A story made for film – A student filmmaker returns to shoot dog sled racer’s quest
MIDDLEBURY — In his second year as a student at Middlebury College, Tommy Hyde took a film class that required students to spend a month with a local who was doing something “interesting.” Hyde found Doug Butler, full-time dairy farmer and dog sled racer.
Upon meeting Butler, Hyde was sure he had discovered true, old-school Vermont.
“Soon I found myself on the back of a sled ripping around trails behind this long-haired, wide-eyed, crazy, kooky old Vermonter,” he said.
From there began the friendship that has resulted in “The Underdog,” a documentary, directed by Hyde, that will follow Butler as he works toward achieving his two life-long dreams — passing on a successful farm to his son, Casey, and winning the Fairbanks Open North American, the dog mushing world championships, this March.
Hyde, originally from Connecticut, graduated from Middlebury College in 2014.5 and spent time in Colorado and Brazil, pursuing a freelance film career. This past December, he returned to Middlebury, drawn back by Butler and his story left untold.
“I just couldn’t shake Doug’s story,” Hyde said. “It was just always there, in the back of my mind, in the front of my mind. I just knew it was too good not to tell.”
Hyde, working as the filmmaker in residence at the Town Hall Theater, is making “The Underdog” with the help of two other Middlebury College alums and close friends, Bjorn Peterson and Tito Heiderer.
With the support of the Town Hall Theater, the trio is fundraising throughout Vermont. They’re reaching out to local businesses, individuals and larger Vermont-branded companies.
“We want to rally people from the college, the town and the agriculture community all around one local farmer,” Hyde said. “The hope is that we can fundraise, produce and premier this all locally and make the film as much a product of the community as it is a celebration of it.”
While the film will focus on Butler, his story extends beyond Butler Farm. Local dairy farmers in Vermont are struggling to keep up with a market that is pushing toward larger farms and subsequent cheaper prices. Butler’s farm is one of many throughout Vermont that has had to adapt to a new dairy industry.
In an effort to revamp his farm, Butler is transitioning to organic practices, raising more beef cattle and focusing on selling locally.
For him, the film should celebrate the thousands of farmers working toward providing safe, healthy food for consumers.
“What I’m so excited about is that it can expose all of this stuff. The whole world, the whole country,” Butler said. “And if it’s going to benefit these people that are working so hard — 16-hour days, day after day, year after year — they need a little bit of credit, let’s give them some credit.”
Since milking his first cow on Halloween in 1966, Butler has devoted his life to dairy farming and continuing the family business.
“I chose this life, I chose to be a farmer, so here I am,” he said.
Butler’s farm, on the original land that his grandfather bought in 1926, is currently home to 600 cattle, now both dairy and beef. Also working on the farm are Butler’s 34-year-old son and four-year-old grandson, Colton.
“From a story perspective there’s this really clear visual and familiar tie of farming, which stretches from Doug all the way down to Colton, but also goes back to Doug’s father, and his grandfather,” Hyde said.
About 500 meters from the farm Butler keeps his 50 dogs — a yard of super-athletes and mountains of kibble bags.
While training for race season begins in September, Butler — who started racing when he was 21 — keeps the dogs active year-round, hooking them up to his tractor and leading them on long walks.
This year, Butler and his team will participate in a number of races throughout January and February, including the Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby Feb. 12 to 14. However, the Fairbanks Open North American will be the culmination of Butler’s years of devotion to the sport.
“When I’ve gone to that race, I’ve been down in streams and in open water. I mean, I’m just jinxed,” Butler said. “I want this team, with all these super athletes, to break into the top this year.”
Because of his selective breeding process Butler knows the qualities, strengths and weaknesses of each of his dogs, all husky and German short haired pointer mixes. Butler will choose his team of 14 to 20 dogs based on their performance throughout the year.
Amigo, who’s led the team for the past eight years; Jackie, a four-year-old superstar; Dancer; Prancer; Hamburg; Garlic; Ginger; Budweiser; Coors; BJ; Blackie; Rosy and Big Bob are some of the dogs likely to be part of Butler’s A-team this year.
And apparently, this crew is a sight to see.
“When he’s at a dog sled race, he completely loses it,” Hyde said. “He’s singing songs, yelling, yee-hawing. It’s absolute pure and total bliss.”
At 62 years old, Butler isn’t slowing down. His approach to farming and training is the same: Hard work pays off.
“It’s really inspiring to see how hard the guy works, how difficult his life is, and yet how he has the absolute best time,” Hyde said.
Hyde started filming “The Underdog” in April and will film through the world championships in March. Post-production will continue into early 2018.
“Tommy’s learning a lot, he’s a big help, has some great ideas, he’s a great kid,” said Butler. “He has a future ahead of him. He doesn’t realize it yet, but he does.” DOUG BUTLER STANDS near one of the barns on his Munger Street farm in Middlebury. Butler is the subject of a documentary film being made by recent Middlebury College graduate Tommy Hyde.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
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