Middlebury farmer Doug Butler is the subject of the documentary “Underdog,” a film that comes to Brattleboro on Feb. 28 as part of a nationwide tour.
Courtesy of Mosaic Films
Middlebury farmer Doug Butler is the subject of the documentary “Underdog,” a film that comes to Brattleboro on Feb. 28 as part of a nationwide tour.

Forces beyond control

A new film, ‘Underdog,’ follows a farmer from Middlebury in pursuit of a dream — while highlighting the vulnerability of Vermont dairy farms and the stress on the families who run them

A new documentary film, Underdog, comes to the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro on Wednesday, Feb. 28 to shine a light on one Vermont dairy farmer and his struggle to survive during these challenging times.

As described by the filmmakers, in the film, "a quixotic Vermont dairy farmer risks losing the only home he's ever known to chase his dreams of dog mushing in Alaska. In the era of the pandemic, the resonance of Doug [Butler]'s journey extends to all who have faced down loneliness, isolation, and the struggle to make sense of forces beyond control."

In many ways, the story of Butler, a family farmer in Middlebury, echoes the reality of the dairy industry in Vermont as a whole, and in Windham County, whose 45 dairy farms counted in 1997 dwindled to 23 by 2017. As of last year, 18 dairy farms remain in business here.

"It's an unfortunate reality that small family dairy farms in Vermont have been becoming less of a viable business for so long, really to no fault of the farmers," filmmaker Tommy Hyde, 31, told The Commons.

"There is such a loss of culture, knowledge, and economic activity when family dairies leave our Vermont towns and the industry consolidates on mega-farms in the Midwest and California," he said.

Film with a cause

During a recent phone call with Hyde, he said that he got his "Vermont fix" early and that he has always been interested in dairy farms in the state since he was a child visiting Ferrisburgh.

"I grew up in the suburbs of New York and would spend the summer in Vermont with my grandma, who lived down the road from a dairy farm," he said, adding that he "was always fascinated by the place."

"Addison County Field Days might as well have been on a different planet," he continued, saying that "over the years Vermont came to feel like home to me."

Hyde graduated in 2015 from Middlebury College, where he studied architecture. He also worked at Basin Harbor, a resort and hotel on Lake Champlain, for many years, and he attended and later worked at Camp Keewaydin on Lake Dunmore in Salisbury.

At Middlebury, "I had an amazing teacher named Pete Lourie, freshman year, who taught this class 'Adventure Writing and Digital Storytelling,'" Hyde said. "It was great, because it popped the college bubble and encouraged kids to get out in the community."

The professor told him about a dairy farmer who had a few sled dogs.

Hyde and his "project buddy," Tito Heiderer, who would become the composer of Underdog, went to visit Doug Butler at his farm, Cobble Hill Dairy, on the outskirts of town.

"Doug, without hesitating, gave us a tour of the entire farm, and he also got us working and covered in cow manure in about two hours," said Hyde with a laugh.

Butler "thought he scared us off, and then next day we showed up in 'farmer jumpsuits.' I found out later that they were called 'coveralls,'" Hyde continued.

"The class ended, but Doug and I stayed friends." he said. "And I had just had a camera there from day one."

Over the course of the next nine years, a unique relationship developed and a filming style emerged which Hyde calls "fly-on-the-wall, or cinema vérité."

"At times I'd blur into the background, in others I would drop the camera to pitch in on the farm," Hyde said. "Along the way, Doug would confide in me things he hadn't shared to anyone but his dogs."

As described in the film's publicity, Butler was "keenly aware of the fate of the other family farms that used to dot the landscape."

"Doug has managed for years to play one creditor off against the next to survive another season," the description continues. "But with the accumulated debt now insurmountable and Doug's thoughts plunging into depression and suicide, his dogs offer solace."

What happened during Hyde's filming came as a surprise to all parties involved.

"Doug and I went to Alaska!" Hyde said, describing the trip - Butler's longtime dream - as "quite the experience, quite the roller coaster."

Hyde had kept filming Butler "sporadically over the course of many years. "Rather slowly, I learned how to capture what I was seeing, and I learned about his dream of going to race in Alaska," he said.

Along the way, the filmmaker learned that Berman "hadn't left the farm for more than five days in his entire life!"

"It just struck me for someone who gets so excited about small things," Hyde said. "For someone who spreads so much joy in their everyday life, what would it look like if his biggest dream came true? That was the seed for the whole project."

Hyde reached out to a local nonprofit, the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, which believed in his project and helped him and the local community raise over $10,000 to send Butler to Alaska.

"I started following Doug to dog races, and because Doug's schedule was so crazy on the farm I decided to just visit every Tuesday. I would just go down with a camera. Most of what you see in the film just happened on Tuesdays. I got better at filming and started to blend into the wallpaper," Hyde recalled.

The duo drove from Middlebury to Fairbanks in a truck that already had 350,000 miles on it, with 22 dogs and "a total hodgepodge" of borrowed and rented filmmaking gear that Hyde accumulated as he "pieced together gas money for the project."

"We only broke down three times, and it took us 10 days," Hyde said, reporting that they "hit some serious blizzards in the Dakotas but otherwise the weather cooperated."

"When you take a long drive you can get deep with people in different ways," he said. "I kept the camera trained on Doug, and we just chatted for much of the trip."

Hyde credited Aaron Wolf as "a key collaborator" who served as a fellow writer and producer on the project, "as well as a mentor for a young filmmaker like myself."

"With his expertise and the backing of his production company Mosaic Films, we were able to transform hundreds of raw hours of footage into the feature film audiences are resonating with today," Hyde said.

There for the asking

The sort of emotional turmoil captured in Underdog is not surprising to members of Farm First, an organization whose peer-to-peer program can give a farmer support from someone who has been there and who understands.

The filmmakers point out a stark statistic: Suicides among farmers are 1.5 times higher than the national average.

"Farming is constantly in a state of change, something we farmers are more than used to. Nowadays, these changes seem to be coming in a swifter more complicated manner. Simply put, it can be downright overwhelming," said Alicia Jenks, owner of Green Dragon Farm in Weathersfield, Vermont, who is part of the peer network.

For more than a decade, Farm First has been helping Vermont Farmers - from dairy farmers to fruit and veggie growers to farms that are diversifying and everything in between.

"For me, being a farmer peer is being available as a friend, a listening ear, a resource person, there for the asking if the need arises," Jenks said.

"I have lived and worked on a farm for four years," she said.

"These issues, as they have been reoccurring over years, if not decades, has taken an emotional toll on our farm families; this stress and burden has caused some families to give up farming as a life choice," said Leanne Porter, manager at Farm First.

"What was a family tradition has become a family liability," Porter added.

"The more we help farmers lower their stress and pay attention to their own well-being, the safer our farms will be," she said. "It is an isolating profession with long hours and so much unpredictability."

When asked what needs to happen to help Vermont Dairy farmers, Hyde was quick to reply.

"Connecting farmers with other farmers is key," he said. "Because sometimes it takes a farmer to understand the difficulties of another farmer - the peer to peer network [of Farm First] is doing incredible work, trying to expand it in the Northeast."

He also points out the "big farm bill coming up in Washington," legislation that customarily reauthorizes spending on federal farm subsidies and programs to support agriculture in the United States. The current farm bill was passed in 2018 and extended last year. Funding expires in September.

"I think the hope is nationally that there can be progress and funding on resources like this," Hyde said.

In the meantime, the film is putting farmers and their financial and emotional well-being in the spotlight.

"We hope farmers will continue to realize that reaching out for help is good for their farms, their families, and their communities," Porter said.

She suggests that farmers visit farmfirst.org to connect to all of Farm First's resources, which, in addition to the peer support network, offers free short-term solution-based counseling for farmers and their families.

Farmers can also call 802-318-5538 to reach the Farm First resource coordinator or leave a message. They can call 877-493-6216 to speak with someone immediately around the clock.

"During the pandemic, the challenges Doug faces in the film - isolation, loneliness and the forces beyond his control - are all relevant to us after that experience. There is this universal truth that Doug is tapping into!" Hyde said.

"That we are hoping to get in front of as many people as possible. It is striking a chord which is so exciting [as we] try to harness that momentum," he continued.

Hence, the tour of 23 free screenings across the country.

Vermont Public is helping to organize the five-town tour of this free film screening in the state, where it will also play in Greensboro, Montpelier, Middlebury, and Burlington.

In Brattleboro, Hyde and Jenks will speak after the film in a discussion moderated by Vermont Public's southern Vermont reporter, Howard Weiss-Tisman.

"One of our missions is to amplify other storytellers in our community," says Amy Zielinski, senior event producer at Vermont Public, who called Underdog "beautifully crafted."

'Drink more milk'

One longtime Windham County resident with experience with the state's farming challenges is former Gov. Peter Shumlin (D-Vt.), who observed in an email to The Commons that, "as you know, dairy farmers in Windham County are few and far between."

"We have far fewer farmers farming more and more acreage," continued Shumlin, a longtime Putney resident who now lives in Westminster West. "In other words, the same land that was farmed by several dozen farmers when I was a kid is now farmed by the Goodells, with large equipment - an industrial farm model, where the cattle never graze."

Shumlin pointed out that "it's not that the farmland is not being used. It is. Arguably, it's more valuable than ever. But you need hundreds and hundreds of milking cows to survive."

The Goodell family owns and operates Westminster Farms on Route 5, the biggest dairy farm in Windham County. It does have hundreds and hundreds of cows - 1,400 Holstein cattle.

Shawn Goodell, 48, told The Commons by phone that his father, Clayton, bought the farm in 1978. Today, its 20 employees farm 1,500 to 1,600 acres of land in Windham County.

Other family members working on the farm include Clayton, Shawn's father; Jason, Shawn's brother; and Jill, Shawn's aunt.

The Holstein herd is "all for dairy, except for 50 Angus Holstein cross," he said, noting that the small beef cattle operation "helps us pay some of the bills."

"We have genomic testing here that tells us which cows are good, and we use those scores to grade them before they are even born," Goodell said. "So with that in mind, we will breed that mother to a beef sire Angus. It's another avenue for income."

Goodell explained that diversification on a dairy farm is very important today.

"We have a methane digester now," he said. "It's a big power plant that can power 400 houses. It converts the gases in the manure to electricity, and we're selling power to the power company. We also sell a lot of compost to local gardeners for fertilizer."

"That is what will keep farmers in business," Goodell continued. "They have to figure out how to do more with what they've got."

Goodell says the farm's biggest challenge today is that grain, fuel, and electricity costs have jumped up markedly in the last few years.

"It's getting more and more expensive to run the farm, and the milk prices went up briefly and then went back down," he said.

Milk prices are set federally by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, based on a formula that looks at the value of commodity futures for products that the milk would be used to create, like butter and dry milk powder, as well as supply and demand. The result is that farmers in Vermont and other rural New England locales often produce milk at a loss.

"The price of milk is not enough to pay for the expenses. All those bills have gone up so much, and the income from milk is not really there," explained Goodell.

Asked what other challenges Vermont dairy farmer face, he said, "I think a lot of the small farms and a lot of the farmers are older. Not a lot of younger generation people are signing up for it - to make a living as a dairy farmer. It's tough."

Further, "people are just drinking less and less milk. Dairy products are not flying off the shelves. The milk cooperatives are backed up with too much product."

Milk, he said, is "the cheapest source of protein for every kid."

"They're trying to put more milk back in schools, but kids would rather drink energy drinks and soda these days," Goodell said.

The Commons asked how the local community can help his dairy farm.

"Drink more milk," he said.

Goodell also says that people can be enormously helpful to dairy farmers by slowing down when they "see tractors or trucks on Windham County roads."

"The community needs to realize when farmers are out on the road in tractors and trucks we're just trying to do our job," he said. "We go right down to Brattleboro and halfway to Keene. We're just people on our tractors to get a job done. It's feeding us."

* * *

The film screening of Underdog and the discussion immediately following will be shown on Wednesday, Feb. 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the Latchis Theatre, 50 Main St. in Brattleboro, with the discussion starting at 8 p.m.

The Latchis is expecting a very large crowd for this film screening, and the public must register for free tickets in advance at bit.ly/751-underdog.

For more information on the film, visit underdogfilm.org.

This The Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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