'The Real Dirt on Farmer John' Tells a Story of Enlightenment in the Simple Earth

A parable of Americana in the throes of change, this unusual docudrama explores a man's connection to family, earth, and the prizes of living genuinely.

John Peterson raises his eyebrows and shows us the fullness of his face — round eyes, soft features, an almost palpable sense of willingness. In these few moments of Taggart Siegal’s documentary The Real Dirt on Farmer John, Peterson is transformed into the young man he was in his high school pictures, before tragedy befell the family farm. We’re treated to a glimpse of who he might have been.

Most of the time Peterson’s brow hangs thick and low as a spring storm cloud, a reflection of his life’s circumstances. The Real Dirt on Farmer John is the story of Peterson’s struggle to redeem his connection to friends, family and the land his father farmed, and to rebuild the farm according to his own vision.

More than Peterson’s personal story, though, Farmer John is a parable of Americana in the throes of change. The most heart-wrenching scenes take place in the 1980s, when debt, drought and bad luck turned many Wisconsin farms into tract houses. Even as the land disappears, Peterson clings to his love of the earth, the things that grow from it, and the community of people that gravitate toward it.

The film embraces a central precept of rural American life: the land is ours. But in Farmer John, land is family as well, its bounty as joyous as the gathering of friends, its loss as grievous as a mother’s  death. Peterson’s enduring connection to his dwindling Wisconsin acreage compels the decisions that eventually bring him success.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John PetersonFarmer John is written and narrated by its main character, John Peterson. It’s an unusual arrangement; Peterson is in a position to paint himself in the best light, but he doesn’t. In part that’s because Siegal’s footage and interviews keep Peterson honest. “No matter the weather, the time of day, the awkwardness of the shot, he would always be there with his camera,” Peterson says. Peterson’s decisions are on trial before the audience — and before other characters in the film, which include his mother, a sister, neighbors and ex-lovers.

But even more than Siegal does, the film’s archival footage steers Farmer John’s moral compass. Like other recent documentaries Capturing the Friedmans and Tarnation, Farmer John relies heavily on home movies. Peterson’s mother turned a camera on the family farm in the ’40s and ’50s, and her footage offers a glimpse into a precious vision of hope and innocence in rural America. Years later, Peterson still seems taken by it. This Utopian vision — and the specter of its near-loss at his hands — compels Peterson to live up to his mistakes.

Before those mistakes, Peterson’s farm is a haven from the real world. “All these people came to my farm,” he says in a scene just before things fall apart, “hippies, radicals, philosophers, midwives, drifters, waitresses, childhood sweethearts, future monks...” Balancing courses at Wisconsin’s Beloit College with the never-ending tasks of farm life, he develops the sense that he’s neither farmer nor college student. He never loses that sense of individuality, even as his neighbors grow suspicious of his alternative lifestyle, and even as the farm dwindles from 360 acres to 200 and finally to just 22.

Perhaps that’s why the film’s promotional literature describes Peterson as a “maverick Midwestern farmer.” Yet maverick implies a lack of direction, and that’s not Peterson. When the farm fails, he wanders purposefully in Mexico, seeking a way back to the soil and to the community he’s left behind. He encounters a people who are still deeply connected to the land, and this leads him back home, where — defying all odds — he gradually transforms his land into a revolutionary farming community.

So many movies today can’t seem to rest until the hero has vanquished his enemies. Farmer John takes another route to vindication. Peterson seeks resolution with his angry neighbors, but mostly he wants to reconcile that archival vision of the farm — the happy family that grew up on it, the future that might have been — with what it’s become. Out of the ruins of single-crop agriculture, John creates Angelic Organics. The farm is an experiment once again, a gathering spot where people and art thrive alongside agriculture, and where personal growth blooms in conjunction with the spring harvest. Like those nurturing archival images of the Peterson family farm, Angelic Organics, which becomes one of the largest Community Supported Agriculture farms in the United States, feels like home.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John is now in select theaters. Find showtimes.

Watch for The Real Dirt on Farmer John on DVD from Gaiam.

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