The Fall and Rise of Farmer John

Foreclosure, film crews, free spirits — ain’t nothing that a country boy can’t hack

One of America’s enduring myths, honed by a thousand jokes and films, is that our farmers are ignorant, backward, and conservative. Sure, there’s one in every bunch. In truth, farming demands intelligence, curiosity, and creativity, and that may be why the profession has given us more than its fair share of reformers and radicals.

Take John Peterson, the subject of the new documentary film The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Peterson, a third-generation northern Illinois agriculturist, is one farmer who single-handedly flattens the rube stereotype. He’s handy with a tractor and haybine, and he’s also an oddball artist who is unafraid to prance through his cornfields in a bee costume (complete with black-and-yellow tights and gossamer wings). Peterson is, to say the least, a complex character.

Beautifully shot and masterfully edited from some 55 years’ worth of footage, The Real Dirt is both his autobiography (Peterson is credited as the film’s writer) and a chronicle of radical shifts in the social, cultural, and economic landscape of rural America. The film begins in the idyllic 1950s. Filmmaker Taggart Siegel intercuts interviews with vivid super-8 footage shot by Peterson’s mother, Anna, that brings the hard work and joy of farming into sharp focus. Peterson’s father and uncle farmed a small acreage inherited from their father, but as the archival footage makes clear, community was the equal of family. Neighbors and relatives crowd the frames of Anna’s camera and work together to thresh grain, raise a barn, and prepare meals. Young John Peterson is there, too, one of a gaggle of rough-and-tumble kids running along behind the tractor — the only son, destined to inherit the farm and his father’s skill of working the land.

Into this bucolic scene comes the 1960s “Green Revolution” — a misnomer used to describe the intensive petrochemical farming that launched the long, slow decline of the American family farm. By the 1970s, as President Richard Nixon’s agriculture secretary warned farmers to “get big or get out,” virtually the entire farming industry was floating on credit — and the ship sank in the 1980s farm crisis.

Against this backdrop, Peterson faced his own struggles. His father died, leaving the 19-year-old to work the farm alone. When Peterson enrolled in some courses at nearby Beloit College, his world of tractors and crops collided full force with art, free expression, and radical youth culture. Soon his farm became an off-campus crash pad and arts colony. Peterson mounted speakers on the fenders of his tractor and blasted the Doors. The barn filled with puppets and masks. “For ten years,” Peterson says, “the farm became a big experiment.”

One of the artists who swam ashore at Peterson’s “Midwest Coast” was The Real Dirt‘s filmmaker, Taggart Siegel. There he shot his first film, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, starring Peterson, as well as his pigs, chickens, and cows. Siegel also picked up the thread of Peterson’s life where his mother’s super-8 left off, eventually amassing more than 180 hours of footage of life on the farm.

By the age of 30, Peterson had racked up “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in debt, and in 1982 his land, tools, and equipment were auctioned off. The 360 acres that his father had nursed through the Great Depression were reduced to just 22. His college friends had fled, and Peterson was left alone with a barn full of masks.

In the aftermath of his farm failure, depression gripped Peterson. Moreover, the wild parties and eccentric art projects had alienated him from his neighbors. According to Peterson’s script, he became a persecuted scapegoat, accused of devil worship and tormented until he finally fled to Mexico to recuperate. His account of this time is tinged, perhaps understandably, with a streak of paranoia. It’s true that the bitter tincture of ill will and gossip can make a small town a terrible place to be. But it’s also true that the price of nonconformity is often ostracism.

Every foreclosure in the ’80s had a private story of guilt and shame, but most farmers remember the decade as a time when folks pulled together to face hard times. While Peterson nursed his wounds in Mexico, his more conventional contemporaries formed organizations like Groundswell, the American Agriculture Movement (AAM), and countless others that sought to help farmers cope with their losses and change the federal policies that had bankrupted them. In the late ’70s, AAM organized thousands of farmers in a “tractorcade” that shut down Washington, D.C. In The Real Dirt, this rich history of farmers rallying to act on their own behalf is eclipsed by Peterson’s personal sense, however justified, of persecution. That’s too bad, because it diminishes the frame of the film’s second half, which chronicles Peterson’s compelling resurrection and rebirth as an organic farmer.

After Mexico, where he found an outlet in writing, Peterson lifts himself out of his depression and returns home, determined to resume farming on his remaining 22 acres, with his mother selling his organic produce from a roadside stand. Eventually, some Chicagoans convince him to adopt community-supported agriculture (CSA), a now-common system of small-scale farming in which food consumers make an up-front purchase of a share in the farm harvest.

Peterson’s Angelic Organics has grown rapidly to more than 1,000 members — one of the largest community-supported farms in the country. By connecting city consumers to the source of their food, CSA farmers like Peterson are performing a true service. Festivals and work days bring city folk to the farm, where they get a firsthand education in the struggles and triumphs of farming. People who understand what’s involved in growing food may be more willing to pay for it — a critical hurdle in replacing large-scale, subsidized, chemical monocropping with small-scale, healthy family farming.

Angelic Organics, Peterson and Siegel imply, is also reinventing the community spirit of 1950s-era farming. The end of the film intercuts scenes of Angelic’s members raising the timbers on a new barn and clips of Peterson’s father and neighbors building the farm’s original barn. Conspicuously absent from the modern barn raising are Peterson’s neighbors — the sons and daughters of the men who had helped his father. Can the forces that uphold Peterson’s community-supported farm also unite his own community?

Peterson’s lingering rancor toward his neighbors is a personal blind spot that affects not only the film but also his apparent vision for the future of sustainable agriculture. Make no mistake, small-scale farming, natural inputs, and regional distribution have the power to save the planet and the family farm, and there’s plenty of room for dreamers, artists, and eccentrics in that future. But we’d also be wise to make room for county extension agents, farm bureau wonks, and “conventional” farmers who might not make for riveting footage.

At one point in the film, a weary Peterson considers leaving his long hours and low pay. “It’s not bringing in a lot of money,” his mother responds, “but it’s a way of life.” That way of life (to say nothing of the environment) has been all but destroyed by large-scale agribusiness. As an antidote, sustainable agriculture is, above all, an economic, agronomic, and supply-chain model. Implementing this model will take a concerted, cooperative effort, and we’ll need all the allies we can get.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John is scheduled for a theatrical release in mid-November. For information on upcoming screenings, to schedule a viewing for your organization, or to place an advance order for the DVD, go to

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