This lovingly handmade, grassroots epic has garnered fans even in the corridors of power, with former Vice President Al Gore calling it “unbelievably special,” celebrity chef Alice Waters declaring it “a charming, wonderful and important movie” and master documentarian Albert Maysles describing the film as “genuinely beautiful . . . a cause for hope.”
At once funny and stirring, what drives the film’s powerful appeal is the way in which it digs up “real dirt” not only about the tragedy of losing our traditional American family farms but about what really makes for an original American life – one lived, on a man’s own terms, in balance with the land, through hardships and unexpected triumphs, with creativity and verve.
The Real Dirt On Farmer John is directed by Taggart Siegel, who made the film in a most unusual way – shooting farmer John Peterson over 25-years of their evolving friendship, and using multiple media, from Super8 home movies to modern video — allowing him to capture his alternately humorous, heartbreaking and spirited life with raw drama and intimacy. Along the way, Siegel charts Farmer John’s astonishing journey from farm boy to counter-culture rebel to the son who almost lost the family farm to a beacon of today’s booming organic farming movement. The result is a tale that ebbs and flows with the fortunes of the soil and revealingly mirrors the changing American times.
CAVU Pictures presents The Real Dirt On Farmer John, directed and produced by Taggart Siegel and featuring Farmer John Peterson as himself. The film is co-produced by Teri Lang. Greg Snider is the editor and Mark Orton wrote the original music, which is performed by the Australian folk-rock trio Dirty Three.
Winner of the first ever Reel Current award presented by Al Gore at the Nashville Film Festival, The Real Dirt On Farmer John has won kudos at 30 film festivals across the United States and internationally. The film also received the coveted Audience Award at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, the Grand Jury Award at San Francisco’s International Film Festival and was cheered in Amsterdam, Berlin and Tokatsu, Japan.
While most films in Hollywood are shot in a matter of weeks, The Real Dirt On Farmer John took an amazing three decades to create – becoming a real-time document of a an amazing American story, friendship and life. Over the years, the film became a labor of love for director Taggart Siegel, who first met Farmer John at Beloit College in the 1970s, when they were both teenagers, at the very start of his filmmaking career. “I have now known and documented Farmer John and his family for almost 30 years, witnessing the incredible drama and turmoil of his farm and his life,” Siegel says. “In that time, I’ve watched him become a symbol of endurance, resilience and passion.”
When Siegel first met Farmer John, AKA John Peterson, he was a nineteen year-old who had recently inherited his father’s farm in Caledonia, 75 miles outside of Chicago. John had grown up as a typical, traditional farm boy, but now, suffused with the freewheeling spirit of the times, he decided to try to turn it into a wild community of experimental artists and musicians. Blasting The Doors from his tractor and twirling naked through the fields, John drew the fear and wrath of his neighbors, who spread rumors of “devil worship” and orgies. But he also attracted all kinds of wonderfully creative people, fascinated by his bold interest in merging modern art with ancient agriculture. It was into this heady atmosphere of expression and rebellion that Siegel arrived, shooting his very first student film, an adaptation of Tess of D’Ubervilles, on the farm, with Farmer John even taking a role.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Siegel made the fateful decision to start shooting Farmer John as a subject in earnest. By then, the farm, the nation and John himself were undergoing major changes. It was a grim era for the American farm, as families across the Midwest, under intense economic pressures, lost lands that had been passed down from fathers to sons for generations. Farmer John’s land was no exception. Siegel watched in dismay as John halted the hedonism and began a battle to keep the Caledonia farm alive, descending into his own personal turmoil.
“I will never forget the day I was riding on John’s tractor and he confessed to me that he was going to lose his farm,” Siegel recalls. “Saddened and dismayed at seeing my friend’s life fall apart, I decided then to try to capture the collapse of his family farm on film.”
Siegel made his first real film, 1982’s Bitter Harvest about Farmer John, garnering acclaim the film ultimately aired on PBS stations. But the story still didn’t yet seem to be over. Uncertain where Farmer John’s life would go next, Siegel continued to document the unique twists and turns of his fate, letting the camera witness his fall into destitution, only to be surprised and thrilled to see John reinvent himself and rebuild the farm from the soil up over the next decade. The filming became an open-ended process – part-and-parcel of the long-lived, if unconventional, friendship between Farmer John and Siegel. “I never felt this urgent need to complete the film,” Siegel admits, “so we just kept going.”
But, ultimately, Siegel began to see that with 250 hours of footage, he had at hand a half-century saga of a man’s life. It was clearly, Siegel says, crying out to be an epic. By merging his own footage with color-corrected Peterson family home movies – shot by John’s mother as he was growing up – Siegel started to bring The Real Dirt On Farmer John to life.
Though it would involve mix-mastering different eras and film mediums together, the result was a buoyant creativity that drove the final edit of the film — pulling all the strands of Farmer John’s story into a rough-hewn tapestry rife with a raw, textured sense of all that he’d lived through, from the ridiculous to the sublime.
“It’s amazing that you could weave so many different formats — 8mm home movies, Super 8, 16mm film and Video 8 – all into one film, but it is perfect for this story,” Siegel says. “The film really became about the renewal of a man’s soul.”
As the filmmaking continued, Farmer John also became more and more involved in shaping the story, turning over his significant body of farm tales and personal copy writings to Siegel to enrich the tale and constantly examining the storyline to be sure it was indeed the “true dirt.” “It’s rare to have the subject of your story be so involved in creating it,” Siegel notes. “It was an interesting process.”
Farmer John also gave to Siegel complete free reign in capturing the full extent of his personality – right down to his unabashed flamboyance. In the end, Peterson says he was surprised to receive credit for writing the film. He summarizes: “I didn’t so much write the life as live the life.”
One of the most fascinating elements of Farmer John’s life is that way it has mirrored the times around him. Like much of America, in the 70s, Farmer John went wild and lived it up. In the 80s, he went into debt and battled back from disaster. Then, in the 90s, he found himself at the leading edge of another major American change – the trend of going organic, which is now sweeping even suburbia, as Whole Foods and farmers markets spread through urban centers.
The Real Dirt On Farmer John not only provides an eye-opening look at what organic farming is all about, but it also gives audiences a glimpse into another new food movement sweeping small farms across the nation, known as Community Support Agriculture, or CSA. These farms allow urban consumers to band together as “shareholders” in a particular farm in exchange for getting mouth-watering baskets of fresh organic fruits, vegetables and dairy items delivered directly to their tables. They are changing the way Americans eat once again by re-establishing the deep ties that formerly existed between Americans and the farmers who grow their food, the loss of which many people lament.
Today, organic food sales are growing at a whopping 20 percent a year, far outpacing traditional food sales. No longer just for the counter-culture, organic foods are now sold in more than 70% of all conventional grocery stores. But even the organic farming movement, which started on small, family farms, is being overtaken by vast agribusinesses. This is what sparked the Community Supported Agriculture movement, a way for smaller farms such as Farmer John’s to survive while, in turn, consumers get an assurance of the highest-quality produce.
First pioneered by Japanese mothers looking for sources of healthy, local food for their children, the CECA movement put down roots in Europe and Latin America and is now growing more and more popular in the US, with estimates of perhaps as many as 3,000 CSA farms across the nation. Leading the way is Farmer John’s Angelic Organics, which offers weekly deliveries of vegetables to a wide range of Chicago families.
Farmer John notes that, from his earliest days, he always envisioned farms as a potential source of building strong communities. Newly hopeful, he believes that through CSA, more Americans will see first-hand that farms can “be incredible places, full of amazing stories,” he says. He adds: “Nowadays, you have people coming out to the farm with their children saying, ‘look this is where your food comes from.’ This can have a profound impact on our culture, because people are starting to have personal relationships with farms again.”
Through Siegel’s lens, audiences will see in The Real Dirt On Farmer John a vivid view how the Peterson farm, and Farmer John’s fortunes, are transformed by the organic movement. In an especially moving scene, the farm’s Chicago “shareholders” join together to raise Farmer John’s new barn, echoing traditions of the past even as an exciting future is created.
About Organic Farming
When Lester Peterson married Anna Nielsen in the 1930s, they settled on a rundown farm in the community where Lester and Anna had grown up, now called Caledonia, Ill. The main part of the farmhouse had been turned into a corn crib and the basement had been used to store potatoes. The newlyweds shoveled the remaining corn out of their new home, carried bushels of spoiled potatoes out of the basement, chased out rats, and moved in. By the time John Peterson was born, dairy and poultry were the mainstays of the farm. At an early age, John helped with the poultry chores. By his ninth birthday, he had been promoted to the dairy, where morning and night, he helped with milking and feeding the cows.
By the mid-1960s, many of the family farms that dotted the countryside were either going through expansion in order to survive, or were closing their barn doors. The Peterson farm went the expansion route, until financial calamity arrived in the early 1980s, almost closing the farm down for good. Luckily, enough of the Peterson land survived the shake-out to build anew. In 1990, John started farming again – this time with a different approach. He wanted a natural system by which to farm – a system in which results were derived from the integrity of the soil, not the shenanigans of crop chemicals and petroleum-based fertilizers.
Thus was born Angelic Organics. As Angelic Organics slowly got its footing in the challenging new world of organics, it turned to Biodynamics, a holistic method of farming developed in the 1920’s and 30’s by the iconic philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner, and the Community Supported Agriculture model for a truly comprehensive approach to farming. Farming is not just about raising vegetables, but also about those who receive the vegetables. To reunite consumers with the source of their food, to share the magnificent drama of farming, to give children the opportunity to see their vegetables grow—this completes the farming picture, providing deep satisfaction to customers and farmers alike.
CSAs are a new economic model for farms whereby consumers invest directly in the farm, usually through an annual subscription, and then receive regular deliveries of fresh produce throughout the growing season. Members are often invited to participate in life on the farm and establish a relationship with the people growing their food. There are now more than 1,500 CSA farms in the U.S., with estimates as high as 3,000. CSA farms are found in every state. To find a CSA near you visit localharvest.org. For more information, see Angelic Organics at angelicorganics.com.
Farmers’ markets, farm stands, farm co-ops and pick-it-yourself farms are other ways that small family farmers directly market their products. Most produce sold in the U.S. is picked up to a week before landing on supermarket shelves and is shipped an average of 1,500 miles (or more if imported) in the process. According to one study, as much as 91 cents on the dollar goes to suppliers, processors, middlemen and marketers. By buying directly from farmers, as much as 80 cents on the dollar goes back to the farm and back into local communities. The food is more fresh and you can be sure you know where it comes from.
In the 1930s there were almost 7 million farms in the United States. In 2005, just over 2 million farms remained. While the number of acres in farmland continues to decline every year, the average size of the American farm is rising. Large industrial farms have priced the small family farmer out of the business. Marketing directly to consumers who value local food has helped many family farmers stay afloat.
In general, organic agriculture is a method of growing food without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. There are many different approaches to organics and farms can be certified by state or federal entities or through private organizations. Some farmers eschew certification in favor of the “naturally grown” label. Some farms are transitioning to organic, or call themselves chemical free, experimental, grain fed or biodynamic. The organic movement is among the fastest growing sectors of American agriculture: since 1992, the total number of farmland dedicated to organic crops has quadrupled.
Biodynamics is a holistic method of agriculture pioneered by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf method of education, was interested in both the ecological and spiritual aspects of farming. Biodynamics encourages crop diversity, healthy soil through composting, integration of animals and crops, and proactive pest management. Spiritual aspects of biodynamics include viewing the farm and all its animals – even bugs and critters – as a living part of the universe, aligning farm activities to the seasons and use of natural remedies to heal the soil. Read more about organic living in the spirit of the movie here.