the water pump fixed, all amid an endless round of more. Piglets die regularly, their small stiff bodies money lost. Things that seemed right always go wrong. That fresh gingham frock might make it for an hour on a Sunday, but a stiff pair of jeans and an old sweatshirt are better suited to the rough actualities of farm life.
On Her Own, filmed and directed by Morgan Schmidt-Feng, follows Prebilich and her family over a five-year period of time on their Gleason Ranch, a 90-acre West County spread that Prebilich’s great-grandparents bought before the turn of the last century.
Prebilich and her parents, Anthony and Barbara, moved onto the place in 2007, two years after her maternal grandmother, the family’s matriarch, passed away. Barbara grew up on Gleason and knew how to do the work. A Vietnam Vet, Anthony had been a mechanic. “The ranch wasn’t his dream,” Prebilich tells the camera, “it was hers.”
Interviewed by phone during a brief lull between film festival screenings, Prebilich says that when she sold her family’s rabbits, chickens, and other meat at the farmers’ market, patrons always asked if they could come out and see the farm. “I saw the value of those requests,” she says, “but we weren’t in the hosting business.”
So when Prebilich was introduced to Schmidt-Feng by a mutual friend and he asked if he could come out to Gleason to film her family working for a short five-minute corporate project, she agreed, thinking it would be a nice calling card to show her farmers’ market customers. That was 2009. Five years of filming later, she’s grateful that a camera was onsite to capture a dramatic arc in the life of her family and farm amid the Great Recession.
On Her Own chronicles those years during which Prebilich and her sister Cindy, as well as Cindy’s husband and their three children, tried to pull together amid death and extreme financial hardship to keep Gleason operating as it had been, continuously, for five generations. The women worked together during argument and harmony, agreeing and disagreeing just as vehemently, all of it captured by Schmidt-Feng and his unobtrusive camera. They tried everything they could think of to keep the land.
When the farm went, so did the kinship. Cindy moved her family to the deep South and Prebilich truly was alone.
The farm was “tragically” sold, Prebilich says, to an “exceptionally affluent” young couple who bought it for about $2 million as a starter property, promptly tore down the house, and haven’t returned. “They have solar panels out in the pasture,” she says, “providing energy to nothing. As much as we wanted to sell it to a fellow rancher, financially, we couldn’t justify what he was able to offer.”
This, to her, is the gist of what makes On Her Own an important documentary. “People who are trying to produce are being shut out because people with money let things lie fallow,” she says. “My presence as a producer alone has value.”
There’s a lot of important energy in supporting new farmers. ~Nancy Prebilich
Prebilich now lives on one acre near downtown Sebastopol, on another property that’s been in her family for generations, where she raises a small number of animals and mostly barters for her needs.
“It’s no small thing to say that farming is in my blood,” Prebilich says. “There’s a lot of important energy in supporting new farmers, but they mostly don’t have the necessary resources. I want to shed some light on the importance of generational farmers. It’s a culture of people that we need to preserve. We’re not indigenous, but we are people of the land. You’re reared into it.”
Prebilich had 30 days from the date of sale to move off of Gleason, trappings and all. Schmidt-Feng’s camera shows her walking sadly about the barren lot, the house empty and forlorn, all of it in need of repair.
“When we started filming, a lot of old boys said, ‘Oh Nancy, don’t let the cameras in. People think they want to see things, but they don’t,’” Prebilich remembers. “But I’m glad that I did. All of the hardship and suffering and loss of my loved ones—now it has this platform to be something positive.”