The calculus that drives farmers off the land, and drives the documentary Dryland, is simple and inexorable. Historian Keith Williams lays it out halfway through the movie: Think of the farmer cutting wheat by hand, then zoom forward in history, past the farmers harvesting with teams of horses, past the first tractors, past the first combines (so called because they combined the reaping, threshing, and winnowing in one machine), to the air-conditioned, satellite-guided modern combine. “Well, that same change has really altered the farm size, which means the farm can grow,” Williams says. “More capitalization, they can get more equipment. All of this translates into more acreage per farm. But that also means fewer farmers.”
More efficiency, more land, fewer farmers. It’s also the calculus that has given us cheap food. Cheap food relies on ridiculously cheap grain. One farmer in the film notes that he bought a loaf of whole wheat bread for the same price that he sold an entire bushel of wheat.
Dryland, directed by Sue Arbothnot and Richard Wilhelm, is a wistful documentary — lots of long shots on beautiful empty fields, empty storefronts, empty streets, rusting equipment — and rightfully so. The way of life it captures is contracting, ratcheting in on itself, leaving small towns that are unable to support businesses, and schools without students.