(NEW YORK) — Stephen Hook and his beloved Ida arrived at the English seaside resort town of Eastbourne for an unconventional photo shoot. He had to ply her with food and give her a gentle prod before Ida would cooperate.
Ida is a dairy cow, and Hook wants to introduce town folks to the virtues of raw milk — some of the sweetest around with no pasteurization or additives. He claims it can help cure eczema, lower blood pressure and keep cholesterol at bay.
“She leads a stress-free life,” says Hook, 47, who with his father runs Hook and Son Dairy in partnership with Longleys Farm on the edge of the Pevensey Levels. “We are relaxed with the cows and don’t push them too hard and it comes through with their milk.”
But Ida enjoys the attention of strangers so much that she refused to go home, and Hook and his farm hands patiently coaxed, cajoled and eventually pushed her back end up the ramp in the van.
Cows are stubborn and at times unruly creatures, we learn in a new documentary, “The Moo Man,” which had its premiere in the World Cinema Documentary category at Sundance on Monday. But Hook, a bovine whisperer of sorts, clearly understands and loves them as his children — and as his livelihood.
Independent film producer Andy Heathcote (“The Lost World of Mr. Hardy,” 2008) followed Hook’s family for three years, watching birth, illness, death and renewal unfold on the farm.
“Andy was there every day and the cows got to know him,” said Hook, who with his father, Phil, attended the festivities at Sundance. “Nothing was ever scripted.”
The documentary is next headed for a showing at Berlinale, the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival, in February.
With her black and white splotches, Ida could be the poster child for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. But the Hooks sell their unprocessed milk directly to consumers.
The Hooks’ ancestors have farmed for at least 250 years, but their way of life is dying. Supermarket chains have undercut local farmers who must sell their products at a loss, according to the film.
Hook has gone the organic route, selling the raw milk at his own price. By law, he can only sell at farmer’s markets, on milk rounds and through an Internet service, but not at supermarkets.
Heathcote said many consumers have lost touch with the connection between food and the farm.
“The farm is a fantastic microcosm of the cycle of life,” said Heathcote, 48, who, with his co-director and partner Heike Bachelier, were customers of Hook and Son in southeast Sussex.
“When Steve started doing raw milk we had rounds delivered to our door, which we found fantastic,” he said. “The bottle had a picture of each cow. We found it so intriguing and he seemed a very different kind of farmer.”
Bachelier surprised Heathcote with a visit to the dairy farm and the idea for the film was born.
In an attempt to save his family farm, Hook and his father Phil keep their business small and organic, but it comes at an emotional price.
Ida, Hook’s favorite cow, nearly died during a difficult childbirth. Her good milking genes are lost on male calves, which are ultimately sent off to the slaughterhouse for meat.
He has noticed that his cows live to 9 or 10; those on regular dairy farms live only to about 6. “Having a stress-free life makes them very healthy,” he said. “They don’t get mastitis or lameness.”
Hook is raw milk’s biggest fan. “I drink a pint without thinking about it,” he says. “When I drink shop milk, it’s horrible. The milk the consumer gets is, in my eyes, pretty unpleasant — not what I think milk should be.”
In 2007, when he first began, Hook sold 12 pints a week; now he sells 6,000 a week. With a new bottling machine, he can cap 200 pints of milk in 25 minutes.
“We can’t produce enough,” he said. “You can’t compare it.”
The three dangers in raw milk are tuberculosis, undulant fever and pathogens from poor cow health, milking hygiene or storage, according to Hook.
“TB has been eradicated and our tests for pathogens are far and above what is required by the government,” said Hook.
Despite its growing popularity, unsterilized or unpasteurized milk can be a threat to public health, according to Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
Rules are the same in the United States: Farmers can only sell raw milk directly to the consumer.
“The reason we pasteurize milk is to make it safe,” said Schaffner.
Life-threatening bacteria like e coli, salmonella, shigella and listeria, among others, are carried in the intestinal tract of the dairy herd and can be transmitted to the milk.
“The back end of the cow is so close to the udder, and you can’t put the cow in an autoclave and sterilize it,” said Schaffner. “No matter how hygienic you are, bacteria, which are microscopic, can find their way into the milk readily.”
Milk can be tested, he said, but when they are small in number pathogens “can evade the test and be falsely negative, so it’s not an absolute guarantor of safety.”
These bacteria-borne infections are communicable and can spread to others in a household, including children, even if they do not consume the milk, according to Schaffner.
Just this year, a multi-state outbreak of listeriosis from Italian ricotta cheese hospitalized 20 and killed four, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mexican style cheeses have also been implicated in similar deaths.
“I have vast tolerance and acceptance for people who have a belief system and want to do something to enhance their health, even if there is no scientific basis,” said Schaffner. “But this one I have difficulty with because of the health implications for persons other than the consumer.”
But “The Moo Man” is less about the raw milk debate and more about endangered life down on the farm. And the intimate way in which Hook relates to his cows.
“I think their level of understanding is incredible, even though they don’t speak the queen’s English,” said Hook. “They really do understand.”
“When Ida goes to Eastbourne she interacts with the people who see her,” he said. “And when I take her back to the farm, all the cows come over to see where she’s been.”
When one cow with eight years of milking ahead of her suffers a broken hip and the vet is called, another cow sniffs around the wounded animal, almost sympathetically. She will be killed if she can no longer be milked.
“I feel a bit robbed, really,” says Hook. “It’s not a nice way for cow to finish its time on the farm. But we have to do it.”
Bachelier pored over 150 hours of footage in editing “The Moo Man.”
“What touched me most is that a farm is a place of birth and death, and the cycle of life became very apparent and I found it touching how Steve dealt with that,” she said. “I find it hugely comforting.”
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