Filmmaker captures final days of Virginia’s last deer farm

By Ryan Cornell

BASYE — As a film director, dealing with actors like Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan can become frustrating. But as documentary filmmaker Kathryn Pasternak quickly learned, working with deer isn’t much easier.

For one thing, deer are remarkably camera shy. “I had a lot of footage of them looking at the camera and running away,” she said. “I think they thought my tripod was a gun, but I had to have my camera on the tripod.” She decided to buy a deer blind, thinking if it worked for hunters, it might help keep her hidden.

The deer weren’t so easily fooled. “Deer figure out things,” Pasternak said. “We used to put a rope on the gate. They chewed through the rope. After a couple days, they chewed through the plastic-coated wire we replaced it with.”

And the star of her documentary, deer farmer Gail Rose, 65, warned that they also would chew through the blind. She said she had forgotten her raincoat in the deer enclosure once and came back the next day to find it.

“They ate everything but the snaps,” Rose said. “They pooped yellow for a while.”

Although “Doeville” is the first film Pasternak has shot herself, she has experience bringing animals to the TV screen. A producer for the National Geographic Channel and the winner of two Emmy Awards, Pasternak has produced films about wolves and bison at Yellowstone National Park, a troop of baboons in Botswana and a group of hyenas in southern Africa.

In August 2010, she started filming the documentary about Rose, whose Deauville Farm in Basye was the last remaining deer farm in Virginia. Because there were also no slaughterhouses in Virginia for deer, Rose would slaughter, skin and gut the fallow deer herself to produce venison.

As the price of deer feed quadrupled in the span of a couple years, from $6 to $24 for a 100 lb. bag of corn, and financial stresses began to mount, the focus of the film suddenly shifted. It became about the last days of the deer farm.

Rose maxed out her credit cards. She sold 30 of her 50 acres. But it would only keep her afloat for a short time.

And then Santa Claus saved her. A reindeer farmer in Wisconsin, who often dressed up in the red suit and sleigh, had seen her ad. He was interested in buying her herd of fallow deer. He contacted her in February 2012. The deer were gone two months later.

Pasternak said Rose made a promise to her late husband on his deathbed that she would keep the deer farm going.

“And it was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, to part with the deer,” Rose said. “But I was going to lose the farm if I had tried to hold onto them. I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Rose once had dreams of opening her own organic farm. But she put it on hold when she met her husband, who would introduce her to deer farming. Today, Deauville Farm grows everything organic, including eggs, pick-your-own vegetables, more than 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and heritage-breed chickens.

For Rose, using organic methods gets personal. Around the same time she was selling her deer herd, she was also battling a resurgence of breast cancer that first appeared 20 years ago. She was working at a garden center back then, she said, and had spilled systemic insecticide on her leg. She said she was in the hospital for about a week and believes the chemicals caused the cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy last spring.

“It’s all a balance,” Rose said about the environment. “We’re sucking out Mother Earth’s blood and burning it on her skin and using it to pollute the air.”

Gerald Forsburg, the owner of the Mt. Jackson Farmers’ Market, was sitting in the shade of a 200-year-old oak tree on the Deauville Farm on Monday. A bumblebee that Rose had named Betty and said “liked to sniff the hair on people’s legs” — was lounging on his index finger. Forsburg said he had recently watched the trailer for “Doeville.”

“Even though it’s about the deer farm, it’s also about sustainable farming in today’s world,” Forsburg said. “The average age of farmers today are in their 60s and the younger generation isn’t getting as involved.”

Pasternak said she hopes “Doeville” will reach a broad audience. She said farmers who manage any type of livestock can relate to its story. A fundraising campaign for the documentary on Indiegogo raised $30,178, beating its goal, and was supported by people across the world, from Switzerland and Taiwan to Australia and Zimbabwe.

Rose said her experience has taught her how many extraordinary people are in her life. She added that she plans to keep farming as long as she’s physically able.

Pasternak is currently working on editing the film and said she hopes to release it by the first quarter of 2014.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com