ACS students' farming film not a chore

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By Matthew J. Perry
Five Andes Central School students signed up for a media elective course in 2007, expecting to try their hands with cameras and sound, lighting and editing equipment. When their instructors, Colleen Heavey and Wendy Redden, announced that all five would work towards a single goal—documenting the daily workings of the eight remaining dairy farms in their town—there were a few groans.
Ethan Berghammer, an ACS senior, now cheerfully admits that he was among the skeptics. “I never would have expected to be interested in this.”
Justin Weaver agreed. “In the beginning we kind of slacked off. But then we saw aspects of farming we’d never seen before and we started learning. It became really enjoyable.”
Almost 18 months later, the final product, “Dairy Farms of Andes,” will premier on January 24 at 8 p.m. in the ACS gymnasium. Weaver and Berghammer, along with Hope Egnaczak, Clint Peterson and Cheyenne Tait, are unified in pride for their finished work, and pleased to have made a contribution to the town that goes far beyond the requirements of their elective course.
Tait, now a freshman at Princeton University, was the only student who had grown up with dairy farming; her mother, Judi, and grandfather, Viggo Skovsende, operate one of the eight profiled farms. She acted as student director and narrator, and committed time to polishing the film during her last summer before college and even during a weeklong break in October. It is only in the last months, since being “edited and chopped up and made into something interesting and coherent,” according to Tait, that the film has begun to feel finished.
The project began with the students visiting each of the farms, chatting with the owners and taking still photographs of the properties. On return visits, two-person teams would shoot footage of the farm’s daily work as well as interviews with the farmers themselves. “The focus was primarily on what a dairy farm is and how it operates,” says Heavey, “rather than on how hard it is for them to keep going.”
“It is a great introduction to the current farms and farmers of Andes,” Tait says. “We wanted to show the life that’s in it now, all the work, all the rewards.
The instructors guess that each farm was visited three times, at all hours. Berghammer and Egnaczak recalled documenting a milking session at 6 a.m. and three calving incidents. “Calving was a little nasty.
“It was exciting to get into the farms and see how they really work,” says Berg- hammer, who recalled conversations with the farmers about their equipment, supplemental income and milk processing. The difficulties of the work were in plain sight. “But everyone we asked about it said they’d do it all over again,” Berghammer continued. “I got the sense that they were working not just for a living but to have a certain lifestyle.”
“The documentary gave the spotlight to the dairy farmers for once, who are often forgotten when the rest of the world is freaking out about cow taxes and mad cow disease and such,” Tait says. “They’re amazing people, each with their own quirks and stories to tell.”
Along the way, the students also got their share of filmmaking instruction. “They really learned the software, editing, cropping, resizing,” says Redden. “You saw their camera eyes improve as they shot more.” Both instructors were also pleased to see improvements in the students’ interviewing and conversational skills with strangers.
All the vitality captured on film cannot reverse the downward trend of the dairy farming industry. In November, one of the profiled farmers—Roger Terry of Cabin Hill—retired. According to census data, 160 dairy farms were operating in Delaware County in 2008, down from 848 in 1997 and a now almost imaginable 3,738 in 1940.
“We had to do this project,” says Heavey. “We didn’t want to dwell on the negative but the fact is that the number of farms just keeps dwindling.”
But if, ultimately, the film becomes an act of historical preservation, the work of one ACS class will not be diminished, at least from Cheyenne Tait’s perspective.
“If the farms do all disappear from Andes, as has been predicted, at least there will be something to remember them by,” she says of the film. “I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
And in the short term, the students achieved their goals. “Everyone did well in the class,” says Redden. “Good grades all around.”