Film Review: ‘The Soul of a Farmer’: Chef-Turned-Farmer Raises the Bar on Growing Perfect Food

By Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
November 26, 2021 Updated: November 26, 2021

Some folks live to eat. Others eat to live. I’m not a foodie, but after listening to a foodie client’s enthusiastic descriptions of his gustatory creations for almost 20 years, I learned to appreciate what goes into gourmet-level food prep. What 20 years of recipe cheerleading did for my cooking appreciation, “The Soul of a Farmer”—a tiny gem of a farming documentary—did for my appreciation of food growing, in 32 minutes.

This little film is a labor of love by Peabody Award-winning director Roger Sherman as well as a bow in gratitude to farming. It’s inspiring to see someone as passionately in love with their job as the titular farmer Patty Gentry is. It’s a calling for her. We should all be so lucky.

I give it 5 out of 5 stars because Gentry grows 5-star vegetables at her 3-acre Early Girl Farm in Brookhaven, Long Island, and it’s clear that in her previous career as a chef, if she hadn’t already achieved a 5-star Michelin rating—she would have eventually nailed it. She has the fire, the inspiration, dedication, integrity, talent, ambition, and deep reserves of willpower.

Farm Appreciation

Actually, I’d already appreciated farming. Here’s why: Those who attended Rudolf Steiner’s Waldorf schools in the late 1960s (with a parent on the faculty) were privy to spiritual esoterica that had long been considered the secret of secrets. Like, say, reincarnation and chakras. In 2021, you see chakras adorning the yoga attire of suburban housewives.

The same goes for Steiner’s invention of biodynamic farming. In the ’60s, it was esoteric, but Waldorf students knew all about it. Now, you’ll see at least two biodynamic farm stands at New York City’s Union Square farmers market. That’s all to say, I was wondering if Patty Gentry was going to mention biodynamic farming at any point during the film. Yes she does. Biodynamic farming is about farmers learning to work in conjunction with the fairies. Yes. Fairies. Faeries. More on that later.

Early Girl Farm

two women in greenhouse in THE SOUL OF A FARMER
Isabella Rossellini (L) and Patty Gentry in the greenhouse at Early Girl Farm in “The Soul of a Farmer.” (Florentine Films/Sherman Pictures)

The landlady of this farmlet is none other than movie star and activist Isabella Rossellini, daughter of the legendary Ingrid Bergman, who speaks to the perfectionist standards of her tenant, relating that Farmer Gentry encourages Rossellini to feed the farm’s excess (garbage) to her various animals. Rossellini happily complies, but not without foraging through it herself first. She knows that Patty throws out produce that’s not 100 percent perfect in every regard, namely fresh, flavorful, and visually aesthetic—veggies most farmers would sell in a heartbeat.

Basically, the documentary deconstructs any naive romantic notions we might have had about organic farm-to-table food. It confirms what we suspected all along: that the lovely smelling, fresh produce bought directly from organic and biodynamic farmers driving down from rustic upstate farms in cozy-looking loaded pickup trucks to urban farmers markets is the result of work, writ large. Bone-wearying, butt-busting, backbreaking work.

“To make a healthy living, all you need is three acres,” says Gentry cheerily. However, it took her 10 long years to be able to make that claim. After a two-decade career as a chef, Gentry started providing farm-to-table produce to local Long Island restaurants, such as Beth’s Café in Quogue, via a farm stand. Only recently has she been able to make a financial breakthrough.

And even now, Gentry continues to live more of a classic starving-artist type of existence. If it weren’t for her partner providing financial support, as Gentry says, “I would probably still be farming, but I would most likely be living out of the back of my truck.” Small wonder that Rossellini calls Patty “the Picasso of vegetables.” Make no mistake about it: Patty Gentry is a true artist in every regard.

We watch her and her minimalist, all-female work crew bust their humps like plow horses, sunup to sundown, 24/7, growing juicy, crunchy, blissfully fragrant, work-of-art-colorful vegetables for her gourmet chef clients. She tailors, customizes, and aligns her vegetal offerings with lists of clients’ menus that she keeps in her head. What’s captivating is that, at one point, she claims that the staggering amount of work actually energizes her. That’s something that never gets old to witness.

It’s All About the Soil

Just like potters live for finding good sources of clay, farmers live to discover ways to improve their soil—how to get more of that ideal, loamy, black, earthworm heaven that exponentially increases veggie yield. As Patty says, the soil tells a story through the plant. “It takes guts to let the plants speak to you. In modern agricultural practices, these plants are never allowed to tell their story. They’re being doused with pesticides and herbicides—we don’t want to hear from them. And consequently we’re being served a product that is dangerous for us, and vacuous of any nutrients.” 

As director Sherman relates in his own review of his movie: “It is the way she deals with the many setbacks Patty faces that makes her story so captivating. Early in the film, she tells us that to improve her soil, she spread 15 tons of basalt [volcanic rock dust] on her three acres, ‘by hand.’ But it didn’t help.”

The biodynamic reference comes when Patty tells the story of trying to fight a blight of bugs, and how she’d asked a biodynamic farmer if she could buy some of his tincture. He wouldn’t sell her any. He told her that it wasn’t a fight—the bugs arrive to tell the farmer that they’ve still got work to do. This is where “The Soul of a Farmer” covers the same ground (and just as delightfully) as “The Biggest Little Farm” in terms of revealing the exquisite wisdom of nature. Both films are about neophyte farmers learning by trial and error.

She names her various plants, which, like children, have different personalities and nutrition needs. She also keeps in her head what can only be described as a taste version of a photographic memory or perfect pitch, which sets the zenith taste standard she’d like to consistently cultivate. Talk about raw talent—that’s like a farmer version of Mozart’s renowned ability to hear some other composer’s brand new concerto and go home and play it flawlessly on the piano.

As we know by now, the most fulfilling types of work are done in service of something greater than ourselves. How’s this for inspiring: “Every time I plant a seed, I relive a dish I’ve eaten. I think of each person [restaurant chefs and member of the CSA] as I cut their vegetables.”

Things Get a Bit Easier

As she approached 50, Patty realized that she no longer had, as she put it, “the energy to waste energy.” Realizing that something had to change, she implemented a series of infrastructure improvements and streamlined her entire farming approach, the most effective aspect of which is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSA provides local families with weekly shares of produce. Everyone buys a share in the farm and pays in advance, which is not the case with restaurants.

We see a festive gathering with tents, and Patty addressing CSA members on the microphone while Isabella Rossellini is out parking cars. Members with children in tow walk about the farm, selecting their own herbs, while Patty dispenses master-level cooking wisdom. As she says: “The CSA is so joyful and feels effortless. People are happy to try anything. This week I had a ton of long beans on the chefs’ list but no one bought them. So, I have enough to give each CSA member almost a pound of these magnificent beans.”

Backbreaking work still energizes Patty, but the constant financial struggle depletes her. Can CSA rescue Early Girl Farm? It’d be a tragedy if it didn’t. In director Sherman’s own words:

“What separates Patty from most other farmers, I believe, is that she is sustained by the poetic magic of farming. Every Saturday at daybreak, she writes a heartfelt, lyrical letter to her CSA members. Reading a portion of one letter, which ends the film, she begins, ‘I want you to know we think about you all week and anticipate with joy your arrival at the farm on Saturday mornings. …’ She describes the wonderful bounty they’re soon to receive, sharing ideas of how to cook—and think about—her vegetables. This week’s hopeful sign-off: ‘Like a rose under the April snow, Patty.’

“As in all of my social-issues films, I was attracted to Patty Gentry’s story because it represents a crucial issue in America today: the survival of small independent farmers. At a time when organic, sustainable, farming has become so valued, delivering on that promise is increasingly challenged. In a cinema verité style, Patty shows us how difficult farming is and how much she loves it. She’s smart, engaging, articulate, self-deprecating, and funny.

“I believe Patty’s story will move people. It will open their eyes to the struggles of small American farmers, and how crucial they are to sustaining our environment.”

Roger Sherman funded the film entirely by himself.

SOUL OF A FARMER
Farmer Patty Gentry and director Roger Sherman, who funded the film. (Florentine Films/Sherman Pictures)

Village Doctor

My feeling about Patty Gentry is that she’s got more than a little of the Village Doctor of old about her. She’s a community healer: healing the land, the plants, and the people. Souls like this usually continue to expand on their wisdom and improve situations they come in contact with.

I’d love to see a follow-up film, “The Spirit of a Farmer,” which chronicles Patty’s eventual, inevitable, deeper forays into biodynamic farming and working in conjunction with her garden fairies to produce even more magical food. Think magical is too strong a word? Check out the story of Findhorn, the farm in Scotland where the farmers figured out how to talk to the fairies who, demonstrating what they were capable of, grew Volkswagon-bug-sized cabbages and telephone-pole-sized carrots. Well maybe not quite that big, but still—huge. 

As Paul Simon sang, “These are the days of miracles and wonder.” A woman like Patty Gentry is someone to watch. Times are strange now; most likely they’ll get stranger. Local farming will become more and more important in days to come.

“The Soul of a Farmer,” currently streaming on Apple TV, iTunes, and Vimeo.

‘The Soul of a Farmer’
Documentary
Director: Roger Sherman
Running Time: 32 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 19, 2021
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.