New movie showcases the successful side of farming—after thoroughly documenting its failures
The Real Dirt on Farmer John wins audience appreciation award at Slamdance Film Festival for its portrayal of John Peterson of Angelic Organics.

By: Cara Hungerford

February 22, 2005: Organic agriculture plays the hero in a new documentary film about Illinois farmer John Peterson and the evolution of family farming over the last fifty years. The Slamdance Film Festival audience award winner for best documentary feature, The Real Dirt on Farmer John is a colorful story of a traditional Midwestern farm run by a rather untraditional farmer.

John Peterson, head farmer at Angelic Organics, a 1200-member biodynamic CSA outside of Chicago, has lived through the highs and lows of the farm movement. Using a combination of new footage, home movies and photographs, director Taggart Siegel chronicles Peterson’s and the farm’s many transformations over the decades.

"“Like a drug, the land can lure a person into destitution. The land can embolden, exhaust and ennoble.”

—John Peterson, Farmer

What begins as a poultry and dairy farm during Peterson’s childhood evolves along with Peterson and the meaning of farming in America-- the tragic suicide of his uncle coincides with the initial decline of the family farm during the late 1950s; his father’s farm expands along with the rest of the farms in America during the early '60s; passed to Peterson in the late '60s, it becomes an idyllic farmer-artist commune; then, as was the trend during the farm debt crisis of the 1980s, it is auctioned off piece by piece.

While most of the journey is tragic--death and death threats, loss and depression mar the first 40 years of Peterson’s life, by the millennium the future looks bright and sunny in Caledonia, Illinois. After an extended tour of Mexico, Peterson returns to the farm with a renewed spirit and a desire to heal himself and the soil through organic agriculture. But, as Peterson learns, organic agriculture is not easy and as the insects gnaw away at his crops they also devour his spirit. Things once again look grim until a group of consumers from Chicago ask Peterson to grow the organic produce they are unable to find in their grocery stores. The result is the birth of the Angelic Organics’ CSA, now one of the largest CSAs in the United States, and the rebirth of the farm--removed from isolation and infused with the spirit of community. Ending frames are filled with the enthusiasm of children, volunteers, interns and members yearning for a deeper connection to their food.

Well crafted and entertaining, the film is generating both agricultural and mainstream fans. Mark Achbar, director of The Corporation, calls the film, “A deeply moving metaphor for the struggles of a generation.” CR Lawn of the Farm Advocate says, “Far more than the story of one beleaguered farmer, it is a riveting dramatic allegory about human nature and the nature of our society.”

The Real Dirt is not simply about farming, it is also about fighting the stereotypes that strangle it.

“My goal is to challenge preconceived notions about farms and farmers; to inspire audiences by a tale of tenacity; and to challenge viewers to examine more closely their prejudices and judgments about others,” Taggert writes in the Director’s Statement.

The flamboyant, yet successful Farmer John Peterson, with his sequined costumes and effeminate mannerisms, is certainly up to the challenge. Peterson and his merry-band of CSA supporters will have you rethinking every notion you ever had about what a farmer and a farm should look like.

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