Andy Heathcote’s charming documentary about organic diary farmer Steve Hook has been a huge festival hit thanks to its insightful, gentle style. Though one might expect such a film to serve a niche audience its proven to be something of a crowd-pleaser.
Since its premier at the Sundance Film Festival last January, a festival the producers almost didn’t apply to because the £75 fee was almost too much for them to afford at the time, The Moo Man, an unassuming documentary about farming in the English countryside, has now played at Doc/Fest, Berlin, Los Angeles Film Festival,and True/False. Its unlikely success on the international festival circuit is well deserved, for The Moo Man is a documentary full of character and humour and serves as an intimate portrait of an oft overlooked industry.
Hook’s dairy farm is one of the very few holdings that produce raw milk – unpasteurised milk that he believes lends greater health benefits than pasteurised milk. Crucially however Steve is able to sell raw milk direct to customers since it is not available in supermarkets. For his farm its the only way they can operate self-sufficiently. As he explains the prices set by supermarkets are entirely unsustainable – they will buy milk at 27p per litre even though to costs 34p to produce -the difference has to be covered by subsidises. Unsurprisingly Steve is irate at the notion that a farmer, working 60-70 hours a week can’t even earn enough to live on without receiving subsidies and working tax credits. Thus he goes his own way, organising local milk rounds and selling his produce at local farmer markets.
Though the plight of farming in the UK is touched upon, The Moo Man doesn’t set out to be a campaigning film, instead the real focus of the film is on the relationship between Steve and his herd and to highlight the work that goes in to operating a successful dairy farm. Steve is clearly a gifted and caring farming – he knows the names for all of his 70+ cows and can relate much of their life stories. His method of herding the cows is simply talking to them: they line up diligently for milking and respond happily to his commands. We’re not surprised to learn that Steve’s cows live several years longer than the average, nor that instead of killing bull calfs on day one, Steve keeps them for beef and gives them 2 years of life. About halfway through the film one of the cows has a bad calfing which leaves its leg paralysed; Steve brings food and water out to the field where the cow is lying every day for a week until it is able to walk again.
Steve’s closest relationship is with Ida, a 12 year old heifer who is exceptionally well accustomed to his company. As a result he chooses her as for his publicity shots to launch a new delivery service in Eastbourne. He takes her to the seafront in Eastbourne to take some pictures and Ida remains calm and patient the whole time. Several members of the public come to say hi and all goes splendidly until its time to leave. Ida, it seems, has become rather attached to this seaside town and doesn’t budge when they try to coax her back into the trailer. Steve jokes that even cows want to come to Eastbourne to retire.
The Moo Man is a celebration of a way of life that is sadly declining and remains under threat, but the emphasis is definitely on the positive aspects; the herd’s joy when let into the fields again after a winter in the sheds; the family family marvelling at the new bottle plant; and especially Steve and Ida’s relationship. The challenges facing farmers like Steve are apparent but rather than labouring the point The Moo Man instead shows what we would be missing were this type of farming to disappear entirely and is all the more effective for that approach.