Salvation in a Bag of Seed - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Salvation in a Bag of Seed

Salvation in a Bag of Seed

By Phat X. Chiem

A farmer silhouetted by the sunset inspects his mature winter wheat crop --- Image by © Dave Reede/AgStock Images/Corbis
SourceDave Reede/Corbis


It takes only 5 minutes for this heartland story to break your heart.

By Phat X. Chiem

A weathered barn rests beneath an impossibly big sky. Young wheat stalks brush in the wind. Hay fields lay silent in the morning mist. In this time and place, in the tiny town of Carrington, North Dakota, Steve Zwinger begins his story.

“You never know what people’s stories are. People that you’ve been around all of the time … I had so many people say to me: ‘It’s just not natural to bury a child.’”

The father, the land, the wheat and the seeds. Each must find a way to survive.

Zwinger is talking about his 14-year-old son, Dylan, who committed suicide. In a quietly powerful short documentary about the organic farmer, we don’t get the how or the why of it. Nor does it matter. We know that a father has lost his teenage son and that the father is an agronomist — a scientist who studies the interaction between crops, soils and ecosystems. He wants to revive ancient strains of wheat that are stronger and healthier than the GMO varieties swamping the market. He works with seeds.

It is this last fact that gives the artful documentary its emotional center. It is a cruel irony that this man whose mission is to nurture the progeny of plants for the benefit of future generations would lose his own son. That point is poignantly made when we learn that a particularly hardy strain of wheat has been named in Dylan’s memory.

“Maybe it’s just another way of hearing his name,” Zwinger says in the film. “Because as parents, we like that.”

Thankfully, the documentary doesn’t dwell on the death. The story focuses instead on what remains: the father, the land, the wheat and the seeds. Each must find a way to survive, even in the most challenging of conditions. For Director/Producer Joe Hubers, Zwinger’s story represents the possibility of finding salvation in our lowest moments, or as he puts it: “Something beautiful can happen through something very painful.” He says he sees this transformation in Zwinger, who is married and has a daughter. The father still has a family to tend to.

“There’s something about going through adversity that breeds patience, understanding and being thoughtful in the moment,” Hubers says. “When you’re talking with Steve, he’s not distracted by other things. He’s connecting with you. There is something very personable about that. Some of these traits he may not have had before going through this experience.”

As much as we might be considered fly-over country, there are fascinating social, geographic and historical contexts …

The Zwinger film is one of 40 documentary shorts that Hubers’ company, Passenger Productions, is producing as part of its partnership with OTA, a collective of creative folks in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota (hence the “OTA”). By facilitating “creative collisions” through conferences and meetups, the group aims to strengthen a somewhat disparate community. Toward that end, Hubers spent some 80 days on the road with his crew to find, interview and film his subjects, each one a unique personality living and working in the Northern Plains.

“As much as we might be considered fly-over country, there are fascinating social, geographic and historical contexts that really can be mined for stories,” says the lifelong Midwesterner. That quest for stories that speak of the heartland rightfully led Hubers to Steve Zwinger, a father remembering his late son.


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