Director: Taggart Siegel
Having received my baccalaureate degree at Prescott College, named the “greenest” school in the country by Time Magazine, I know firsthand that those of us who are interested in organic foods, recycling, alternatives to oil, and all things green are usually labeled hippies. However, in Farmer John Peterson’s case, it’s a hippie come full circle in documentarian Taggart Siegel’s film which chronicles the man from his beginnings as a true farmer heading up the ten year artistic commune experiment “The Midwest Coast” in Illinois to barely surviving the crushing loan crisis and vanishing of farms in the 70’s and 80’s up through current day which finds his farm the headquarters of “Angelic Organics” as Peterson works with over 12,000 families, provides shelter and work for persecuted refugees from foreign lands, and offers as he says a “beautiful reuniting of people with the source of their food.”
However, in this five time festival award winning documentary given a tremendous vote of confidence when Al Gore called it “unbelievably special,” Peterson, writing and narrating the film himself is neither a folk hero or an everyman, as we realize just moments into the film seeing him tasting his soil to check on the rich quality, donning feather boas and costumes of glitz and glamour to heighten his occupation which he considers theatrical. Lamenting the fact that in his rural community he’s not welcome because he’s “a little different,” Peterson shares the history of his life and the farm which has been in his family for generations over scenes of gorgeous family videos which begin in the 50’s when his mom Anna brought home a video camera. In addition, he candidly shares the tragedies of losing his father and also the loss of 328 acres of land during the tumultuous era of loans and President Reagan where housing communities flourished and concrete was “poured in the good land,” as one farmer stated while he and his neighbors began losing their possessions and legacy in auctions.
Peterson who wrote a successful play as catharsis about the experiences he and his neighbors lived through that he was unable to tour throughout the country since he was told that he seems like a flagrant homosexual in need of reprogramming despite a series of romantic relationships throughout his life with beautiful brunette women soon found himself the target of vicious rumors and most likely arson as neighbors began to call his peaceful artistic commune Satanic and spread tales of drug trafficking and animal sacrifices. Driven away from his home to his favorite retreat of Mexico, he decided to give farming a more serious second try in the early 90’s with a loan from his supportive mother and a decision to grow his crops organically which resulted in trials and tribulations including eighty to ninety hour work weeks.
A fascinating and arty portrait of the life of a most unforgettable farmer, The Real Dirt on Farmer John takes a little while to get viewers hooked but gets far more compelling as it goes on charting the struggles and successes in this “epic tale of a maverick Midwestern farmer,” to quote the DVD description. While in the words of Kermit the Frog, for hippies that garner raised eyebrows from the masses like John Peterson, “it’s not easy being green,” for those with an interest in learning where their food comes from, Farmer John’s dirt is a great place to start.