From the opening scene of a train traveling through a barren Kansas landscape and notes from a Neko Case song, the film caught my attention. The film used no narration, so film goers had to watch and listen closely to the characters.
The film depicted blue-collar workers, immigrant meat packing workers, conservative Christians, farmers, and opponents and supporters of abortion, among others. After the December 11 Liberty Hall (Lawrence, KS) screening of documentary film "What's the Matter with Kansas?" based on Thomas Franks' book of the same name, Donn Teske, President of the Kansas Farmers Union, spoke about his role in the film and the future of farming in Kansas. Teske showed both his "Populist without a Party" and tell-it-like-it-is traits during the discussion.
The film followed the book's central theme of politics in Kansas converging towards extreme conservatism despite a distant history of progressive and populist politics. While the film showed some odd moments with the conservative characters, it also let you into their lives to see their pain and problems.
I couldn't help but think that conservative Christians lend their blind support to their leaders, as easily as more moderate Democrats and Republicans do -- both cases lead to the detriment of working people. The film clearly drives this point home when a Christian minister leads several church members to invest heavily in Wild West World theme park near Wichita; the theme park goes bankrupt after two months in operation. However, the film less clearly attributes failed farm and immigration policies to consecutive Democrat and Republican administrations.
After the film, Donn Teske expresses how he's dedicated to protecting Kansas farmers with small and medium-sized farms, not just because he's the president of the farmers union, but because he feels keeping family-owned farms is important to farming traditions. He's miffed by farmers hoping to buy up neighbor's farms instead of retaining ownership within a family. I've seen this same almost predatory acquisition in Dekalb County in Missouri near my father-in-law's 80-acre farm. Teske sees medium-sized farms just "going away" as large farms continue to grow.
Teske expressed concern about the impact of the seed industry monopoly on farmers' ability to prosper, yet was hopeful that Kathleen Merrigan's role with the USDA and J. Dudley Butler's as Stockyards administrator would improve policies for farmers.
In the film Teske describes himself as a former Republican, but currently an independent. He thought government farm programs, while not the best for free market farming were crucial to keeping farmers' livelihoods: "in some cases government payments were the only thing keeping farmers on the land."
He showed his knowledge about the economy by pointing to the widespread use of farm and energy cooperatives as alternatives to existing business models, adding "farm cooperatives are a wonderful model." (KKFI's Heartland Labor Forum radio program had a good discussion of cooperatives on Thursday, December 10.) Teske also described how global warming is impacting Kansas farming, testifying to the US Congress during the film.
While Teske does not describe himself as a progressive, his dedication to helping Kansas farmers and working people breaks the mold of waiting for politicians, giving people a model for grassroots leadership. The film should be applauded for depicting Kansas history, scenes and characters, especially for introducing us to Donn Teske.
YouTube film excerpt: