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April 2006
A Farm of His Own
Film Review by Kymberlie Adams Matthews


farmer john

The Real Dirt on Farmer John
Directed by Taggart Siegel
83 minutes

Farmer John has a sense of fashion New Yorkers are sure to envy—ankle-length leopard print coats, boas in an array of colors, vintage dresses, and funky costumes suit him well while weeding. But his neighbors hold a different point of view. Everybody in town has something to say about their unconventional compatriot. Hippies and artists don’t mix with crop rotations, even the local police spent time watching the Peterson place for signs of drug dealing and Satanic rituals. American farmers are a dying breed, but as The Real Dirt on Farmer John shows us, John Peterson has found a way to survive.

John Peterson’s destiny was conceived before he was. Born into an Illinois farming family that had been steadfast for three generations, there was little question that John’s life was going to be full of dirt. What was not expected, was that his life would be full of grime as well.

In many ways, The Real Dirt on Farmer John is a tender story of a dying culture, unusual accomplishments and one eccentric farmer.

Although the filming essentially began in the 1950s when John’s mother, Anna, brought home a movie camera, it was in the 1960s, when John and his longtime filmmaker-friend Taggart Siegel took over the filming of John’s story. After the passing of his father, John and his friends left the college dorm rooms for a life in the fields. The farm becomes a haven, where art is created, music is played and everyone joins hands and sings—really a sort of happy hippie commune.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that debt, drought and misfortune struck. Broken hearted John was forced to sell off most of his family’s land and auction his equipment. Like most family farmers at the time, John was no longer in charge of his own destiny, and not able to succeed even with hard work. Urban sprawl grew with a vengeance. The global economy became extremely invasive and commitment to the land no longer determined success or failure. Working harder didn’t help John, but being an individual and approaching the situation with his own unique twist did.

It was because John was different that he saved the family farm. Against a surging tide of decline, John started an organic CSA and set his new roots deep and wide. Today, Angelic Organics provides fresh local food for hundreds of families and has established an environmental oasis that has expanded in a way John’s father could never have imagined.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John covers a lot of ground and raises numerous questions about the demise of family farms. The land means many things in this film: a source of pride, a means of economic survival, a financial windfall and, most importantly, a symbol of rebirth. This is the kind of movie you experience with your emotions and your intellect. It’s certainly not a tragic comedy, but its undisputed strength lies in the way it makes you laugh and cry at the same time. A must-see.

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