THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN

Family Farms in America

broadcast

Farmer John Q&A

John Peterson talks about his friendship with filmmaker Taggart Siegel, the challenges of CSA farming, “those funny costumes” and more.

How do you know Taggart Siegel?

Taggart and I met at an art opening at Beloit College in 1979. I invited him to the farm and he was so amazed with the commune-like situation that he moved there for the summer.

On farming today:

Even though agri-business can emulate most aspects of the organic model, thus making organics in a certain way a clone of the conventional model, agri-business cannot emulate the community supported agriculture model, in which the consumer has a direct and intimate relationship with a farm.

How did he get so much footage from your entire life?

My mom shot a lot of footage when I was growing up, and I shot quite a bit in the 1970s and the ‘80s. Taggart Siegel often filmed me while we were traveling. He has also made a few short films starring myself.

Are you and Taggart still friends?

After 25 years of friendship, we have managed to stay friends, in fact great friends. The friendship was often tested during the creative challenges but miraculously our friendship has withstood time.

Why did you and Taggart decide to make THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN?

Having made a documentary about the demise of my farm in the early ‘80s, Taggart and I found ourselves amazed in the mid-1990s to see the farm actually coming back to life. We both realized the miracle of a reborn farm and recognized what it could offer the world.

How long did it take to make the film?

It took nine years to make. Taggart’s approach to filmmaking is often to see how things unfold over time, to witness the drama of events through time. He often has one or two other projects being filmed simultaneously. THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN is a very personal film for Taggart because so much history passed through the lens of his camera over those 25 years that he and I have been friends.

It took about two years to edit. I got very involved in the story, writing and narrating the film and critiquing the “truth” of the film. A lot of this was based on my autobiography, which will be coming out soon.

What’s it like for you in your local community now?

I’m kind of an isolationist. When Taggart was interviewing people in the community the last few years, it was clear that there are still people who don’t like me and who still believe the dark rumors about me. One neighbor told the producer Teri Lang that if she knew the truth about me, they would pack up their cameras and go home. The film screened in the community a few times in 2005, and this seems to be changing the community’s perception of me and the farm.

On being a free thinker:

There were many influences that converged during my late teens, but the one that I feel was the most powerful in affecting my life, was falling in love with a very artistic, theatrical girl who used to come and dance and sing in my barn while I milked.

How did you go from being an average farm boy to the eccentric free thinker you are today?

There were many influences that converged during my late teens, but the one that I feel was the most powerful in affecting my life was falling in love with a very artistic, theatrical girl who used to come and dance and sing in my barn while I milked. I was 19. She soon lost interest in me, but for many years after that experience I pondered the feelings that I had for her, exploring them, and turning them into creative expression in theater, design, events, etc.

Why did you lose all your land? Why were you so in debt? Did you just party too much?

I prefer to think of the festive years of my youth as celebrations of life and of farming, even though my neighbors simply called it partying. My creative lifestyle contributed a bit to the debt, but the bulk of it was caused by too much optimism at the wrong time. When commodities and land values collapsed in the early ‘80s, I was over-extended and vulnerable, like so many other farmers.

How do you want your farm to develop and progress into the future?

I would like to have a full time CSA community-builder, as the farm has so many shareholders, and I want to deepen their relationship to the farm through more personal contact and farm visits. (Most of the shareholders are in or near Chicago, almost two hours from the farm.) Also, I want to develop a farm store and active pick-up site to create more on-going relationships with the farm. When Angelic Organics CSA started up, there was very little local interest in community sustainable agriculture, so Chicago was the natural place for focusing on shareholders. But now, there would probably be enough local people interested in joining the farm to develop a store and active pick-up site. Some shareholders already pick up on the farm, but not enough to really develop a store yet.

What has been the most surprising thing about running a CSA?

The degree to which customers or shareholders bond with the farm, and in a certain emotional way, become farmers of sorts themselves.

The most challenging?

Learning to raise all the crops that are needed to give the shareholders adequate variety. People laud diversity as a cornerstone of sustainability, but it was very difficult to learn to manage all the different vegetables we needed to grow.

What do you feel the future holds for farming in America?

The polarities, conventional and organic, are each becoming stronger, more capitalized, more assertive. It will be up to the people who eat to decide the future.

One interesting note here, is that even though agri-business can emulate most aspects of the organic model, thus making organics in a certain way a clone of the conventional model, agri-business cannot emulate the community supported agriculture model, in which the consumer has a direct and intimate relationship with a farm.

On being the subject of a film:

… if the story of my life contributes to people in a tangible way, and many people have told me it has. They often say it has given them hope, or courage to move on. That's the best thing about the film for me.

Do you really farm in those funny costumes?

Mostly in my imagination.

What are some of your current artistic projects?

A vast revamp of the Angelic Organics web page (a bit of a retrospective, I feel, as I see it come together)

A book: Farmer John on Glitter and Grease; Short Stories On and Off the Land (to be released in late August of 2006)

Another book: Farmer John's Uneasy Autobiography: "I Didn't Kill Anyone Up Here" (to be released in fall of 2006)

(Much of the film THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN is based on the writings in these two books.)

How has the film changed your life?

People think my life is glamorous today, but it’s a lot of work. I’ve been touring with the film for a whole year now, and I miss farming.

It has kept me from running farm equipment, which I miss very much. I thought the completed film might put a lot of demands on the director, which it has, but I had no idea that I would be called into action to support the film to such a vast degree. This will be my second season of not being hands on at the farm, due to what has been requested of me as the subject of this film.

As far as the publicity that has come with the film, all the interviews and media attention, it's okay, but I'm not really attracted to fame. (Great fame would be a huge nightmare, I am sure, based on the little taste I have had of fame so far.) What I like is if the story of my life contributes to people in a tangible way, and many people have told me it has. They often say it has given them hope, or courage to move on. That's the best thing about the film for me.

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