Milk is such a common, everyday food that few shoppers stop to contemplate it.

If they do, they likely conjure images of rolling green pastures, classic red barns and softly lowing cows. But behind these made-for-TV scenes that dance through our minds are the real dairy farmers who labor from before sunup to after sundown and can still find themselves faced with the decision of whether to buy grain for the herd or pay the electric bill for the barn.

Welcome to the realities of modern small-scale dairy farming.

This Thursday on opening night of the Camden International Film Festival, these struggles come to life on the big screen in the beautifully crafted documentary “Betting the Farm,” by Maine filmmakers Cecily Pingree and her brother-in-law Jason Mann of Pull-Start Pictures. The first screening of the film took place earlier this year at the Silverdocs Documentary Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland. This is the first time it will be shown in Maine.

In a film that is at turns humorous, heart-wrenching and very humane, Pingree and Mann follow three farm families in Aroostook County and Downeast Maine as they and seven other farms strike out on their own to create Maine’s Own Organic Milk Co., better known as MOO Milk.

The company forms after H.P. Hood abruptly drops 10 organic dairy farms in late 2009 because they are too far from the processing facility. Left with bills to pay, cows to milk and families to feed, the farmers band together in hopes of capitalizing on the growing appreciation of and demand for locally produced food.

Pingree and Mann, who have produced numerous short films, including the “Meet Your Farmer” series, began filming in December 2009 and shot 300 hours of film through last fall. This is the pair’s first feature-length film.

“We didn’t really know where the story was going to go,” said Pingree. “Even today, they have yet to break even and make a profit. They’re like any small business. Getting involved with it, we knew we had great characters and we got invested very quickly.”

Pingree is the daughter of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, (D-Maine), who is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority shareowner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

At the start of the film the mood is optimistic, but things quickly turn darker and more serious as it becomes clear that the company doesn’t offer a quick path to financial success, or break-even cash flow.

“It was surprising to me how hard it was for this company to make a go of it,” Pingree said. “It seemed like it didn’t have to be this complicated. Then you go into your grocery store and see it’s not a new product. It’s just milk.”

Pingree said working on the project gave her deep respect for the hard work of dairy farming, but it also made her understand that just because a food product is local doesn’t mean it will fly off store shelves.

“I think our hope with this film is that people come away thinking about everything you look at in the grocery store,” Pingree said. “And investigating and figuring out whether that product is something you want to support. You recognize that (food) affects a lot of people’s lives. If MOO Milk wasn’t successful or if it becomes more successful, it will have a big impact on the general landscape. Aroostook County will look different if MOO Milk can put five or six (additional) dairy farms on in the next few years. So will Down East Maine.”

The film garnered positive reviews in the Washington Post and Variety, and has been accepted to other film festivals taking place later this year. However, its inclusion in those festivals has not yet been made public. After its Maine debut in Camden, it will screen across the state.

“It’s not only a film that has extreme local relevance, but it has good characters behind it,” said Ben Fowlie, founder and director of the Camden International Film Festival. “I’ll probably have very few chances in my career to open the festival with a film like ‘Betting the Farm.”‘

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

akamila@pressherald.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila