Documentary follows business venture by dairy farmers

The dairy herd at Tide Mill Organic Farm in Edmunds heads out to pasture after milking.
Courtesy of Pull-Start Pictures
The dairy herd at Tide Mill Organic Farm in Edmunds heads out to pasture after milking.
Posted Nov. 28, 2012, at 10:11 a.m.

A group of determined farmers from eastern and northern Maine are following the old dictum of “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Cast off by a big corporation, these farmers are creating a new path by collectively producing their own brand of organic milk. Their efforts have been captured in the documentary “Betting the Farm.”

The documentary, produced by Pull-Start Pictures, has been on a statewide tour with 30 screenings in 21 different towns, and one of its final stops is at 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 1, at the Brewer Performing Arts Center.

Pull-Start’s Jason Mann and Cecily Pingree followed the first 2½ years of Maine’s Own Organic Milk company, or MOO milk, as eight farmers, whose contracts for organic milk weren’t renewed by H.P. Hood, worked to launch the new company as a way of getting a sustainable price for their product.

“Betting the Farm” is a spin-off of “Meet the Farmers,” a series of short films that the pair did for a non-profit called Maine Farmland Trust.

While filming that series, they met Aaron Bell and Carly DelSignore, who had built a diverse operation at their Tide Mill Farm in Edmunds by raising, marketing, selling ,and distributing their own vegetables, meat, and raw milk.

In passing, Bell mentioned how his contract for organic milk had not been renewed by Hood and how he and several other farmers similarly affected were planning to start their own company to distribute their milk.

That’s when Mann and Pingree realized they had the makings for a new documentary, Mann recalled.

“That night, we decided, ‘That sounds like an amazing story, if they can pull it off,’ “ he said in a phone interview.

Soon thereafter, Mann and Pingree met with Bill Eldridge, the new company’s CEO. He invited them to one of the company’s initial board meetings. It was there that they met the two other farmers, in addition to Bell, that their film would focus upon: Vaughn Chase of Mapleton and Richard Lary of Clinton.

Over the next two-plus years, the filmmakers traveled to board meetings and talked to the farmers and their families, as the fledgling company, working with a shoestring budget, dealt with hurdle after hurdle. By the end of “Betting the Farm,” the outcome of success or failure remains in doubt.

“Betting the Farm” has been well received in the film world. It was selected for the prestigious AFI/Discovery Channel Silverdocs and Doc NYC documentary festivals and won the 2012 Audience Award at the Camden International Film Festival. But as, if not more, important has been the reaction of Mainers as the film tours the state.

“To be accepted by great festivals is something we greatly appreciate,” Mann said. “The reaction has been really gratifying and humbling.

“Bringing it back here for a Maine audience is a really different thing,” he continued. “It’s much more rewarding to tell this story to Mainers. The reaction has been very positive. People like the film and care about the story and the farmers. It reminds them of our roots in the state, and they feel a personal connection to the story.”

Things are looking up for the farmers and MOO milk, which is available at Shaw’s and Hannaford stores in Maine. The product’s introduction into stores in Massachusetts, especially organic giant Whole Foods, led to a spike in sales last spring. They’re selling enough milk that they need to add new farms.

“They’ve reached a level of stability now, and they’re now working to grow their sales, to reach the break-even point,” Mann explained.

Mann downplayed the film’s role in MOO Milk’s growth.

“There’s no substitute for word of mouth,” he said. “The company has no advertising budget, so hopefully this helps to build that word of mouth. We hope this film has exposed people to this product. We’ll be very happy if this does anything to help the farmers.”

Tickets for the Bangor/Brewer screening are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/292498.

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