Dryland – Documenting the Fight to Preserve Rural Family Farming

Written by Sue Arbuthnot and Richard Wilhelm

When we began filming Dryland, we hoped to craft a short, lighthearted profile of an extreme agri-tourism sport set in the vast, dryland wheat country of Eastern Washington—a combine demolition derby! But this curious feat of “header-to-header combat, high on the fruited plain,” soon revealed an underlying, unsettling tale of American family farms and rural communities struggling to survive in the 21st Century. With advancing technology, uncertain global economics, and looming climate change, the dryland wheat farms in this region seemed marginal despite local farmers’ passion to stay on the land—and we felt compelled to see how these trends would unfold, and if the film’s main character, Josh Knodel, would have to leave his farm.

Over the next ten years, we visited Lind, where Josh and best friend Matt, worked to maintain the legacy of their families’ fourth-generation farms. With the average age of farmers now nearing 60, and with only 1 % of Americans now farming, the hopes seemed slim at best. But each year, Josh, Matt, and the 450 residents of this tiny community rally for one day, taking hulking, out-of-retirement harvesters into the arena to collect money for the town and raise awareness of the importance of local agriculture. Ironically, new combines—more efficient and expensive than a house—reduce the need for labor, and prevent many who’d like to farm from getting a start here. The combine derby takes colorful aim at this paradox, while celebrating this unique slice of rural American culture.

We developed an enduring bond with the families of Lind and with the undulating, green-to-golden swaths of wheat, occasionally broken by the angular lift of a grain elevator, a barn, a church steeple. We share the dream of sustainable agriculture and resilient, thriving rural communities, from which we all learn and gain. The Lind Combine Derby is a glimpse into the way American rural populations are transforming struggle into hope and fighting to preserve a part of our collective heritage.

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