Redemption and Weirdness on the Farm


John Peterson is going through a miniature existential crisis. "Do you think I'm a farmer if I'm not farming?" he asked during a recent interview. "Is 'documentary film subject' a career?"

Put in perspective, Peterson's question makes a lot of sense. A farmer his entire life, the 55-year-old from Illinois has spent the better part of a year, and as much of the foreseeable future as he cares to think about, on the road promoting "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," a film about his life.

The constant touring is paying off at long last, and critics and audiences alike are singing its praises. According to director Taggart Siegel, "The Real Dirt" has won 18 film festival awards to date -- among them, grand jury prizes at the Newport Film Festival and the San Francisco International Film Festival and audience awards at Slamdance and the Chicago International Documentary Film Festival.

Among its many fans are Nina Utne, Roger Ebert and Al Gore, who gave a special introduction to the film at last year's Green Screen Film Festival in San Francisco.

Given all this acclaim, it's not surprising that the film is moving toward a wider theatrical release. Earlier this month, "The Real Dirt" opened in Chicago, and it opens today in San Francisco and Berkeley. Over the next few months, it will spread to Minneapolis, Portland, New York City, Los Angeles and beyond.

It's all very exciting, of course -- but as the tours and promotion continue, Peterson's return to his farm drifts off over the horizon. "I'll be there for two hours in probably the next four months," he said. "From 11:00 until 1:00 on the 20th of this month. Isn't that wild?"

What is the real dirt?

This extended touring is a bittersweet experience for Peterson. Clearly, the fact that he's still on the road after a year of steady travel is a sign of success -- an indicator of how passionately audiences respond to his story. But for a man with such deep connections to the land, leaving his Caledonia, Ill., home for so long can be an arduous and uprooting experience.

As Peterson says in the film, "The farm has [gotten] in the way of every romance I've ever had. It's like the farm's my wife. Of course, some of my girlfriends have been very jealous of the farm, because whatever the farm has wanted, I pretty much have been willing to give to it. But I managed to get a date in now and then."

Fortunately for us, Peterson's girlfriends, family and friends -- including director Taggart Siegel -- have documented his life on the farm, leaving behind reels of home movies and professional films. Siegel explained, "It's really amazing that we have all this footage. And it's amazing we had that footage in the 50s, when Mom shot all the home movies. She was like a documentary filmmaker. So we had all that, the 50s and the 60s, and John shot the hippie period [on the farm] in the 70s, and then I came on board and for the last 25 years. I've basically been filming on and off."

The decades of documentary filmmaking that have occurred on the farm grant viewers a glimpse of every stage of Peterson's growth, on the farm and off. His childhood, surrounded by family and friends, is a snapshot of an archetypal rural life that is slowly dying away. But when John signs up at nearby Beloit College and takes over the farm after his father's death from diabetes, his life changes almost immediately. He falls in love with the artists and free-thinkers on campus, thrives on their curiosity and spirit, and his farm gradually becomes a sort of working farm-slash-artist's colony, which they christen "The Midwest Coast."

But even as the creative life thrives on Peterson's farm, his neighbors get suspicious, angry and eventually violent -- a classic and unfortunate example of small-town conservatism giving way to fear and hatred. During the film, we see examples of the late-night drive-bys, rumor-mongering and, eventually, the arson that ruins Peterson's life in Caledonia.

Heaping misery upon misery, Peterson's mistreatment at the hands of his neighbors coincides with the calamitous farm crises of the 1980s. Three decades after being urged to "get big or get out," farms that sunk borrowed fortunes in heavy equipment found crop prices dropping and no way to stay afloat. Peterson's farm was one of many casualties of this collapse. Shunned by his community and driven from the land, Peterson is forced to reexamine his life's purpose.

Redemption from the roots up

At its heart, "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" is a story of redemption. Its power derives not from its focus on farming, but its message of the importance of change: failing in order to later succeed, and learning to embrace and benefit from disastrous changes.

"I think this film is about so much more than farming," Siegel said. "I think it crosses political lines, so we can get people that would normally not see this kind of film to see it, because it's not political. It's more about what sustains us all."

The film truly isn't political, but it touches on many enormous political issues, from the economic-political issues of farming, development and the importance of rural communities as well as the social-political issues about diversity, acceptance and resisting fear and hatred of all things different.

Part of its impact, Peterson believes, stems from the long, slow shift Americans have made in the past century from a predominantly rural country where even Congress organized its schedule around farm season, to an urban and suburban country grown miserably detached from its food supply.

"I think people in these really concentrated urban lives, at some point they are gonna need to have a conscious relationship to land, and the source of food," Peterson continued. "People need to feel like they have a relationship to that aspect of life."

"The Real Dirt on Farmer John" is screening in select cities around the country. To find a screening near you, visit

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