THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN

Family Farms in America

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The Film

L-R:
1940s farm photo: a young woman in a dress stands next to her father in overalls; a dog sits at their feet

A young blonde boy plays in a lush green cornfield

Farmer John stands leaning on a tractor wearing a Dr. Seuss top hat, a silver lame dress and long scarf

“My ancestors have farmed this land generation after generation, and I just about ended the whole thing. What do you do when nothing is left? And in a rural community where you aren’t welcome because you’re kind of different.”
—Farmer John Peterson

For close to a century, a great American epic has been played out in the tiny town of Caledonia, Illinois, about 75 miles west of Chicago. THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN tells the story of one man, his farm and his family—a story that parallels the history of American farming. But Farmer John is no laconic, Grant Wood-type with a scowl and a pitchfork. Equal parts performance artist, writer and farmer, John Peterson has been known to switch out of his overalls into leopard latex or a purple-feathered boa.

“Soil tastes good today”
Farmer John on farming,
expression and creativity
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Farmer John stands in a field holding a pitchfork, wearing glasses, overalls, a plaid shirt and baseball cap
“My family has been plowing and planting every spring for generations, but it’s ending with me.”
The auction (1983)
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In the early 1900s, Peterson’s grandfather purchased and began to farm some acreage west of Chicago. The family tradition continued: Peterson’s father farmed the same land, as did Peterson, after his father’s death. Then came the 1970s. As a student at nearby Beloit College, Peterson was exposed to the era’s wildly accelerating cultural changes which fed his artistic inclinations. His new student friends flooded the farm with a riot of art, freedom and rock and roll, creating an art commune in the heart of conformist Midwestern America. Filmmaker Taggart Siegel was one of these friends. As he explains, “In 1979, John invited me out to the farm and a whole new world opened up. It was very powerful. I was a painter and I wanted to explore making films on the farm, and John just let everyone express themselves. It was the total fusion of a real working farm and an artistic community, a melding of traditional and unorthodox ways.”

“I live in a small provincial area,” Peterson says, “and if you remember the ‘70s, you’ll appreciate that it would have been pretty hard, actually impossible, for folks to accept us.” Peterson was later demonized by his neighbors as a drug-dealing cult murderer of animals and children, and blamed for the general decline in farm fortunes.

This decline came in the early 1980s, when family farmers throughout the United States felt unrelenting economic pressures. Siegel, by then a student in Columbia College’s film school, made a ten-minute documentary, Bitter Harvest, recording Peterson’s struggles to keep his family’s farm and the eventual auctioning off of his farm equipment. The profound pain of Peterson’s losses and the eventual transformation of his farm provide the soul of THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN. “In the end, it’s really an optimistic story about the resurrection of the American soul,” says Siegel, “and it starts with the soil.”

But before any resurrection was possible, utter desolation was required. Peterson lost most of the farm and descended into a deep depression. Trying to cope with his economic and personal failures, he was forced to take a journey of discovery and resourcefulness. “I had come to feel that the land was savage,” Peterson explains, “ruthless, self-serving, and unreliable. I swore I would never farm again.” Constantly supporting him was his mother, Anna, a luminous presence throughout the film. In the early 1990s, Peterson returned to what was left of the farm, determined to bring it back to life: “I had no clue how difficult it would be, but I had no choice. I realized that my personal destiny was intertwined with that of the farm, and I simply had to go back.”

“In the end, it’s really an optimistic story about the resurrection of the American soul…and it starts with the soil.” —Filmmaker Taggart Siegel

Noticing the ongoing multinational takeover of American farming and betting instead on the future of organic produce, Peterson turned his enterprise into an organic operation, naming the farm Angelic Organics. He was soon invited to become a community supported agriculture (CSA) farmer: “I realized that my whole life had been about community—enabling people, bringing them to the farm, working and playing together, sharing the farm experience.” The story of Angelic Organics’ success as a CSA farm over the last 15 years is the final delight of THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN. A multi-faceted enterprise, the farm now provides fresh organic produce for 1,200 shareholder families, on-site educational programs, employment opportunities for people who truly want to get back to the earth—including Farmer John.

Update

Filmmaker Taggart Siegel filmed THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN from 1996 to 2004. In May 2006, he reported:

“John is hard at work finishing up his autobiography and publishing short stories and a cookbook called The Real Dirt on Vegetables. He hasn't done much farming since he's been on tour for his books and film. He's finding it as demanding as farming.”

Get to know Farmer John >>

Read the filmmaker Q&A >>

Learn more about community supported agriculture >>

Top photos (L-R):
Farmer John's mother, Anna, and her father (1941)
A young John Peterson romps in the cornfield
Farmer John at Angelic Organics
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