'The Moo Man' casts light on challenges facing small dairies

Feb 20, 2013

A still from 'The Moo Man,' showing Steve Hook and some of the  Holstein-Friesian cows in his herd.
A still from 'The Moo Man,' showing Steve Hook and some of the Holstein-Friesian cows in his herd.
Credit Courtesy of Trufflepig Films

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Festival.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

A new documentary is casting light on the hard work and passion needed  to run a viable small family dairy. The film, called “The Moo Man,” will be screened at this year’s True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Mo.

Those who can get a seat to see “The Moo Man” at True/False or in theaters when it's released later this year will be transported to Hook & Son, a dairy that sits in the middle of the lush green marshes of southeast England. During the 97-minute film, the audience learns how its organic raw milk is produced by Steve Hook and his 70 dappled Holstein-Friesian cows.

As we follow Hook around the farm, it quickly becomes clear that the job of a dairyman requires plenty of overtime. Hours are spent milking cows, putting the herd out to graze, mopping the milking parlor clean of manure, delivering bull and heifer calves, bottling milk and dropping it off at customers’ doors. In a poignant scene towards the end of the film, Hook spends what seems like an inordinate amount of time given his many other responsibilities tending to Ida, a cow he calls the “Queen of the Herd,” after she’s gotten gravely ill from eating a strip of wire. Hook also reveals that his milk costs the dairy more to produce than it actually brings in. By the time the credits roll, we understand the full weight of his words and just how risky running a small family dairy can be.

The directors of “The Moo Man,” Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier, spent four years making the documentary. I called the filmmakers, along with Steve Hook, and spoke to them in Berlin a few minutes before the European premiere of the film.

How did you find the subject of your film?

Heike Bachelier: Basically, we ordered Steve’s milk. We got a leaflet through the door, which said we could order raw milk, and we were really curious. So we ordered the milk and got the bottles delivered to the door.  And the bottles have little pictures of the cows on them and also stories on the cows and we found that very intriguing. So one day, I arranged for Andy and me a visit to the farm and Steve showed us around for quite a long time. And when we left the farm, we knew this would be our next film.

Why did you set out to make this film?

Andy Heathcote: The intention was always [to profile] a small family farm. But initially what drew us to Steve was the fact that he was doing raw milk as a way for his dairy to survive and we thought that was going to be the main thrust of the story. But then as his relationship to the animals became clearer and clearer and we kind of realized how special that was. Then the emphasis of the film slowly shifted towards that ... 

I mean we were always aware that Steve seemed like quite a special farmer with a very interesting, probably unusually old fashioned, traditional kind of farm in a way, and there were questions where you’d think, like, ‘Can this kind of farm still survive?’ and ‘Will Steve, kind of, make it?’ These were the initial dramatic questions. But then it got more personal as we realized what kind of characters cows actually have.

What do you hope your audience will take away from the film?

Bachelier: Family farms are so much in our heads, you know, we kind of grow up with them. And for me to visit the farm and see this kind of fantastic lifestyle and the lovely farm and the nice cows and to hear at the same time that this kind of style of farm is about to disappear from our world, I thought was really shocking. So basically, we wanted to show this world but at the same time, make people aware that this lifestyle is going to disappear.

Heathcote: Support your local farmer, buy local.

Farmer Steve Hook: The only way that people can really get to know what they’re eating is to go back to the primary producer, as Andy said, ‘Buy local from your local farmer,’ and that will do two things: It will improve your own nutrition because you’ll know what you’re eating, and also it will support your own rural economy, the landscape around you. And people want to reconnect with their farmers, with where their food comes from. I think people are beginning to ask those questions. And I think that this film encourages people to do that.

"The Moo Man" will be screened at the True/False Film Fest on March 1, 2 and 3. Trufflepig Films plans to announce an official U.S. release date for the film soon. In the meantime, you can watch a clip from the film here: 

THE MOO MAN clip2 by TrufflepigFIlms from Trufflepig Films on Vimeo.

The audio for my interview with filmmakers Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier, and dairyman Steve Hook will air on Friday as part of the Harvest Public Media series Field Notes.