The filming of "The
Real Dirt on Farmer John" essentially began on that
day in the 1950s when John Peterson's mother, Anna, brought home
a Super-8 movie camera. A farmer's wife and school teacher from
Caledonia, Ill., she filmed her family working in the fields,
her children playing in the yard, the raising of a barn, the
changing of the seasons and the harvest dinners supplied to neighbors
who came to help with the threshing.
Her husband died at about the time her son John started to attend
nearby Beloit College. By then it was the 1960s, and John and his
friends took over the filmmaking; he was a farmer who was also
a hippie, and his friends descended on the farm to create their
art and, as was said in those days, do their thing. John had his
hands full running the farm, a dairy and hog operation, and eventually
too many bank loans came due and he had to sell most of it.
That led to a long depression, to trips to Mexico to find himself,
and finally, by a meandering route that the movie traces with great
love for the meanders, to the present day, when Peterson's farm
has been reborn as Angelic Organics, is co-owned with several hundred
Chicago and Northern Illinois investors, and raises so many organic
vegetables, he says, "that I don't know the names of some
The film has been directed and photographed by Taggart Siegel,
who has been filming Peterson and his farm for more than 20 years.
This is a loving, moving, inspiring, quirky documentary that was
made while the lives it records were being lived. We get a sure
sense for the gradual death of the American family farm, the auctions
of land and farm equipment, the encroachment of suburban housing,
and then an almost miraculous rebirth through the introduction
of organic gardening. Fruits and vegetables in America have lost
half their nutritive value in the last century, and those pretty
hothouse tomatoes contain a fraction of the nutrients and phytochemicals
in an organic tomato, but visionaries like Peterson are finding
a way back to the land.
Let it be observed, however, that Peterson is a strange man, and
celebrates his own oddities. He wrote and reads the narration,
which is that of a man who has one foot in the counterculture and
the other in rich organic soil. He likes to dress strangely, in
Dr. Seuss hats or bumblebee costumes. He is taken to dancing wildly
in the fields. He is told his speech and body language make him
appear to be homosexual, but there is persuasive evidence of heterosexuality
in the series of girlfriends who keep him in "relationships" through
|The heroine of the film is his mother, a high-spirited 83-year-old
when we meet her, who persuades John not to quit the farm because
how could she live without her roadside produce stand? A free-
thinker who likes Jim Morrison although he didn't "dress nice," she
is an articulate life force. Through her we glimpse John's father,
his uncles and aunts, and the neighbors of a vanished farm culture.
The miracle of Angelic Organics begins the day in the 1990s some
Chicago investors in Community Supported Agriculture buy one of
his organic onions, call him up, and offer to go into business
with him. Today the Peterson farm is co-owned and operated with
his CSA partners, delivers fresh produce to hundreds of customers
every week, has expanded, is working in a way Peterson's father
could never have imagined. Oh, and John has finally put to rest
those rumors about devil worship, orgies and drug abuse, which
were never true, but if a man is going to wear a Dr. Seuss hat
and have hippies living in his barn, he's got to expect that people
Cast & Credits
With John Peterson, Anna Peterson, John Edwards, Isa Jacoby, Rosemary
Palmer, Jesus Briano, Robert Clothier and Lesley Freeman.
|CAVU Pictures presents a documentary directed by Taggart Siegel.
Written and narrated by John Peterson. Running time: 83 minutes.
No MPAA rating.