CIFF's opening night film did not disappoint

Betting The Farm will change how you buy milk in Maine for good
Fri, 09/28/2012 - 12:30pm

    I don't usually go out of my way to watch a film about cows. I'd had a vague understanding beforehand that the story would be about Maine dairy farmers going through hard times. But every industry in this state goes through hard times. In Maine, that's just the way life should be  uh... is.

    Little did I know that my consumer apathy was exactly what had contributed to the heavy strain and strife among a group of Mainers' lives I was about to see up on the big screen.

    Here's the back story: Betting The Farm is the story of a group of Maine dairy farmers who, dropped by their national milk company, are suddenly confronted with the real possibility of losing their farms. Banding together, the farmers launch their own milk company called MOOMilk (Maine's Own Organic Milk).  Farmers Vaughn Chase, Richard Lary, and Aaron Bell, along with their families, struggle to make ends meet as they get the company off the ground. But faced with slow sales and mounting bills, can the farmers hang together long enough for the gamble to pay off? Or will they be left worse off than before?

    Here's the front story: I, and a number of my colleagues, had also recently gotten dropped by the original newspaper Village Soup, when it went dark last March. As a freelancer, I am used to it. It's happened a few times in my career. Like all industries in Maine, there is no guarantee of stability. But you don't whine about it. As Valerie Plame, a former CIA Operations Officer once said: "Life isn't fair. But somehow we always think it should be and are deeply disappointed when things don't pan out as hoped." It isn't fair, but don't let that be your excuse not to stop trying. Instead, use it as a starting point to make something better of your life.

    So right away, the film's got me on this level.  They just got the old "Welcome to Pink Slipville. Population, You" announcement. Independent contractors, small business owners, construction workers, painters, builders, fishermen in Maine — we've all seen this story, too, particlarly in the last 10 years. Now... what are these farmers going to do about it?

    This stoic group of Maine dairy farmers, led by the optimistic and ever-smiling CEO and Chairman, Bill Eldridge, start off with a plan to band together and forge their own path as an independent collective. They'll sell their milk to the Maine people. This is the American Dream!

    So right away, the film's got me on this level. They just got the old 'Welcome to Pink Slipville. Population, You' announcement. Freelancers, construction workers, painters, builders, fishermen in Maine — we've all seen this story, too, particlarly in the last 10 years.

    But if it were that easy, we'd all be happy, clueless millionaires. It's not that easy to get a company off the ground, especially if you've never done it before. That's why there is a built-in lesson to every setback, every conflict and every crushing blow. The dairy farmers have mounting bills, yet, they're still up at four every morning, milking cows, delivering on their product. Yet, the demand for so much product is still not there. And now we start to see the real human side to this story. The husband and wife, who've worked so well together like a well-oiled machine all these years, can't stop fighting. The old friends who've worked alongside one another for years are battling across a conference table over the parity of effort versus promised income. This American Dream starts to look like tattered streamers in the rain the day after the fair left town. The Bangor Hydro Electric disconnection notice sits on a corner of a kitchen table like a curled-up admission of shame. Good families who've always worked hard are having to appeal to the pity of creditors on the phone... and you can see it kills them. As it would kill anyone who is proud, who is works hard and who is loathe to rely on charity. Life is not fair.

    Suddenly, it dawns on me. I am one of the reason these good people are hurting. Once again Camden International Film Festival does it. They bring a documentary to my town, entice me to watch a subject I'm not normally inclined to watch and plunge me into a world of people I'm connected to only by hundreds of miles away. I'm so frugal in the grocery store, always price-checking to keep that grocery bill low on a freelancer's salary. And here's this MOOMilk, that's been sitting there the whole time, while I reach for the less expensive brand. Every time I've made that choice, I've made that husband and wife fight; I've participated in the disconnection notice and I've sold out my own people.

    So that's it then. Whatever it costs. MOOMilk will be in my grocery cart from now on. That is the power of documentary film. For even though life isn't fair, I'm still a sucker for The American Dream.

     Watch the trailer to see a glimpse of the documentary.

    There are so many films and events going on this weekend, stay tuned for more on-the-fly coverage and post your own photos and comments to

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