The painted “Welcome” sign outside Lind, Washington, prominently displays a memorable message: “Drop In – Mt. St. Helens Did!”
It intrigued Portland filmmakers Sue Arbuthnot and Richard Wilhelm enough to actually visit the small town and start documenting some of the people they met there. Ten years later, they had completed a documentary called “Dryland,” which is not only a personal snapshot of rural life but a look at the economic distress affecting small farming communities.
“I’d been really interested in that area,” Arbuthnot said, “and intrigued by how wheat farming in such a dryland area could be profitable and what it would take to maintain that way of life.”
The film takes on an episodic structure, limiting most of its action to Lind’s annual combine demolition derby (it’s exactly what you think it is). Beginning in the summer of 2003, Arbuthnot and Wilhelm began following high school students Josh Knodel and Matt Miller, childhood friends from separate wheat farming families who were participating in that year’s derby, and they reunited with them every summer for the next several years.
The derby itself, a Lind tradition since 1988, serves as a welcome distraction from the economic turmoil facing the community; it’s a comforting ritual in an atmosphere of uncertainty. There’s a tension lurking throughout “Dryland” as to whether Knodel and Miller will continue the legacy of their family farms. As the economy starts to slip, as the costs of property and farming equipment skyrocket and as large commercial farms start replacing the family-operated ones, they have to decide if they’ll stay in Lind or leave for college or work.
“They so eloquently talked about their family farms and the commitment they had to maintaining the legacy of intergenerational farming,” Arbuthnot said of her two primary subjects. “There was that great sense of expectation and hope, and yet we could see some looming clouds, so to speak.”
Those clouds never quite break, however. “You have to be optimistic to be a farmer,” says one of the film’s interviewees, and that becomes apparent: The wheat these farmers produce is their lifeblood, and succumbing to the elements – during the film, there’s a flood, a fire and that recent GMO scare – isn’t an option.
It’s clear that Arbuthnot and Wilhelm have great affection for Lind and its residents. They emphasize moments of support in times of struggle – even the derby is a friendly competition – and they lovingly photograph the rustic, picturesque parts of the town – the lean-to barns, the golden fields, the ancient, rusting combines consumed by the wild grass growing around them.
Knodel and Miller represent both the changing tides in independent agriculture and the determination and tenacity that the industry requires, and Arbuthnot said that the resourcefulness of a community as small as Lind comes as a surprise to some viewers.
“Our goal is to create and build bridges between urban and rural viewers,” she said, “and I think we do have a disconnect between rural and urban Americans in some ways. … But we think storytelling is the best tool to create a welcome mat for people of different backgrounds to sit down, listen to the story and have a chance to share perspectives.”