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Farming the American Dream

Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh live their ambition to start a family farm, and Rudd Simmons captures the experience in a new documentary

by B.A. Nilsson on February 1, 2012

The documentary The First Season follows Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh and their children through a year’s worth of changes as they pursue a crazy midlife dream of operating a dairy farm. They’re slaves to a relentless schedule and, as the movie ends, they’re in more debt than they ever  had been before. But there’s a sense not only of hope but also of accomplishment.

And, as Paul assured me after the movie’s New Year’s Eve premiere in Chatham, “It’s gotten a lot better for us. We’re actually looking at turning a profit this year.”

This is director Rudd Simmons’ first project in that capacity, but the list of directors he’s worked with as a producer is impressive, with Jim Jarmusch (Night on Earth, Mystery Train), Stephen Frears (High Fidelity) and Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) among them. He also produced the first season of Boardwalk Empire.

“I’ve always been fascinated by documentary films,” says Simmons. “I moved to New York35 years ago to enter the NYU graduate production program, and what I wanted to do was make documentary films like the Maysles Brothers.” Albert and David Maysles made their mark in 1970 with Gimme Shelter—but, as Simmons discovered, by the mid-1980s it was the end of that phase of the documentary era. “So I started working in feature films, and I ended up working with so many amazing directors that, quite frankly, I forgot about making a film of my own.”

Paul Van Amburgh was working as a contractor and carpenter when Simmons and his wife bought a house inChatham. “He did a couple of small jobs for us,” says Simmons, “and his craftsmanship and attention to details was astonishing. So we had him come back and do a bigger job, and I hung around and we started talking—and we became really good friends. Then Phyllis came over and she was just amazing, like sunlight coming into a room.”

The Van Amburghs shared their ambition to take up farming, and it was Simmons’ wife who suggested the idea of the documentary. “And that hit a chord with me,” saus Rudd Simmons. “And after I got started, I felt an emotional commitment to the project. So here we are, pockets empty, five years later. But I think it’s an important work.”

Compared to the current documentary model, with its busy camera and talking heads, The First Season moves with slow, deliberate elegance.

“I tried to make it transparent,” says Simmons. “A friend of mine said that the best documentary filmmaker is invisible and creates an eye on the subject. I was harking back to the cinema vérité style of the Maysles Brothers. Their documentary Salesman was my bible.

“What they did was instinctively move the camera. They were watching something unfold, and when they felt they should move in, or if they felt that the camera needed to be on the other person, they did that. So there are a lot of camera moves in their films, but not a lot of edits. It gives a feeling of more intimacy and less manipulation. When we did the color correction on this, the technician said, ‘We get feature film documentaries in here all the time and we’re used to having two to three thousands edits. You have 472.’ ”

The challenge of being unobtrusive was particularly difficult given the demands of dairy farming. Paul confesses that he was concerned about that. “If we had to start replaying stuff for the camera—no way. But it turned out to be fun. It was pretty much hanging out with someone you like.”

As to the decision to chuck a good suburban life for farming, “It was really all about the food for us,” says Phyllis. She was working as an occupational therapist, but when her first two children were born, she began seeking a way to spend more time with them.

“It was about the food and about being together,” echoes Paul. “I was doing the contracting, and in retrospect I got out at the right point, before that took a tank.” They bought a property in Sharon Springs in 2007 and moved there as Simmons began filming.

“Where we were completely naive,” says Paul, “was in how expensive it would be to get it running. We missed the mark by about $350,000. We had a nice chunk of money, and we had land that we owned—and it’s all gone. It was an insane move, to be honest. But we made it. And now—everything’s starting to swing the other way. We’re starting to make money, we can see how this thing will work in another five years.”

filmmaker Rudd Simmons

To Simmons, this is the essence of an American experience. “It’s iconic. For a lot of people, it embodies what the concept of traditional American values—if you work really hard and work really smart, you’ll be successful. But at the center of that is the family. The family farm at the center of this film is not so much about the world of agriculture as it is aboutAmerica, and the search for the American dream.”

“Some of the people I know who’ve seen the movie have had a different a look into themselves,” says Phyllis. “My mother, for instance, started by saying how beautifully done it was, and other generic responses—and then she started talking about a time in her life when she started a summer camp. [The film] brought back the hardships she’d gone through doing that.

“Another person thought it was unrealistic because it didn’t show Paul and me fighting. No fighting? Maybe that’s the soft spot for that person.”

Adds Paul, “We know some young people, in their 20s, who bought a farm out here, and they’re going to make cheese and milk heritage breed cows, and they liked the film—but they thought that it overemphasized the financial aspects. So you can see what they’re worried about.”

Not that the finances weren’t difficult. “They were debilitating!” Paul says.

“And that first year wasn’t even the most financially debilitating,” says Phyllis, “because we still had property to sell. We still had hope. We still hadn’t exhausted all our credit. But by the end of the second year and into the third, that was all gone. It looked like we were going to make it through—but that was really when it was at its worst.”

They’re selling milk to Little Falls-based Maple Hill Creamery, which specializes in dairy products from grass-fed cows. They’ve been developing a busy beef cattle business, selling the meat from grass-fed animals to co-ops and individuals. They’ve just started exploring cheese as another dairy product.

And their family—there are five kids now—shows how well the small-farm model works as the children take over various chores, including the care and education of the younger ones. The sheer volume of work can make them appear insular—they rarely leave the place—but they hardly feel cut off.

“We get so many people who come here,” says Paul. “They drink the milk, they eat the beef—we’re touching a lot of people. It’s love. Making high-quality food is about love.”