Milk Men: The Life and Times of Dairy Farmers (2016, 75 minutes)
Jan Haaken, director.
Caleb Heymann and Susan Kacera, co-directors of photography.
Dan Sadowsky, editor.

Simplistic notions about dairy farming melt like butter in a frying pan in Jan Haaken’s documentary “Milk Men.”

The 2016 film allows viewers into the barns, businesses, and family rooms of a range of dairy farmers in the Pacific Northwest. From the 100-cow organic operation of Mesman Farm in La Conner, Washington, up to the 36,000-cow farm of Threemile Canyon Dairy in Oregon, Haaken looks at the complexity of business, family, and the modern food-production system.

Unlike a lot of documentaries about food, the film does not definitively answer the question of what’s the “best” for farmers, animals, and consumers. Rather, it prepares the viewer to have an intelligent conversation about the business, ethics, and culture of dairy farming. And it ensures that the farmer’s voice is front and center.

Haaken is a clinical psychologist and emeritus professor of psychology at Portland State University. She uses documentary filmmaking as a way to bring community psychology issues into the classroom. Her work has focused on jobs that cause unusual amounts of stress. That dairy farmers fall into the category of stressed workers should be a pretty big hint that things are not what they may seem to be in the countryside.

Though the farmers and their families are universally calm in demeanor, the strains of their work show. There’s the competition and business decisions that have wide ranging implications, such as “will I own the farm this time next year.” There’s the demanding and absolutely rigid schedule of milking, though technology is helping with that, in some cases. There’s pressure to “get big or get out.” There are long-term capital needs, short-term bills, and intermediate-term issues of succession and family relationships.

But another type of tension also motivated Haaken to make the film. She wondered how the current debate over the ethics of animal agriculture is affecting farmers.

“Much of what people know of these farms comes from romanticized images in milk ads,” says Haaken, “or the demonized portrayals of dairies posted online.”

Haaken said she was “suspicious of both these simple portraits.”

Turns out, she had cause to be.

Plenty of assumptions get shattered throughout the course of the documentary. Start first with the notion that dairy farmers can’t see cows as quirky creatures with personality and, to some, a certain amount of charm.

Eric Vander Kooy, who exudes confidence and proficiency about his profession, says he loves cows. “I’ve spent my whole life around cows,” he says. “I’m like the crazy cat lady, but with cows.” Once you’ve met Kooy and his family, our romantic or villainous notions of commercial dairy farmers disappear.

Another moralistic assumption that gets tested is that smaller is always better when it comes to the care of the animals. “There’s been a lot of critics that say big is bad,” says Marin Von Keyserlingk, a professor of animal welfare at British Columbia University. “I think we have to be careful when we say big is bad.”

Studying Cow Care from “Milk Men,” by Jan Haaken .

For example, Keyserlingk says larger dairies can do a better job preventing cow lameness because they can hire one worker to spot cows while they are still easy to treat.

There can also be human gains when dairies scale up: things like vacations, predictable paychecks, sick leave — the things all of us want from an employer.

Threemile Canyon Dairy in Oregon offers such benefits, although only after workers went on strike to demand them.

Threemile, with 36,000 milking cows, is by far the largest dairy profiled. It’s included as an example of where dairy farming is headed if consolidation continues apace. At Threemile, there’s a guard shack at the entrance, assembly-line like milking carousels, and a general manager in a golf shirt with nary a trace of manure on him.

The general manager calls his operation a family farm, but there’s no kitchen table around which all may gather. There is an unexpected benefit: The farm processes cow manure into fuel with which it generates electricity. But the farm’s other byproduct seems to be coldhearted international market economics.

And, finally, the most delightful stereotype that evaporates before Haaken’s camera is that of the taciturn farmer. Farmers and families speak at length and with apparent comfort about their work, their challenges, their own questions about right and wrong.

“One ag journalist said the thing that impressed him most about the movie was that I had gotten farmers to talk at such length,” Haaken said in an interview.

The easy feeling of the interviews is also a likely result of Haaken’s documentary method. She said she spent a lot of time with each of the farm families, returning multiple times to get the story as it evolved.

Haaken also screens footage for participants throughout the production process. While she retains editorial control, she said she promises her interviewees that their words will be accurately presented, not taken out of context or misinterpreted.

Obviously, this style of production is time consuming and, we assume, more expensive. In Haaken’s hands, it sure works.

Judge for yourself. The quality of “Milk Men” is in the product.

“Milk Men” is available for home purchase and rental via numerous commercial streaming services. One major service offers the documentary free to its members. More information, including clips, is available online

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