Agriculture and counterculture collide in this portrait of a one-of-a-kind American farmer

The Real Dirt on Farmer John

on July 27, 2007 by Annlee Ellingson
In a portrait as personal as The Real Dirt on Farmer John , it's difficult to judge the film without judging its subject. A strapping blonde farm boy who inherited his father's farm while still a teenager, John Peterson embraced the dippy hippies he met at college, alienated his rural neighbors by turning his farmstead into an art commune, lost his land and reinvented it (more than once) in a remarkable life that's still being written. All of which was captured over the course of 25 by years by filmmaker and friend Taggart Siegel, who eventually stitched together this tapestry from home movies, Super 8 and video.

Although John is an admitted provocateur, there's something inauthentic about his pink feather boas and bumblebee costumes. He rarely actually appears on camera in such outrageous gear, likely to its impracticality on a working farm. It also feels disingenuous when the film confronts the childhood friend and neighbor who allegedly stoked rumors of devil worship, sacrificial killings and sexual orgies on John's farm during the decade it was known as the “Midwest Coast.”

Still, there's a genuine love here for the rural experience, from John's poetic descriptions of his love for soil, metal and machinery to the affectionate recollections of the old days, when all the men would help each other with the harvest and the women would compete to make the best noontime meal. The cadences and phrasings of these people will feel very familiar to anyone who's spent any time in the Midwest, but surprising—and poignant—is how Siegel elicits tears from one of these stalwart guys as he mourns how new housing developments have scarred the land.

Meanwhile, the arc of John's career serves as a handy and accurate map of the history of American agriculture over the past several decades. He was among the first to lose his farm in the '80s, forced to sell the land that his family had tilled for decades. Demonstrating the community's regard for this move, his sister offers this devastating indictment: “John's not like Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpa—they were highly regarded.” Ironically, many others followed in his footsteps, as the number of farms in the U.S. has declined from 7 million in the 1930s to 2 million in 2005.

But John was also among the first to reclaim the land he had left (22 of his family's original 300 acres) at the forefront of the organic farming movement. Today his Angelic Organics is an example of Community Supported Agriculture, in which urban families pay upfront for fresh fruits and vegetables all season long, reestablishing the tie between consumers and the farmers who grow their food. Finally, John's twin passions for agriculture and counterculture have achieved a communal relationship.
Distributor: Cavu
Cast: John Peterson
Director: Taggart Siegel
Producers: Taggart Siegel and Teri Lang
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 83 min.
Release dates: June 22, 2007 NY, July 20 Sea, July 27 LA, August and September exp
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