A Changing Landscape

‘At Any Price’ exposes the cutthroat world of today’s farmers

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During this year’s Super Bowl, Ram Trucks ran an ad using Paul Harvey’s late-’70s “So God Made a Farmer” speech. Harvey’s voice echoed across pictures of lush crops and weathered faces shaded by cowboy hats. It described a man who gets up at 4 a.m., milks cows, plows land, bales hay, harvest crops and delivers colts. It was a good ad. Made you want to buy a Ram truck.

It was also incredibly outdated.

“That idea of farms and farmers, which I’m sure was accurate in the ’80s and earlier, doesn’t exist anymore,” says Ramin Bahrani, screenwriter and director of “At Any Price,” which opens Friday. The film follows Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), who runs a farm that’s essentially Big Corporation on the Prairie.

Bahrani, who spent time in Iowa researching the state of modern American farming, wanted to show the reality to a country that still somewhat naively believes that a family farm is a white clapboard house looking out over acres of wheat, with chickens milling about and laundry on the line.

“These [Iowan farmers] were not yokels in overalls, with the evil bank downtown trying to foreclose on them,” he says. “These were very sophisticated, very intelligent businessmen. When they stepped out of their back door, they stepped out into a multimillion-dollar operation.”

“They just aren’t wearing suits and ties,” Quaid adds. His Henry, who’s also a sales rep for a Monsanto-esque seed company, is in constant competition with other salesmen in the area, and he even approaches widows at funerals to make bids on their husbands’ soon-to-be-fallow land — much more Wall Street than Rural Route 17.

“The situation now in farming is get big or get out. Expand or die,” Quaid says. “It used to be a situation where neighbor would help neighbor, but in a way, it’s pitted them against each other. Henry is living in a world that he doesn’t recognize anymore.”

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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Kristen Page-Kirby · May 3, 2013