By Morgan Schmidt Feng, filmmaker
When I first met Nancy Prebilich and her sister Cindy in northern California at their ranch, I was immediately inspired by their story because it reminded me so much of my mom. When I was a kid, my mom would tell me stories about her mother and her grandparents and what it was like for her to grow up on a farm in Badger, Iowa, a town of 300 people.
Food was made from scratch and the animals you raised were the animals you ate. My ancestors came from Norway to farm in Iowa in the 1860s; they grew corn and raised chickens and pigs. After my mother passed away in 2002, there was no way for me to ask her what day to day life was like, or the details of growing up in a small farming community.
Within a few weeks of meeting Nancy and her family, I began shooting the documentary and gaining a better understanding of the complexities of farming. Every time I would film the family on the ranch, something dramatic would happen.
On the first day of shooting, I was nearly run over by their chicken truck, when a chicken got stuck under the brake pedal and the truck suddenly lunged forward. It was a close call. Another time when the family was trying to herd a mother pig and her piglets, one of the baby pigs began to squeal, and the mother pig became aggressive toward Nancy’s mom.
The emotional intensity of their work and their family relationships—the unpredictability of what would happen from one moment to the next—was like going back in time and experiencing what my mom might have experienced in her own childhood.
Early during the shoot, I went to Badger with my uncle and sister to see where my family had lived, and even though my family didn’t live in Iowa anymore, I could imagine the life they led there. This trip reaffirmed my commitment to tell the story of Gleason Ranch as it unfolded. That was sort of how it all started.
A lot has changed at Gleason Ranch in four years. Death is never something we can predict, and Nancy and Cindy learned that the hard way when—in the span of 6 months—both of their parents suddenly passed. The pain I then witnessed forced me to ask what it means to hold onto your heritage, your way of life, as you watch your closest family members slip away.
This family has taught me a lot throughout the years. First and foremost, farming is incredibly hard work; it’s emotionally taxing and disaster can strike at any moment. And while farming is hard work, so is keeping a family together under the tremendous pressure of such heavy loss and difficult circumstances.
There’s risk at every turn, which was a huge eye-opener for me (how tenuous their life could be). At the same time though, there was an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and camaraderie within the family that remained throughout the adversity and struggle. It’s been nothing short of inspiring to see how much they’ve been willing to do to keep their land and provide for their community.
When I first began this project, I just wanted a sense of the overall experience of working on a family farm. As time passed, this film has become something much bigger and much more personal.
Gleason Ranch: Risking Everything is a documentary film that tells the story of two sisters struggling to hold onto their 5th-generation family ranch after the sudden death of their parents.