The BIG Breakfast

On location filming Little Mammoth’s latest production, The BIG Breakfast
On-Location Notebook, by Monique Tobin, Associate Producer

Milk

The Howrigan Family Dairy Farm, Fairfield, Vermont

The BIG Breakfast: Milk

Monique Tobin stands between Anne and Harold Howrigan at their Vermont farm.

A pink Vermont sunrise with a bright moon over hills tinged with Autumn. The cows are lowing in their stalls at 5 AM, soon to be corralled into the line-up for milking. The air is chilled and we’re glad for our gloves as we walk out into the early October morning. Bill prepares the camera using a flashlight to adjust the settings for the low light of the barn. I take in the sweep of farmland becoming visible to us and imagine what it would be like to be up this early every day, greeting the milking herd against the dawn sky – in every season. A life in rhythm with nature – such is the hard-working tradition of the Howrigan Family Farm, whose 535 cows graze on pastureland that has been in the Howrigan family for five generations since the mid-1800s.

We film the cows as they file into the dairy for milking and are each hooked up to their milking machines. Cows are beautiful creatures and the dairy workers move so comfortably among the animals, the atmosphere is peaceful. …Five hours later it is breakfast and we sit down at the farmhouse table for cereal and toast, a large pitcher of milk fresh from the morning within reach. The fresh milk tastes sweet and brings back the memory of my first trip to a farm as a school child, when I tasted cream fresh from milking in a farmhouse kitchen such as this. Later on, as we prepare to leave the farm after our filming is complete, we see Harold Howrigan driving with his grandson beside him on the tractor. It’s not difficult to imagine how the family farm tradition is maintained.

Pineapple / Cacao (Chocolate)

Dole Pineapple Plantation, Oahu, Hawaii

The BIG Breakfast

William VanDerKloot shooting the pineapple harvest.

The BIG Breakfast - Pineapples, Hawaii

VanDerKloot filming Hawaiian pineapples as they enter the packing house.

Leading up to the production shoot on this tropical isle, I made many calls to Dan Nellis, who oversees operations at the Dole Pineapple Plantation on Oahu, Hawaii. I live in Newfoundland, an island offshore Canada that bears the brunt of North Atlantic storms so the very thought of a climate that grows pineapples outdoors is beyond exotic for me. When I would speak to Dan I pictured him in sandals and shorts and as he drove though the pineapple fields, he would often stop to check on the progress of the growing fruit, commenting on the clear sunny sky overhead and the sultry temperatures that even in the midst of a Hawaii winter would barely dip below 70. At 60 degrees, the fruit is naturally propagated, the cold temperatures “forcing the fruit,” he explained. At 60 degrees I would find a Newfoundland day to be positively balmy. When we arrive at the plantation for our shoot, Dan is dressed just as I pictured him, the laid back nature of Hawaii imbuing everything.

Early the next morning we wait for the workers to arrive at a spot where the fruit is ripe. Bill films close-ups of the big ripe fruit while we wait and we even get to taste one, sliced right there in the field by a cheerful woman whose job it is to oversee the day’s harvest and ensure the fruit is ready for picking. The pineapple she offers us is deliciously sweet. It takes 18 months to grow a pineapple! This seems amazingly long and now I look at every pineapple I slice at home with great respect, and not only for the investment of time that nature has put in. The workers come dressed in layers and layers of thick clothing – this seems strange to me given the heat, especially as the sun climbs to mid-day. I quickly grasp why they are dressed so heavily – it is in order to protect themselves from the sharp spiky leaves of the pineapple plant. The workers wade through the sharp pineapple leaves as one would through dense forest, breaking the fruit from its firm stalk with thickly gloved hands. Like with so many crops, the cultivation of pineapples involves hard physical labor in difficult conditions.

With the harvesting of cacao pods it is the same. The beautiful colored pods grow in an orchard much like apples but here workers individually pluck the pods by hand, pushing them in wheelbarrow loads to a waiting truck. We film each step of their labor. We are taken to the open-air processing site where the pods are sliced open, again by individual workers, not machines, and a complex process is then begun whereby the cacao beans are extracted, fermented and dried. That so much work goes into the processing of cacao into cocoa and eventually chocolate of all forms again leaves me with so much respect for the journey our food makes to us.

Maple Syrup

La Sucrerie de la Montagne, Mont Rigaud, Quebec

William VanDerKloot filming at the sugar house.

William VanDerKloot filming at the sugar house.

Pierre Faucher in front of maple sap being boiled to make maple syrup.

Pierre Faucher in front of maple sap being boiled to make maple syrup.

The BIG Breakfast: La Sucrerie de la Montagne, Mont Rigaud, Quebec

Pierre Faucher on his tractor, heading out into the maple forest.

It is minus 22 degrees Celsius – the end of a typical Canadian winter – the night before we will film the tapping of maple trees for the sugary sap that becomes maple syrup. In order for the sap to “run,” the temperature must climb well above freezing. The first thing we learn about maple syrup on this springtime shoot is that – like with every other food crop – the weather itself will make or break the year’s production. With maple syrup, a sap run needs to be constant, which means an intense period of usually only a few weeks when a whole year’s “harvest” will take place. If the temperatures are dramatically up and down – above and below freezing – it can spell ruin for the year’s maple syrup supply.

Quebec produces over 80 per cent of the world’s maple syrup. La Sucrerie de la Montagne is a traditional maple syrup operation nestled into hilly country near Montreal and its owner, Pierre Faucher, a white bearded man resembling Father Christmas, greets us warmly to oversee the details of our day’s maple shoot. We drink coffee together in the early morning chill and discuss the day’s weather forecast – it doesn’t look good for a sap run, the late March cold snap expected to continue – but we’ll hope for the best. Hundreds of school children will visit the “sugar bush” today, as they do every day during maple syrup season, and their favorite part of the day’s tour is always to taste the “taffy on the snow” that I fondly remember partaking of as a child when I visited my Quebec cousins in the Laurentian mountains each spring. Already I am looking forward to hot maple syrup being poured onto fresh clean snow and the delight of twirling my bare popsicle stick over the cooling sap until it has formed a chewy candy treat.

Wheat

Ben Walter’s Wheat Farm, Lethbridge, Alberta

Combines get ready for harvest at Ben Walter’s wheat farm.

Combines get ready for harvest at Ben Walter’s wheat farm.

Filming from a crane as trucks are filled with wheat grains.

Filming from a crane as trucks are filled with wheat grains.

Ben Walter on his farm.

Ben Walter on his farm.

We are standing under a big Montana sky, the kind of sky I used to dream that cowboys rode under. Actually we are in Lethbridge, Alberta, on the second largest wheat farm in western Canada and the bordering Montana mountains rise in a dreamy distant haze of blue. The skies seem endless. From where we stand there is only a horizon of gold in every direction. Ben Walter, on whose wheat farm we stand amidst, has a kind presence and he looks the perfect image of a modern-day John Wayne. The wheel of his combine harvester is taller even than Ben and he tells us there will be 21 combines of this size harvesting his wheat crop tomorrow. It is late August and there is a threat of frost. Again in our journey to film The Big Breakfast program, we are reminded of the power of nature and of how much we rely on weather for the food that we eat. If the frost comes early or before the wheat is all harvested, the crop will fail.

The next morning is an early rise – and it’s a long day of harvest – over 14 hours long by the time we drive away after 10pm in the pitch of dark. At that point the powerful floodlights of the combines still shine across a black night, resembling the lights of alien ships as they swirl around. The harvest of these massive machines, which efficiently cut the wheat stalks and then spill tons of kernels of wheat into their belly, is like a choreographed dance. The combines drive back and forth across the gold expanse, spinning past each other, cutting wheat like one would ice a cake.

The harvest happens because of the dedicated work of a team of young men, many of whom travel from far to work the harvest. Their days are long, the camaraderie intense and when they break for a meal served out of the back of a pick-up truck in the middle of half-harvested fields, we’re reminded of the long-standing tradition of people coming together to work towards a successful harvest. Filming the wheat harvest has its challenges – perhaps the most brutal being the sharp shards of finely sliced wheat stalks that fly in the swirling gusts, a hail-like shower created by the harvesters and by the strong winds that blow across the flat prairie. The particle dust stings your eyes and arms, is painful to inhale and it’s everywhere, thick. The men who work the harvest are working against an impending deadline of frost and in these unsavory conditions, working most nights from the first light of dawn to after midnight to maximize the harvest day.

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