An interview with Illinois organic farmer John Peterson, subject of a bold, award-winning documentary
The new documentary film The Real Dirt on Farmer JohnÂ — in production for nine years and now winner of 15 grand jury and audience awards in film festivals across the country, and garnering an explosion of interest in Europe and in other nations — is a biopic set in the black soil of Illinois. It’s about a farmer, John Peterson, who does what he is expected. He takes over the task of putting in the crops after his dad passes away, and in so doing, keeps the land that his grandfather purchased in the early 20th century in the family name.
Unfortunately, Farmer John has two things going against him: his artistic, long-haired friends from college who drop in to paint and create drama and have fun on the property (they scare the rural neighbors), and the economy. The growing suspicion of outsiders by the community gets ugly, and potentially dangerous, but it’s not half as bad as the devastating blow Peterson suffers at the hands of an agricultural economy, which makes it increasingly difficult for small, family farms to survive. John reaches the breaking point.
The Real Dirt on Farmer John, based on Peterson’s writing over the course of his life, is more than a story of one man’s struggle to keep the family farm. It’s a touching story of a man who is not afraid to explore the fullness of what it means to be human. It’s about resurrection and authenticity. It’s about creativity and frivolity. And it’s about the earth, and what it means to grow food, naturally. Peterson’s biodynamic Community Supported Agriculture vegetable and herb farm, now named Angelic Organics, is two hours from downtown Chicago and supplies organic produce weekly to as many as 5,000 people.
In New York City, fresh from an exhilarating trip to the Netherlands where he promoted the film, Peterson spoke with Edge Life about his film, which was directed by a longtime friend, Taggart Siegel.
The Real Dirt on Farmer John is partly about your family. How challenging was it to have your personal story told to the world?
John Peterson: I have been asked this question before. I think it’s probably because a lot of people aren’t as revealed as I am. I had already done a lot of writing and performing of my life since the mid-1980s. This film certainly doesn’t go as far as my own autobiographical writing goes in revealing my life. From what people have said in encountering my writing, a lot of people welcome my willingness to share my life in a really broad way, because I think a lot of people go around hiding. I think it gives permission for people to hide less and be more forthright about their own lives.
This film doesn’t go as far as my writings in terms of revealing my life, so it’s not a place where I was very uncomfortable. I would say, if anything, if! have a discomfort with how it reveals my life, it’s in that it probably glorifies me too much.
I really was clear as the film was being crafted that I really didn’t want to be the object of people’s glorification. That’s a hard role, a difficult role. That’s why we have a Twinkie moment in the film. I was so happy to have a Twinkie moment in that film, because it’s interesting what people do with heroes. For a while they glorify them, and then they figure out a way to shred them. And who wants either of those? I don’t.
The documentary is dedicated to your mom,. whom we all grow to love and admire throughout the film. What role did she play in your decision to remain a farmer despite all the trials and tribulations?
JP: Well, my mom never really asked that much of me. I know my mom loved that I was a farmer and she loved having a relationship to the farm through me, but she never demanded or insisted, or anything like that. But it was very clear that she wanted my relationship with the farm to continue.
When she flat out requested it, when she just said, “I want you to keep farming,” it was shocking. Because like I say, my mother was not that kind of person. She was a person who really wanted people to act out of free will. I still was able to act out of free will. She didn’t make me do it, but I felt for her. I mean, she dedicated her life to that farm for many years of her life.
What streamed through my mother was so much about the earth. She was just so connected to it. She was fascinated with weather. She was always looking at fields of corn and fields of soybeans and describing what they looked like and describing people’s barns and cows and so on. I wanted to keep her life vital in that way.
I don’t want to frame myself as a hero. I had a reluctance — and then I was called into action by something else outside of myself. I’ll say that. I think maybe, yeah, the obstacles of farming and the disappointments, the challenges and the destitution that I was experiencing at that time sort of took a back seat to this request of my mom’s.
How would you describe your personal relationship with the soil, with the earth, and how has that changed over the course of your life?
JP: Well, I’m very drawn to it. How do I say it? It’s almost an irresistible attraction. It’s interesting to wonder what kind of power or choice I really have in the matter, because there’s something about soil and working with it and smelling it and touching it that is so alluring. It’s interesting that when I lost all that land and swore off farming and felt that farming had sworn off me, it was like a siren’s call â€” siren in the terms of something enchanting and mesmerizing and irresistible, like voices.
It’s kind of a hard thing for me to talk about, because I’m so attracted to it. I’m so drawn to it that it really makes me wonder what’s going on here? What is it that makes it so enchanting?
As far as how my relationship with the soil has changed over the years, I never really examined closely my use of chemicals when I was farming in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Chemicals were something that had come onto the scene in the 1950s and I never really examined it in terms of soil health or planetary health. Of course, I was sort of in a hippie period, so I had to look at it and wonder about it, but I was just in a routine, a habit of farming a certain way. Then when I had my break from farming, a forced break, I had time to re-examine my relationship to it.
What means so much to me in life is authenticity â€” in relationships and interactions with people. Maybe this is why it’s not so hard for me to reveal my life as it happened on the screen, because I like the truth and I like the authentic story. So with the soil and the vegetables, I realized that I wasn’t going to be getting a very authentic story if they were propped up with chemicals. This is just the way it is: The primary picture that I had of how I wanted to farm was motivated by a desire for authenticity, an authentic relationship with the soil and the plants – and that was going to preclude the use of chemicals. Now, there are a lot of other reasons why you could get into organics. You can come up with all kinds of statistics and numbers and philosophies about it, but for me that was what drove me.
How did going to college change your relationship to your family and the farming community around you?
JP: Well, the first hippies, the first long-hairs, that were ever spotted in my community were friends of mine. It was very threatening and alienating.
I was going to say I certainly didn’t do a good job of uniting the two worlds, but I don’t know if that would have really been possible. It was a very rural community. It still was quite intact, even though I think probably you could make a case that it was starting to unravel a bit, because the farms were certainly getting consolidated at that time and the diversity was starting to disappear from the countryside. But still, the people and their values were more or less in place, carrying on the traditions and maybe the prejudices that a rural community can have.
The culture of that environment.
JP: Yeah, so I was just ostracized. I was a wild guy, too. I mean, I was a very hard-working farmer. I loved working. You know, 1 raised crops, I rented land and so forth, but I had a pretty outlandish life, which really didn’t harm anybody. It wasn’t that I was a vandal. But the interesting parties and gatherings that we had just didn’t fit.
It’s funny because eventually I thought, “Well this is the way farms ought to be. Farms should be places of celebration, occasional frivolity, festivity and theatricality.” But, I think at the time 1 was just doing it, without even creating much of a philosophy around it.
Later I created a more formal idea of what I thought a farm should be, which had as its model art and agriculture. And I was going around thinking, “Well, this makes all the sense in the world! Here you have a farm, you have creative things happening on a farm, you have life unfolding on the farm, and why not just take this further and have this kind of expressiveness and joyousness?” It must have seemed crazy. It probably still does, except when a movie gets made about you, and then people maybe can start thinking, “Oh, yeah, well I could see it on his farm, because there’s aÂ movie about him.”
I really think farms can be places for cultural renewal, including through the arts and I think that the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model can eventually start to really make that flourish.
I just presented the film at a Biodynamics school in Holland. The man who used to direct the school wrote to me this morning. I just want to read something that he wrote: “I also mentioned to many friends that your film showed me how right I wasâ€¦to give so much attention to the arts in the curriculum of our farmer’s training school. Art, as the art to die and revive, renewed, art as a way to train your heart’s feelings about your head and hands.”
I wrote this to him, too, about “A Green Debate” at the film festival in Amsterdam: “I loved you at the Green Debate. It seemed the only thing that really made it a debate was when you held up the radical possibility of agriculture offering the basis for renewal of society â€” and when I challenged the facilitator’s reference to CSA as a form of agribusiness. He insisted on calling it agri-business, and I demanded that it was a form of agri-culture. I will often let terminology slide on behalf of the flow of an event, but I was absolutely not going to let his term for this renewal of agriculture â€” and perhaps a new beginning way of society â€” slide by.â€
I wish that farms could become cultural centers, beyond the culture of cuisine and food. So will that happen? I don’t know.
There’s something about being grounded and being on a farm that can be very deadening to the artistic impulse. Because you have to work hard. It can be a grind. You have a lot of concerns, you have to survive, and there’s something about being in that daily routine of farming that can just keep you in it and make it really challenging to expand out into these other creative realms.
So, do you personally need to force yourself to explore your creative side â€” to get out of that deadening part of the job?
JP: Well, you know, I don’t think I should say it’s deadening. That’s not the right term. For me, I find it really exhilarating, but it doesn’t activate the part of the mind or the part of the emotions, the heart, that wants to go out and be expressive in other ways, like creatively or artistically expressive. It just does not really naturally enliven that becauseâ€¦
It’s just hard work.
JP: It is hard work. I can’t go out and even work hard for two thirds of a day and then come in and write on a book. So, I have to carve out space.
You have to make time for that.
JP: I have to make blocks of time for it, and then I can transition into another mode. Like that music video in the film. It’s very difficult. We did that while I was running the farm. It’s a very hard thing to do on a vegetable farm when you have stuff going on, lots of people working there every single day â€” and then you’re out making a music video? But, anyway, I do it. I’ve been doing that kind of thing my whole life. It certainly makes life more difficult. It makes life more challenging and I’ve somehow forced these things into being, I guess because I’m committed.
What is the current state of the small, family-owned American farm?
JP: Oh, they’re dying all over. There’s the hobby farm now that’s propped up by other jobs, jobs off the farm, and that’s an interesting phenomenon. There are people who just want to somehow be involved with farming, but it doesn’t support them, even though they do it because they want to do it and they want to sell something or produce something, but they can’t make a living at it so they work off the farm. Those are farms, but they’re not typically viable economic models.
There are CSA farms, a couple thousand now where there might only have been a hundred 15 years ago. That’s a remarkably viable model compared to other small farming models. But these nice mom and pop farms are just going. I mean, they’re really pretty much gone. You see a few traces of them here and there. It’s a very tragic thing, because it just strips the character right out of the rural culture. These people were very influenced by their lifestyles and their relationship to the land.
Except in those few cases you have almost all of the food being supplied through these enormous agri-industrial models. How are those models, or those people, really informed by the soil? It’s still farming, but it’s a different kind of farming. It’s a whole different relationship to the land. It makes me sad, because I really liked the colorful people who lived on the land and the kind of communities that formed around that – and it’s just pretty much dead.
What role do you see Community Supported Agriculture playing in the years to come?
JP: I think it’s an economic model or an agricultural model that can’t be emulated by big business. So, it’s fairly well protected. A lot of systems that are just product-based are vulnerable to capital coming in and dominating.
The CSA model is an opportunity for all kinds of community to develop, because here are all these people bound together by the fact that they’re all eating from one farm, and that’s a form of community. But it has a lot more possibility beyond that for developing a web of community. One of the things that we did a while back, and we’re going to do it again, is to create a little handbook of services that our various members offer â€” architects, chiropractors and so on. And then people in this community can start doing business with one another.
I think it’s a place that a lot of people, whether consciously or unconsciously, will assign a certain spiritual value to, because it’s a source of life. With such a huge urbanized population making up the community who supports our farm, obviously much of or some of this population is feeling either consciously or unconsciously the need to reunite with the land – and this is just the perfect way to do it. You get to join a farm for a few hundred dollars a year and then for a whole year, you’re part of a farm and its weather and its goings on and its drama. You have people getting back to the earth again in really one of the most economically painless ways. With that entry point, things can develop.
JP: Yeah. I mean, look at how we got our land.
The new land that recently was purchased by the community so your farm, Angelic Organics, could expand.
JP: It was because people were part of this community. Those people had already joined the farm. They were part of it. They had a relationship to it, a commitment to it, and they made something extraordinary happen. So, that’s just one example of the kinds of things that can happen.
What message do you hope to leave with viewers who watch the film?
JP: I guess what I’m going to tell you is what I’ve noticed about people who view the film – and it makes me happy that people have come and told me this. The film is not just for people who are interested in eating organically. A lot of people who have never set foot on a farm have seen this film, and a lot of people eat junk food have seen this film. We didn’t make the film for the purist. It’s made for the whole spectrum of humanity, because it deals with universal themes of food, mother, grief, loss, suffering, rebirth.
The most commonly expressed impact of the film is that it’s a story of hope and it gives people courage and strength to go on with their lives, because a lot of people are in despair, a lot of people are suffering, a lot of people are depressed. They see this film and they see that I suffered and was in a very hopeless situation and that I survived it. I overcame it, and I built something new out of it. That’s the most exciting message of the film.
It just cuts across the political spectrum. No matter whether they’re left wing or right wing or eco-fanatic or in favor of genetic engineering, everybody has a relationship to the land. Everybody has a mother; Everybody. has deaths go on around them. Probably the thing that people most take away from the film is that the future is a big possibility, that you just need to
get to the future.