They call them the flyover states for a reason: you ain’t drivin’ through them. As U.S. citizens migrate to either coast, there’s a dwindling population in the middle. Yet it’s these people who supply a significant proportion of the food the coastal populace consumes. Georg Joutras presents life in one of the flyover states in his documentary, Ocean of Grass: Life on a Nebraska Sandhills Ranch.
Joutras spends a year on the McGinn Ranch nestled in the Nebraska Sandhills and is run by fourth-generation ranchers, the McGinn family, who raise and sell livestock for a living. Every year it’s the same process, with each season presenting its own challenges. It all starts in spring when the grass grows, and hay is bailed to sustain the cattle for the other three seasons. Cattle are raised and sold through fall, and then winter comes, and it starts all over again.
The ins and outs of raising cattle are not the prime focus, though. The future of farming in the U.S. is at a precipice. Can family farms continue to exist financially, or will they be sold to corporate agricultural behemoths? The price of land has increased to the point that it’s economically unfeasible to move to Nebraska and start your own farm. You won’t make enough each year to make your inflated mortgage payment. Also, one bad year can spell doom.
In Ocean of Grass, director Joutras simply takes his cameras and introduces us to the people of the Nebraska Sandhills. Despite all the challenges this community faces, they are dedicated to keeping the region afloat economically. Though there are many ranches in the area beyond the McGinn Ranch, these families are there for one another. When one farm needs help, the others are at the ready and vice versa. The same holds true for the nearby town residents, whose livelihoods are just as interdependent on the ranchers as they are on them.
“…the McGinn family, who raise and sell livestock for a living. Every year it’s the same process, with each season presenting its own challenges.”
Of course, living on a ranch is a completely different lifestyle compared to us city folk. For the rancher, their job is 24/7. There’s no holiday when a cow gets sick. Livestock doesn’t care if it’s the weekend when it’s hungry. The land has to be managed day-to-day to remain healthy and robust. Life’s pace in God’s country is slow, steady, and constant. It’s hard not to be attracted to this way of living.
Ocean of Grass is a different kind of documentary. Joutras says about the themes, “I am not necessarily telling a story, I am telling a feeling.” There’s no grand political message here. He simply gives us a taste of life in “the middle.” The 4K footage is breathtaking both on the ground and in the air. No production design can outshine nature.
I suppose one thing that living on a ranch does for you is give you time to think and ponder. The interviews throughout are deep and insightful. The conversation spans the importance of family, hard work, gratitude, community, God, and concern for the future.
Ocean of Grass: Life on a Nebraska Sandhills Ranch is one of those documentaries that shows us that there are vast areas of the United States that do not resemble our lives on the coasts in any way. Texting means talking to someone face to face, and steaming content is getting on a horse and riding across the fields.
For more information, visit the Ocean of Grass official website.
"…4K footage is breathtaking both on the ground and in the air."