At first glance, “The Last Barn Dance” seems like a straightforward documentary of a vanishing way of life. The film follows Randy Lewis, a fifth-generation dairy farmer in Alamance County, as he battles a tidal wave of negative economic trends to keep his farm going. The communal square dances that Lewis holds in his barn seem like just another signifier of old ways that are about to disappear.
But the story isn’t that simple, because Lewis isn’t hemmed in by old ways. In fact, as shown in “The Last Barn Dance” – a beautifully shot 32-minute documentary that two former News & Observer photojournalists, Ted Richardson and Jason Arthurs, made on a self-financed $50,000 budget – Lewis embraces change. Over the course of “The Last Barn Dance,” Lewis tries everything from starting a milk-bottling operation to renting a cow to an Indian couple for a Hindu housewarming.
Anything to make ends meet.
“Randy’s consciousness goes well beyond the farm,” Richardson said of Lewis. “When we first started talking about doing this, he told me, ‘I’m the oldest 50-year-old you’ll ever meet,’ because he lives in the past. But that’s not true. He really thinks outside the box.”
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“He’s a great spokesman for a way of life because he bridges this gap between living relic and progressive forward thinker,” added Arthurs. “Most dairy farmers would not be able to do that.”
Sunday night, the barn-dance scene of Lewis’ farm will move to Saxapahaw’s Haw River Ballroom for a screening of “The Last Barn Dance.” Doc Branch band, the old-time group in the film, will also perform.
This is the North Carolina public premiere of “The Last Barn Dance,” but the film has already won awards at festivals as far away as California. Lewis accompanied the filmmakers to the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, Calif. (which was his first time in a plane since the 1980s), and he was as big a hit as the film about him.
Asked his reaction to seeing himself onscreen, Lewis laughed.
“When I think about movie screens, it’s people like Humphrey Bogart or Samuel L. Jackson, not me,” Lewis said. “I might be the red-headed stepchild of the movie industry. But I’ve been kind of shocked at the reception because I can’t imagine my life would be of interest to anybody, since it’s the same thing day in and day out. But evidently it is. Maybe people have gotten so far from their cultural roots, if they ever had any, that wanting to work on a farm instead of getting off it to go someplace else is a novel idea.”
‘A slow, steady bleeding’
Now 54 years old, Lewis looks as if he could have stepped right out of a sepia-toned Civil War photo. He’s spent his whole life in Alamance County, working on a family farm that goes back to his great-great-grandfather.
Lewis owns 110 acres, rents another 100 and keeps about 150 cows on the Ran-Lew Dairy Farm in the town of Eli Whitney. The barn, site of the square dances, was built in 1943. And as much as Lewis loves the music and the dancing, he loves being around his beloved cattle even more.
“I love cows,” he says at one point in the film. “I think like a cow.”
“The Last Barn Dance” began taking shape in 2004, when Richardson was a photographer at the Winston-Salem Journal. On assignment to shoot pictures of the Doc Branch Band for a feature, he photographed them playing one of Lewis’ barn dances and enjoyed the scene enough to keep coming back.
Eventually, Lewis asked if Richardson would shoot some photos and video of the dances, which he did. In the process, Richardson got interested in more of the story than just the night-time scene in the barn.
“The themes beyond the dances were more interesting to me as a journalist,” Richardson said. “The wider story was about the farm and the industry and threats to the farm’s existence.”
The biggest obstacle for farmers at Lewis’ level is scale. It’s almost impossible for smaller operations to compete with corporate agribusiness, which is why independent farms have been disappearing. At one time there were 80 dairy farms in Alamance County, and that figure was down to 11 when Richardson and Arthurs began filming “The Last Barn Dance” in 2012.
“A lot of things have conspired to make it very hard for small dairies,” said Jean Willoughby, a project director at Pittsboro-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). “The biggest is cost-production difficulties. High grain prices can make it cost more to produce a gallon of milk than they can sell it for.”
Another whammy was the big recession that began in 2008. Lewis lost an estimated $150,000 in the two years following the recession, and “The Last Barn Dance” shows him still trying to pick up the pieces.
“We’ve at least stopped the hemorrhaging,” Lewis said. “But it’s still a slow, steady bleeding. I think it’s picking up. But we’ve seen some really dark days where we fell so far behind, it will take a while to catch back up. The potential’s there; we’ve just got to survive long enough to get it done.”
‘It’s my life’
To that end, “The Last Barn Dance” shows Lewis’ attempts to begin bottling and selling milk under his own brand, rather than to other producers. Funded by a RAFI grant, Lewis bought the equipment – and endured endless headaches trying to assemble it and get the whole thing off the ground.
But it finally came together. Today, you can find non-homogenized, old-fashioned cream-top milk with the Ran-Lew Dairy label at area outlets including the Saxapahaw General Store and various Weaver Street Market locations. Lewis sells direct to restaurants for cooking, too, and just added buttermilk to the product line. He’s also planning to expand into yogurt.
“The Last Barn Dance” follows Lewis’ struggles and triumphs, with lots about the gritty side of farming. One particularly difficult scene involves the fate of a cow with a broken leg (spoiler alert: You’ll probably want to cover the eyes of any children watching).
Through it all, the gregarious Lewis has emerged as a star both on and off the screen. At the American Documentary Festival in California, people were tweeting pictures of themselves with him.
Then there was a recent dinner at a restaurant in Raleigh, after Richardson and Arthurs screened the film for some donors. Lewis told their table’s waitress about the film, and soon had an audience of every other server in the place. They watched the movie trailer on a computer in the kitchen and came back to pepper Lewis with questions.
“Randy became very interested in the process of filmmaking, which he really came to love,” said Arthurs. “He’s almost as much of a producer of ‘The Last Barn Dance’ as we were. He also owns a portion of the film. We thought that was important, having him still own his story.”
Hollywood or no, the barn dances will go on for at least the foreseeable future. As a title, “The Last Barn Dance” isn’t literal so much as symbolic of the idea that nothing is certain and the end may be in sight.
Meanwhile, almost every day you can still find Lewis tending to his livestock. As Richardson points out, there are a lot of “tourism farms” with pumpkin patches, strawberry picking, hayrides and so forth around here. But Lewis’ operation is an actual working farm, with all its real-life ups and downs.
“It’s a hard time,” Lewis said. “Every small business is fighting the same battle, especially in agriculture. Whether you’re blowing up balloons or whatever, economies of scale are set up to where the small guy’s behind the eight ball. It’s my life, though, just every day for me. It ain’t always been this hard, but it sure has the last few years.”
To see the film
What: “The Last Barn Dance” premiere, featuring Doc Brand Band
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Haw River Ballroom, 1711 Saxapahaw Bethlehem Church Road, Saxapahaw
Details: 336-525-2314 or hawriverballroom.com
A portion of the proceeds from Sunday’s screening will go to the Megan Mann Riggans and Will Riggans Memorial Scholarship Endowment in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The endowment will provide scholarships for undergraduate students from North Carolina enrolled in agricultural programs at N. C. State, N.C. A&T or Virginia Polytechnic Institute. “The Last Barn Dance” is dedicated to Megan, who was Lewis’ niece. She and Will, her son, both died from injuries sustained in a 2012 car accident during the film’s production.