Skip to content

the real dirt on Farmer John

April 7, 2011

Jude and I watched the first part of a fascinating documentary Tuesday night.  It’s

not a miniseries.  We just taped the rest of it because we had to get up at 5:30 a.m.

It’s a film from 2005 called the real dirt on Farmer John. It follows Illinois farmer

John Peterson from childhood to present day middle-age.

Not riveting material?  Maybe not if John was your average Joe, but he’s a free spirit

who sometimes plows his fields wearing a dress and feather boa.  Even so, it isn’t his

quirkiness that’s the strength of the film.  Rather, it’s his love of the land and dogged

resolve, which bent mightily once but got him through.

The spine of the film is the abundance of material available to tell John’s story.  His

mother Anna bought a Super 8 camera when John and his siblings were kids.  She

recorded reel after reel of them, other family members and the community around

them.  That some of the footage was discolored by time only adds to its richness.

It also helps immensely that director Taggart Siegel is a longtime friend of John and

had filmed him for the last 20 years.  So you get to see John morph from a child,

reveling in farm life and family, to  an elder making peace with himself.

real dirt takes its time.  I got a keen sense of who John is and how he got there.  The

community of other farmers nearby was fleshed out by numerous interviews with

them.  You learn social structure, such as the practice of the group to go together

from farm to farm during harvest.  The lunch served on those days were showcases

for the wives, highly competitive.

After John’s idyllic childhood, he attended Beloit College, 8 miles from home.  His

father died shortly after John started.  John managed the farm and still went to

classes.  At Beliot he met artists. musicians, actors and others who didn’t especially

subscribe to his conservative beliefs.

John stayed open-minded in this new atmosphere.  Soon a stream of free-thinkers

were coming to the farm.  They called the place “The Midwest Coast”.  This didn’t

set well with the other farmers.  Rumours about drugs and orgies circulated.  Even-

tually the collective was done with their own thing and dissipated.

Farming got tougher and tougher.  In the 80’s John had to sell most of the family’s

farmland and all of its equipment.  Members of the other families were at the auc-

tion.  He went into a profound depression, then sojourned to Mexico to regroup.

He returned and told his mother he wanted to try again.  She loaned him the money

so he could.

John decided to heal the soil from the unhealthy practices he’d been using, such

as spreading pesticides.  Slowly the land and the quality of its product improved.

His organic methods attracted some people from Chicago, who convinced him to

become part of the community-supported agriculture movement.

As this happened, John’s  mother Anna, a spirited woman in her mid-80’s, died.

There’s a poignant shot in the film that shows the empty shelves of her beloved

roadside produce stand.  As part of his grieving, John tries to reconnect with some

of the neighbours.  A scene of him talking to one who had spread rumours about

him is priceless.  The neighbour squirms as John gently but firmly confronts him.

Today the farm thrives.  Check out its website.  I urge you to see this film.  It’s one

of the most insightful, compelling, unblinking looks at the American Dream that

you’ll ever see.

  1. April 7, 2011 3:41 pm

    OK, I’ve started watching it on YouTube…

    • April 7, 2011 5:43 pm

      I’d appreciate your opinion about it.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: