The Real Dirt on Farmer John


What do orange feather boas have to do with farming? For Midwestern farmer John Peterson, bright, glammy outfits work just fine for his 80-90 hour weeks on the Angelic Organics farm. "I love glitz, I love glitter, I love glamour," says Farmer John while driving a tractor through his farm in rural Illinois, in The Real Dirt on Farmer John, a documentary about his tempestuous relationship with the farming life.

In The Real Dirt, Farmer John often goes about his work dressed to the campy nines, despite the fact that his neighbors have called him everything from a murderer to a devil-worshipper to a drug dealer for his unconventional, un-typically-Midwestern lifestyle. The story begins with Farmer John's childhood, which ends prematurely with the early death of his father. John turns his family farm into an artistic commune of sorts while a college student in the 70s, then faces major financial problems in the 80s when — 30 years old and a half million dollars in debt — he's forced to sell the bulk of his family land, bringing the 350-acre farm down to a 22-acre one. Depressed, Farmer John goes to Mexico for a few years, and discovers writing, penning a play and a number of short stories.


Yet in 1990, Farmer John returns to farming — an organic farm this time, dubbed Angelic Organics. And just when he wants to quit again because he can't compete with Californian farmers, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) activists call after finding one of his organic onions in a supermarket. Now, Angelic Organics is one of the largest CSA programs in the nation, boasting over 1200 shareholders, along with farm interns from all over the country, a refugee program, and a CSA learning center.

The Real Dirt, directed by Taggart Siegel and produced by Teri Lang, isn't without its stylistic flaws. Much of the film is written and narrated by Farmer John himself, and some of that narration gets stilted and cloying, especially compared to Farmer John's more candid, on-camera dialogue, which is more direct, personal, and honest than the pre-written, florid narration. Still, The Real Dirt successfully captures the colorful history and beauty of the farming tradition in the Midwest -- both what it was, and what it is today -- thanks in large part to the gorgeous 1950s home movie footage shot by Anna, Farmer John's mother. The Real Dirt will be released independently on June 8, 2007, to open nationwide by the end of July.

If you live in the Chicago area, consider joining Farmer John's CSA program. And despite his heavy work on the farm, Farmer John's both prolific and ambitious on a literary level. Farmer John's Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables is already available ($29.95), and two more books, Farmer John on Glitter and Grease: Short Stories on and off the Land and Farmer John's Uneasy Autobiography: I Didn't Kill Anyone up Here, will be out this fall.

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