By Daniel Demay
Skagit Valley Herald
LA CONNER — Dottie the cow wasn’t quite ready to become a filmmaker.
The buxom beast, due to give birth in August, took a little coaxing by Ben Mesman — son of Alan Mesman and the next in line to run Mesman dairy farm — to strap the GoPro video camera to her head to capture a cow’s view of the milking pen.
The footage captured would lend yet another perspective to Jan Haaken’s documentary on dairy farms in Skagit and Whatcom counties.
Haaken and her crew spent part of last week filming at Mesman’s and at Harmony Dairy farm, compiling just part of the footage that will span across an entire season by the time they finish early next year.
Haaken’s goal with the film is to shed light on the complexity of modern dairy farming and tell the positive story she says often goes untold.
“I think there is a kind of mystification about what goes on at farms,” she said last Wednesday, between setting up different shots at Mesman Farm.
Haaken grew up visiting grandparents in Skagit Valley and saw how dairy farms changed over the years. She also saw things from both a rural and an urban perspective — a divide that is greater than ever, she said.
It’s a very different world than the one I used to visit at Christmas,” she said. “I just began to wonder what happened to dairy farming here.”
Haaken said between the increased ethical commitments farmers make these days and the vast technological innovations — like Mesman’s robotic milking system and Farm Power LLC, which uses manure to produce electricity — make the surviving modern dairies a story worth telling.
Haaken, a psychologist who teaches at Portland State University, has completed five documentary films on stressful jobs in stressful places. For her latest project, tentatively titled “Milk Men: The Amazing World of Dairy Farmers,” she enlisted the help of her son, Caleb Heymann, to direct the photography, and hired two other crew members — Eric Remme, the assistant cameraman, and Bob Ridgley, location sound — to round out her film staff.
Dairy farms, she said, make for a good story as the ones still doing it have had to struggle to survive.
“My interest is to show how problems of modernity converge on the farms,” she said. “So much is at risk, so there’s inherent drama.”
Alan Mesman said he was glad to allow Haaken’s crew to film at his farm, as he hoped it would shed a positive light on his work. His son, Ben, who plans to take over the farm someday, helped motivate the elder Mesman to open his farm to the documentarians.
“They’re trying to show the good side of dairy,” Ben Mesman said. “It’s been good.”
Before fitting the camera on Dottie’s forehead, Haaken’s crew had captured some footage from the top of the feeder as Alan Mesman hauled it through the barn where the cows are fed. On another day, they had attached the camera to one of the robotic milking arms and gathered spinning views of the milking process.
But filming on a dairy farm did present a few technical problems for the film crew.
Manure and mud made keeping the gear clean a challenge, Remme said. And he wasn’t accustomed to being around cows.
During filming one day, the crew set up out in a field with some younger cows that turned out to be a little more friendly than Remme and Heymann expected.
“They’re friendly, they’re young and they want to play,” Remme said. “But it wouldn’t be a good play date.”
Haaken said she expects to film at other dairies and locations around Skagit and Whatcom counties several times between now and next spring. If all goes as planned, she’ll have a rough cut of the 50- to 80-minute film to show in Mount Vernon next summer.
She said she hopes her film will show how much has changed while so much else has stayed the same.
“It’s interesting how many transformative changes have taken place,” Haaken said. “But the basic principles have stood the test of time.”