Local organic farmer goes national in documentary

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The Real Dirt on Farmer John shares the storied tale of family-owned Caledonia farm

CALEDONIA—Caledonia, Ill.: Population—Unknown. About 15 miles northeast of Rockford and 75 miles west of Chicago. It’s not even on the AAA map, but it’s where a great American epic has been playing out for 100 years.

John Peterson’s lifelong love affair with his family’s farm in northern Illinois is the subject of the new documentary feature film The Real Dirt on Farmer John, which opened in Chicago and Minneapolis Jan. 20, San Francisco and Portland Jan. 27, and is now due to go across the country.

The winner of 15 film festival awards, The Real Dirt is making audiences laugh and cry, often at the same time, and garnering standing ovations. Al Gore is a fan, calling the film “unbelievably special…a real and gripping story with insight and humor.” Alice Waters, legendary author and owner of the Chez Panisse restaurant and café in Berkeley, Calif., calls the film, “[A] charming, wonderful and important movie.”

In The Real Dirt on Farmer John, filmmaker Taggart Siegel, a friend of Peterson’s since 1979, has documented the history of an individual, his family and land that parallels the history of American farming. “This is an emotionally moving and entertaining story,” said Siegel, “full of drama, heart and soul. It’s about passion, art, personal desolation and transformation, more than it’s about farming.”

The story begins in the early 20th century, when John Peterson’s grandfather purchased the acreage east of Rockford and began farming it. As his son, John’s father, did after him. And John, himself, did after his dad’s death.

In the documentary, through beautifully evocative super-8 home movies shot by John’s mother, Anna, during the 1950s, we see the Petersons—John and his parents and sister, uncles and aunts—in an idyllic America that long ago ceased to exist. For more than three-quarters of a century, the farm was successful, providing a solid grounding for three generations of this all-American family.

What makes the story compelling and poignant is the character of Farmer John himself—a true charismatic American original. Equal parts performance artist, gifted writer, and farmer, Peterson sometimes switches out of his overalls into latex leopard skins. In fact, there’s a scene in the film with John driving his tractor, sporting a black bowler hat, and trailing a purple-feathered boa from around his neck.

In the early 1970s, while a student at Beloit College, just 8 miles from the farm, John was exposed to accelerating cultural changes that supported his natural artistic bent. His new student friends flooded the farm with a riot of artistic expression, rock music and freedom. He created an art commune in the heart of conformist America.

In 1979, Taggart Siegel met Peterson. Siegel was 10 years younger than John, and a student at Peterson’s alma mater, Beloit College. “John invited me out to the farm and a whole new world opened up,” Siegel recalled. “It was very powerful. I was a painter. I wanted to explore making films on the farm, and John just let everyone express themselves. It was the total fusion of a real working farm and an artistic community, a melding of tradition and unorthodox ways.”

“I live in a small provincial area,” Peterson reflected, “and if you remember the ’70s, you’ll appreciate that it would have been pretty hard, actually impossible, for folks in the environs to accept us.” In fact, Peterson was demonized by his neighbors as a drug-dealing cult murderer of animals and children, and blamed for the general decline in farm fortunes.

Then came the ’80s, and the unrelenting pressures to survive faced by family farmers in debt crisis throughout the U.S. John Peterson was no exception. Siegel, by now a student at Columbia College film school in Chicago, made a 10-minute documentary film, Bitter Harvest, recording Peterson’s struggles to keep the farm, and the eventual auctioning of his farm equipment.

The profound pain of Peterson’s losses, and the ultimate resurrection and transformation of the farm and his farm-based life, provide the current film’s universal themes, communicating deeply to each viewer. “In the end, it’s really an optimistic story about the resurrection of the American soul,” said Siegel, “and it starts with the soil.”

But before any resurrection was possible, utter desolation was required. Peterson lost most of the family farm and descended into a deep depression. In coping with failure—economic and personal—he was forced to take a journey of discovery and resourcefulness. Al Gore has commented, “… this movie is partly about John Peterson’s work on his inner integrity, and his courage to be brutally honest with himself. “

Peterson traveled to Mexico, seeking to heal himself from his perceived failure. “I had come to feel that the land was savage,” he recalled, “ruthless, self-serving, and unreliable. I swore I would never farm again.” And out of his letting go, his surrender to this failure—this ending—over time a new possibility emerged in Peterson. “It was actually a yearning, an aching for the land. I had to go back and try again,” he said.

Constantly supporting him during his various ordeals and triumphs was his mother, Anna, a luminous presence throughout the film. The love and intimacy that’s shown is archetypal in its depth and beauty, reminding each of us of the mother-love we either had, or wish we’d had.

In the early ’90s, Peterson returned to what was left—a shell—of the family farm, determined to bring it back to life. “I had no clue how difficult it would be, but I had no choice,” he said. “I realized that my personal destiny was intertwined with that of the farm, and I simply had to go back. It was a monster to get going again, way beyond my comprehension.”

Peterson was resolute, continually recommitting his energies, reinventing himself, reinvigorating the enterprise. Seeing the ongoing multinational corporatization of farming, and betting instead on the future of organic produce, John turned his enterprise into an organic operation, naming the farm Angelic Organics. “We did farmers’ markets, we sold at my mom’s roadside stand,” he said. “We did everything we could, but we were losing money.”

In 1992, a Chicago couple called the farm after seeing an Angelic Organics-labeled product in their local supermarket, and invited Peterson to become a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farmer. “I didn’t want to do it,” Peterson recalled. “I was afraid I’d lose my independence as a farmer.” He dabbled in it for a while and, in the process, discovered that the movement was really all about community. “I realized that my whole life had been about community—enabling people, bringing them to the farm, working and playing together, sharing the farm experience.” So he committed Angelic Organics to the CSA program.

Sometime in the mid-’90s, he and Siegel, who’d remained a close friend for all these years, found themselves standing in the middle of one of the fields, astounded by the crops, the bounty, the beauty! “It was a sight for sore eyes,” said Peterson. “At some point,” recalled Siegel, “we stood there and realized, ‘Hey, we need to tell the story of this—the resurrection!—the redemption of our bleak, dismal tale of the ’80s.’” And planning for The Real Dirt on Farmer John began.

The story of Angelic Organics’ success as a CSA farm over the last 15 years is the final delight of the film. A multi-faceted enterprise, the farm now provides fresh organic produce to 1,200 shareholder families, as well as on-site educational programs for children, employment opportunities for people who really want to get back to the earth, and plans for other farm- and family-centered activities.

John Peterson, the writer, also has several books being readied for publication, including his autobiography, a book of short stories about farming, and a cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables; Recipes, Tips and Stories f

rom a Community Supported Farm. Some of Farmer John’s special organic recipes for Thanksgiving and Christmas are available for free downloading from his Web site— www.angelicorganics.com.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John is a rich slice of Americana. The family’s connection with the earth…the Illinois soil that flows in John Peterson’s veins…the independent, free-spirited expressiveness of John’s artistic soul…the community-oriented, inclusiveness of his vision. It’s all the best that Americans have to offer. And here it is now, in a film offered to Americans at a time when we all crave a deeper connection with our own goodness and possibilities for an ever more personal and inclusive culture.

In addition to the 15 film festival grand jury and audience awards it has won, The Real Dirt on Farmer John has been nominated by the national Film Board of Canada for the Best Documentary Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival. It is also being supported by scores of grassroots and community organizations around the U.S. that believe in its message. For more information, visit www.therealdirt.net.

“To me, farming is poetry,” said John Peterson, “… drama. It’s a source of infinite fascination.” And so is Farmer John.

From the Feb. 1-7, 2006, issue

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