About The Film
A group of Maine dairy farmers—dropped by their national milk company—launch their own milk company in a bid to save their farms. Owned by the farmers and committed to paying a sustainable price for their milk, the company offers hope for the future of small farming. But faced with slow sales and mounting bills, can the farmers hang together long enough for the gamble to pay off?
BETTING THE FARM is a verité documentary that follows three farmers—Aaron Bell, Vaughn Chase, and Richard Lary—and their families through the tumultuous first two years of MOO Milk. With intimate access to their triumphs and disappointments, the film gives audiences a rare glimpse at the real lives of American farmers at a crossroads.
We’ve been working on BETTING THE FARM for almost three years, during which time we’ve developed a profound appreciation for the difficulty of dairy farming—even in the best of times—and for the value of small farms to our community. We set out to tell a story that seemed simple: would the business thrive or fail? But we wound up with a story that was about the farmers themselves, and their perseverance, the persistence of hope, and solidarity.
In late 2009, we were shooting a series of short films about Maine farmers for a non-profit called Maine Farmland Trust. One of our subjects was Tide Mill Farm, where a young, charismatic couple named Aaron Bell & Carly DelSignore had built a breathtakingly diverse farm operation. They raised, marketed, sold, and distributed their own vegetables, meat, raw milk, and more, all while raising three children.
In addition to their own products, the Bells were one of three small farms in Washington County that produced organic milk for H.P. Hood. As we talked with Aaron, though, he told us that he was in the final weeks of his contract with Hood—and they’d recently informed him that it would not be renewed. In fact, because of the cost of trucking small quantities of milk from remote parts of Maine to its central processing facility in New York, Hood had dropped a total of 10 small farms in northern and eastern Maine, none of whom would be able to find another organic buyer for their milk. But, according to Aaron, those farmers did have a plan: they were going to start a new company—owned by the farmers and dedicated to paying them a sustainable price for their milk—and they hoped to have it up and running by Christmas.
From that one conversation in Aaron’s milk room, we knew an interesting story had fallen right in our laps. Little did we know that the milk wouldn’t be on store shelves by Christmas, or that the quest for a viable market for the farmers would take years—exacting an emotional and financial toll in the process.
A few weeks later, we met Bill Eldridge, the new company’s CEO. He invited us to come to one of the company’s very first board meetings, where we met the two other farmers on the board with Aaron: Richard Lary and Vaughn Chase. In a matter of three weeks, we’d met every one of our main characters, and begun to shoot in earnest.
Over the next two and half years, we traveled to nearly every board meeting, watching as Vaughn, Aaron, and Richard, together with their families and the staff of MOO Milk, struggled to launch a business on a shoestring budget, with no room for error. And as one hurdle after another appeared, each more threatening than the last, we wondered whether the company would ever really be able to reach the point of breaking even.
As we spent more time with each of these families, in their homes and barns, in their trucks and tractor cabs, we realized that the story was about much more than whether the company would succeed: the real question was why these farmers would be willing to risk so much to make it work. When they could easily be left worse off than when they were dropped by Hood, why continue sacrificing their own financial well being to save MOO Milk?
The answer lay in the company itself: If MOO Milk can be successful, while paying 90% of its profits back to the farmers who own the company, it will serve as a powerful model; small farms are not necessarily doomed to be crushed by their larger, more efficient competition if they can band together in new ways. And, as has been the case with MOO, consumers will be willing to pay more for the products of small farms if they know that premium will help to preserve something precious.
The promise of MOO Milk for consumers is twofold: an opportunity to support farmers that are both local and small-scale. For farmers like Vaughn, Aaron, and Richard, though, it is something much greater: the opportunity to leave the next generation of small-scale farmers with a viable, long-term market for their milk. If it succeeds over the long-term, MOO Milk will have restored for these families what was once the promise of every farm generation to the next: a stable, healthy living for those willing to do the work.