Life on the farm: New film tracks changes

Alan Mesman, a dairy farmer near La Conner, is one of the families featured in Jan Haaken’s documentary, “Milk Men,” showing Oct. 30 and 31 at the Pickford Film Center.
Alan Mesman, a dairy farmer near La Conner, is one of the families featured in Jan Haaken’s documentary, “Milk Men,” showing Oct. 30 and 31 at the Pickford Film Center. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Jan Haaken, professor emeritus of psychology at Portland State University, has a long history of field research and documentary films that focus on stressful jobs, especially those that are the focus of public controversy. Her sixth documentary, “Milk Men,” uses the storytelling device of the personal journey — in this case the journey of returning to a place in her childhood — to understand how things have changed in the dairy industry.

Her grandparents on her father’s side, John and Ragla Hawkinson, settled in Whatcom County as immigrants from Norway in 1910. Haaken’s grandmother was pregnant with her father, Lewis, when she left Norway. Her mother’s parents, Sigrid and Gunhard Gunderson, were also Norwegian immigrants. Haaken’s parents met at a church social in Bellingham in 1935 and married in 1936, and although they later moved to Seattle, Haaken spent most summers and holidays in the Skagit and Whatcom area and has fond memories of the farms in the area.

“Where have all of those small dairy farms gone, and what is it like for the survivors?,” Haaken asks.

She finds her answers in her film that screens at 6:15 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30, and at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31, at the Pickford Film Center, as part of the center’s month-long Doctober film festival.

“Part of my motivation for making ‘Milk Men’ was using the medium of film to help bridge the deep cultural divides in this country — and in my own family — between urban and rural people,” she says.

“There are crude stereotypes on both sides. In my extended family, we were the “city slickers” and they were “country hicks.”

She selected four families in Whatcom and Skagit counties that “captured some of the diversity in size of farms and different personality characteristics,” she says.

“Documentary films are based on trust and a certain leap of faith on the part of participants,” says Haaken.

“As an academic as well as a filmmaker, I thought I could contribute to a more thoughtful and complex look at what is going on with some of these farms as they deal with intense economic and technological pressures,” she says.

“’Milk Men is not a marketing film, nor is it an ‘expose.’ I wanted to deal with real issues and not just produce a romantic film about salt-of-the-earth farmers or returning to an idyllic preindustrial past.”

“I think some of the sanitizing of representations of dairy farms in popular culture has contributed to some of the confusion in public perceptions.”

One of the families she filmed is that of Custer’s Ed Pomeroy who, Haaken says, has a very long and interesting history as a dairy farmer in Whatcom County and has survived some of the biggest waves of change that have led most to go under.

“He is one of the main subjects of the film, and he speaks to challenges in passing on an operation that has gotten to be so big,” says Haaken.

His grandson also is in the film, a young man who wants to fill the shoes of his grandpa.

Her crew started filming in May 2014, filming over summer, fall and winter, and then completed a wrap-up shoot in July 2015. They’ve been editing for the past eight months.

“Because we filmed over four seasons,” says Haaken, “we were able to capture some of the dynamic richness of the region and the people who work and raise animals for food.”

“’Milk Men’ brings onto the public stage dairy producers who struggle with real-world dilemmas, drawing viewers into complex and richly textured scenes that challenge many conventional stereotypes,” she says.

Haaken will attend both the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon screenings, as well as the question-and answer periods. Some of the film subjects will be there too, she says.

“Milk Men”

When: 6:15 Friday, Oct. 30; and 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31

Where: Pickford Film Center, 1318 Bay St.

Details: milkmenmovie.com, jhaaken.com, pickfordfilmcenter.org