ON THE SCENE: The ‘Underdog’ of dog sledding, dairy farming
Have you ever had a big dream, something audacious? Vermont dairy farmer Doug Butler dreamed of racing in Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the famed 938-mile, 20-day race between Anchorage and Nome.
First, though, he had to breed a team of dogs with the right mix of abilities, learn how to race them, do well enough racing in Vermont, and then make it to Alaska and compete in a race there.
His other challenge was keeping his family dairy farm vibrant at a time when making a living as a farmer was tough enough in any aspect, but especially so at a time when many small farms were going under as they lost business to non-milk-based products and far larger dairy enterprises.
A third challenge is that Butler had never been away from his farm for more than three days or gone much of anywhere.
On Jan. 27, the New York state premiere of “Underdog,” a documentary about Butler and the pursuit of his dream while his business collapsed around him, filmed and directed by Tommy Hyde and produced by Aaron Woolf, was held at the Whallonsburg Grange to a standing-room-only audience.
“First and foremost, the challenge of making a documentary is finding a subject that you want to spend your life with because the process of making a documentary film is long and arduous,” said Ben Stechschulte, of Keene Valley, who has spent decades documenting demolition derbies. “You need to find a subject that you love and fall in love with on some level because you will spend a lot of time together.”
When a freshman at Middlebury, Tommy Hyde, was given a class assignment to make a video about someone from the Middlebury community. His professor suggested he consider Butler, a dairy farmer who he heard had three or four sled dogs (in truth, closer to three dozen, as Hyde discovered).
To his surprise, he found Butler very welcoming. Thus began a 12-year relationship in which Hyde, camera in hand, began documenting all aspects of his life.
When Tommy Hyde began developing a relationship with Butler, 44% of small farm dairy farms in Vermont, those with fewer than 200 cows, went out of business. Meanwhile, others, with 700 plus cows, more than doubled. Small farms couldn’t operate as efficiently as large-scale farms, which was critical when farms were producing an oversupply of milk as more and more people turned to non-dairy-based products like cashews, oats and soy.
Another problem is that federal regulations, developed during the presidents Nixon and Ford years under Earl Butz, assistant secretary of agriculture, favored large-scale farms. Thus, despite an overall increase in demand for dairy products, such as cheese and specialty yogurts, federal regulation further hampers the ability of small dairy farmers to survive. Indeed, during this time, some, like Butler, would purchase another failed small farm’s cows; thus, even so, the economics, regulations, and traditional ways of farming were stacked against them.
Throw in the time and cost of developing and racing a sled dog team; the challenges were even more significant. The magic of this documentary is how Butler could charm and tease a bit more time from his creditors while both working to keep the family farm afloat while visions of Alaska danced in his head.
A magical aspect of the film is Hyde’s ability to capture Butler’s life as a dairy farmer, his family, colleagues, creditors, and others that make up life on a dairy farm. No small feat, as he had to become so trusted as to disappear and blend into the fabric of their lives. That level of trust takes time, and Hyde provided that time.
Another magical aspect is Butler’s joyful, effervescent personality. He lived life to the fullest, perfecting his ability to snatch an open can of beer from the outstretched arms of race fans as he and his surging dog team zoomed by. Nothing deterred his optimism or his ability to forge ahead, be it the challenge of making a phone bill or his old pickup with over 350,000 miles and 24 dogs in tow breaking down en route to Alaska.
Six years ago, Tommy Hyde’s good fortune after having more than 120 hours of film in the can was connecting with filmmaker Aaron Woolf of Elizabethtown, an award-winning documentarian with experience telling a farm-based story, “King Corn,” and getting him to help pull the documentary together.
“It was a tough nut to crack,” said Woolf. “There was a lot of footage that was very inspiring and a lot of footage that was tough to use. Making a documentary is hard. But I felt that there was a character here who could get us past any technical glitches. And we had enough time to fill in any gaps. The thrill about non-fiction filmmaking is the ability to craft a story while it’s happening, and it’s one that you don’t know what the ending will be.”
“It’s a bit of a roller coaster,” said Hyde. “Butler wears his emotions on his sleeve, and that’s what’s so great about him. It was hard not to get swept up into whatever orbit or kick he was on any day. It was also very hard to quit the project, which I wanted to do so many times.”
“The thing that I appreciated about the film was the time and energy that the filmmakers put into telling the story,” said Stechschulte. “I’m most attracted to projects where the filmmakers spend enough time with their subject to form a kind of dance where the collaboration of the subject and the filmmakers create a kind of truth. The filmmaker is in a position to film the world through their subjects’ eyes and illustrate world effectively.”
The filmmakers pulled it off, receiving a long and spirited standing ovation.
“I loved it,” said Kathy Recchia. I thought it was very moving. Several times, I thought, this isn’t scripted, it’s happening, to be present for that is a beautiful experience.”
“The feeling I’m left with is when you are making your living completely as a farmer, it’s fiscally irresponsible to do anything but farm, and I’m pleased that he did,” said Courtney Grimes-Sutton. “I loved the film.”
Hopefully, the Lake Placid Film Festival will screen “Underdog.”
(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)