I’m done filming! (for now)
After eight months of almost daily filming, I put down my camera on December 11th, packed everything into my car, and began the long drive back to B.C. I’m sure there’s plenty of farm life that I haven’t seen yet, but I have enough to get started. Since I hit the road on April 15th, I’ve collected about 200 hours of footage, done 49 interviews, visited five farms, and travelled coast-to-coast and back — about 20,000km. Somewhere in those hours of footage there is a documentary about what it takes for farmers to make a living. My next task is to collect all the experiences I had — the countless little lessons I learned as I weeded beds, built fences, and cleaned stalls across the country — and boil it down into a film that shows what life is like on the farm.
My ideas about why farming is difficult have shifted as I’ve learned more about the day-to-day life of farming, but my conviction that there’s something wrong with how we pay farmers for the work that they do hasn’t changed. I’ve had a chance to think deeply about what a “fair” price for food is, and what “wealth” really means, and I’ve learned that wealth doesn’t mean the same thing to farmers as it did to me when I started. Farming isn’t just job — it’s a way of life, and even though I heard that many times before I set out on this journey, I didn’t appreciate what it meant until I actually lived on a farm. My task going forward is to bring my new understanding to whoever sees the documentary: The impossible task of boiling eight months of hard-earned experience down to an hour and a half.
So … I’ve decided I want to get a cow
I spent the last month of my journey at Robert Overmars’ dairy farm in Nova Scotia. Like the rest of the farms I visited, I offered my labour in exchange for the visit, and, despite my total lack of animal experience, Robert took me up on the offer. Cows produce milk relentlessly, hour by hour, and they have to be milked regularly to keep them lactating. If you don’t milk them, the cows’ bodies assume the calf has been weaned, and the milk stops flowing. At Overview Farms, we milked twice a day, at 4AM and 3PM. Robert already had plenty of help for the afternoon milking, so I joined the unpopular shift… I committed to getting up for the 4AM milking every day while I was there.
I enjoyed the work. Robert already had someone helping in the milk parlour, so my novice skills were best put to use cleaning the stalls while the cows were getting milked. My morning would start by herding the cows down to the milking parlour, which left the barn empty while they milked. That was my opportunity to scape all the cow dung out of the stalls, and replace the bedding with clean shavings. With 120 cows to look after, cleaning the whole barn took about three hours!
The best part of my day was interacting with the cows. If you ask any farmer why they like cows, a likely answer is “they all have their own personalities”. This stock answer didn’t mean much to me at first, but the longer I stayed, the more truth I found in it. I would meet the same cows in the same stalls every morning. Some of them would race to the front, while others waited for me to get them up. Inevitably, this meant I got to know the stragglers the best. And I did get to know them and make friends with them. When I left, I was as sad to leave the cows behind as I was Robert and the rest of the farm. And now, having had the experience of caring for cows, I’ve decided I want a cow of my own! Now to make it practical: I’m pretty sure it would be a deal breaker at my old Burnaby basement suite…
Up next: Editing the film on Salt Spring Island
My goal is to edit the film in six months: That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, whether or not it’s a realistic goal. My challenge is to find six months of uninterrupted time to do it. That kind of time wouldn’t exist if I just went back to Vancouver. Finding an apartment would mean I’d be tempted to put off editing the film to take work that would pay my rent. Instead, my friend Mike Chin on Salt Spring Island offered me a place to stay while I edit the film. As with the farms I stayed at, I help out where I can in exchange for room and board. There is even a garden, where I’m hoping to put some of my new farming skills to use come spring!
Staying with Mike came with an unexpected bonus. Back in the day, I used to write articles about computer noise for Mike, and he still has contacts in the tech world. When he found out I needed to build a computer that was capable of editing all the footage I shot, he reached out to some of his contacts, and suggested they sponsor The Hands that Feed Us. So, thanks to Silverstone, Kingston, and NVidia, I’m writing these words on the most powerful computer I’ve ever owned, which will definitely be up to the task of handling the 200+ hours of 4K footage I’ll be working with.
Shit that Goes Down on the Dairy Farm
While I was on the road, I kept up a relentless schedule of filming a YouTube video every week to document my learnings. At times, I wondered why I was doing it — sometimes only 10 or 15 people would see the videos I made. All that changed once I got to Nova Scotia. Sometimes, a little profanity goes a long way — even tongue in cheek. I made a video about how cow manure is managed in the cow barn, and I called it Shit that Goes Down on the Dairy Farm. That got people’s attention! For the first time in all the months I’d been on the road, YouTube started promoting my videos, and it ended up the most popular video I’d made, by an order of magnitude.
Being in Nova Scotia helped. Robert and some other farmers in the area shared my videos, and after a couple weeks, I started getting recognized when I went into Antigonish. That made it much easier to convince people to be on camera when I was out filming in the wild! I didn’t have to explain what I was doing — people already knew!
I made three other videos while I was at Overview Farms:
- You Can’t Milk a Bull: Ruminations on the very simple realization that cows need to give birth in order to give milk.
- Mommy, Where do Calves Come From?: Calves are an integral part of dairy, and I loved taking care of them.
- Mixing Feed for 120 Cows: 120 cows eat a 2.5 tonnes of feed a day!
I’ll continue to make videos as I edit. I’ll be reducing the frequency to biweekly, but I have lots more footage to share! Dipping my feet in the Atlantic and Pacific covers the last days I spent in Nova Scotia before the long drive back to B.C.
I’ve just settled in on Salt Spring Island, where I’ll be editing the film.
- First, I have to watch all the footage. That will take a month. I hope. Maybe two.
- I’m aiming to have a rough cut ready by the end of April.
- I have a few odds and ends left to film, so I’ll head back to Alberta for calving season in early March, and try and capture a grain delivery while I’m there. Pandemic-permitting, of course!
How can I help?
- Are you interested in being a sounding board while I edit? I’m looking for a few people who can give reliable feedback on rough sequences and scenes as I make them. E-mail me at email@example.com to be one of those people.
- Do you know any companies that would be interested in sponsoring the film? Mike’s success in sponsoring my editing system has inspired me to seek more sponsorship.
- Share Shit that Goes Down on the Dairy Farm on social media. Profanity nonwithstanding, it’s an excellent introduction to the project!