TOPEKA, Kan. — Fifth-generation Kansan Donn Teske’s commitment to family farm survival and humility inspired by German Lutheran lineage argued against taking part in a documentary capturing adversity of three seemingly divergent middle-class Americans compelled to adapt in a turbulent economy.
Major health complications, staggering business debt and anxiety driven by a duty not to be the generation that failed — common issues faced by aging agriculture producers of the United States — weighed on him.
He subsequently agreed to tell his story in “The Disrupted,” a film by directors Sarah Colt and Josh Gleason about challenge, resilience and the quest for dignity of work by former Ohio factory worker and ex-convict Pete Velez, frustrated Uber driver Cheryl Long in Florida and Teske.
The Teske family’s 900-acre farm of row crops, prairie grass and beef cattle is near Wheaton in Pottawatomie County. It’s on rolling hills settled by ancestors who arrived in Kansas by covered wagon after the Civil War.
“I suppose part of it was vanity, but I would like to think the main reason I made the decision to participate was the fact that this is an important story and it’s not getting enough emphasis,” said Teske, a Kansas Farmers Union leader at ease chomping a cigar and mingling with livestock in the pasture. “By that, I mean the middle class disappearing.”
Colt, recognized for contributions to the PBS series “American Experience,” said the film produced over a three-year period took a dive into lives of Americans unafraid of work, but confronted by unyielding economic forces that fueled the shutdown of manufacturing facilities, the home mortgage meltdown and the drumbeat of weak commodity prices, trade disputes, farm consolidation and ballooning operational debt.
“The idea behind the film was to show we’re more together than in it alone,” she said. “We have a lot more in common than we may realize.”
Filmmakers behind “Disrupted” organized a free public screening Sept. 1 at Boulevard Drive-In Theatre at 1051 Merriam Lane in Kansas City, Kansas. The showing was co-presented by Kansas Rural Center, Missouri Farmers Union, Cultivate KC, Good Natured Family Farms and Kansas Farmers Union.
“Disrupted” has been selected for several film festivals, including Munich DokFest in Germany, MountainFilm in Colorado and Woods Hole in Massachusetts.
It’s the first independent feature documentary by Sarah Colt Productions. She has produced films for PBS, including Emmy and Peabody nominated “Walt Disney,” “Henry Ford,” “The Polio Crusade,” “We Shall Remain” and “The Gilded Age.”
Colt said Long worked in the mortgage industry until that bubble burst a decade ago. In time, she turned to driving for Uber in Florida. It initially paid well, about $1,500 per week, but didn’t last. Decisions by ride-share companies to raise customer prices and diminish payments to drivers led Long to attempt to organize her peers and to protest against an economic formula that didn’t add up for drivers. Long’s work as a driver-for-hire stopped due to spread of Covid-19.
In northern Ohio, Velez lost a 3M production job when the company closed the plant in 2017. He had worked there 11 years. Velez, who had a criminal record and dealt with family conflict during filming, enrolled in a heating and air conditioning training program. His long-term goal was to start his own business. Velez began working for an HVAC company, but was laid off when coronavirus altered business operations. He recently landed a union job, Colt said.
Teske, who had accumulated $300,000 in farm debt, struggled with decisions about whether his children should take over the farm in central Kansas. The financial challenges of that transition rivaled a desire among family members to retain the legacy. Teske had a cancer scare during filming, but underwent successful surgery. He’s continued to advocate for family farmers on the state and national stage.
The farm debt remains, he said, but the operation is “stable.” He said the next hurdle would be the January calf sale, which will measure whether livestock prices have rebounded.
He said he’s received more suicide crisis telephone calls in 2020 from farmers in Kansas than he did in recent years. In June, a team of Kansas State University agricultural economists estimated Kansas net farm income would fall from an average of $110,380 in 2019 to $14,358 in 2020, a decline of 87%.
“You can certainly tell agriculture as a whole in Kansas is pretty insecure right now,” Teske said.
None of the resourceful people featured in the documentary stand on rock-solid ground. Their future isn’t settled.
“It’s not for lack of work. They’re working hard,” Colt said. “This isn’t about politics. It’s about how we live and whether we value our labor and we value people who are working.”
Initially, the project included an Oklahoma teacher and a congressional candidate in Arkansas.
She said work on the documentary began after the 2016 presidential campaign attracted unconventional candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. It was released during a 2020 presidential election in which economic uncertainty tied to COVID-19 marched across a country with escalating wealth disparity.
The entrepreneurial spirit cultivated in the United States has become a double-edged sword for people who can’t stay atop the economic pyramid.
“It’s a wonderful thing in some ways,” Colt said, “but it’s also really destructive.”
Colt said the film demonstrated no single person had the capacity to drive economic evolution capable of touching the lives of Long, Velez and Teske.
“Hopefully, the film will make people want to start getting involved in making change. Whatever that means in terms of recognizing we’re in a very difficult economy despite Wall Street booming, even in the pandemic. Change is needed.”
Tim Carpenter writes for the Kansas Reflector, a nonprofit news operation that covers Kansas state government and politics.