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    The Real Dirt on Farmer John

    Standing out in his field

    A flamboyant, cross-dressing, hippie-loving, third-generation farmer — beaten down by debt, drought and the resentment of his community — saves his farm from the crash by being different, in the loveable documentary "The Real Dirt on Farmer John."


    If we were better people than we are, we'd all be interested in a documentary about the difficulties of farming life over the past three decades — and the central character wouldn't have to be a cross-dressing, movie-making, play-writing, hippie-loving free spirit. Luckily, in this case, he is.

    Directed by: Taggart Siegel.
    Featuring: John Peterson.
    Cinematography: Taggart Siegel.
    Edited by: Greg Snider.

    Related links: Official site | Angelic Organics
    Brooklyn Museum 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn Wed., June 8, 6 p.m.

    Brooklyn International Film Festival 2005
    • The Real Dirt on Farrmer John
    • Nightingale in a Music Box
    • Official site
    Seattle Film Festival 2005
    • Overview

     • Official site

    • 9 Songs
    • After the Day Before
    • Cape of Good Hope
    • Frozen
    • Junebug
    • Machuca
    • Max and Grace
    • The Real Dirt on Farmer John
    • The Syrian Bride
    • The World
    Farmer John Peterson is a true son of rural Illinois, the third generation to work his family's land (though the first to do so in a bright orange feather boa or a bee costume). He has a robust farmer's physique, knows all his neighbors personally and pronounces the word "soil" more like "sow-all." Early in the film, he grabs a hunk of earth from the field, bites off a chunk of it and chews thoughtfully. "The sow-all tastes good today," he decides.

    "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" is partly about the farmer and partly about the dirt. John the farmer has had a tough time of it — pretty much as tough as every other failing family farm over the last few decades. Debt, drought, bad seed and bad luck caught up with him in the 1980s and forced him to sell off most of his family's land and auction his equipment to whatever neighbors were still in business. It breaks his heart, but the midwest was littered with broken hearts at the time. Rather like the other recent documentaries "Capturing the Friedmans" and "Tarnation," this film takes advantage of a family's precocious fascination with documenting its own life in home movies to paint the whole grim picture before your eyes.

    The Real Dirt on Farmer John  
    The dirt on Farmer John is something else again. Seems like everybody in town has dirt on this hard-working but unconventional comrade of theirs. You can't have hippies and artists and East Coasters and blacks and Jews passing through your farm without giving rise to rumors. The cops apparently spent years watching the Peterson place for signs of drug dealing that "everyone knew" was going on, just like "everyone knew" Farmer John seemed to have some gay mannerisms and was conducting Satan rituals and all other kinds of sin under his roof.

    So this is two kinds of documentary, not just one. It's about how tough it is to run a family farm — even a normal one steeped in virtue and propriety — and how easy it is to lose one. And it's also about that common strain of middle-Americanism that fears and persecutes the individualist in its midst.

      The Real Dirt on Farmer John
    If that seems like as much hard luck as you can stand watching, there's a big surprise twist in the last reel. Like a hybrid of two different plants that form a new breed with unexpected qualities, the film's two themes combine to produce a rather startling conclusion. Without giving too much away — because you should definitely see how this story unfolds for yourself — Farmer John finds a novel way out of the farm crisis. By the current day, we see old-timers languishing on their land or becoming weekend farmers with second jobs. One of the old-timers is nearly in tears as he looks out at property that once held some of the most fertile "sow-all" on earth but now has been cleared to put up suburban McMansions. A way of life is dissolving before the weeping eyes of its once-stalwart practitioners.

    But Farmer John isn't weeping. He's farming like crazy.

    And that's no accident. The reason he's able to turn his losing hand into a royal flush is precisely because he's always been a little different. Part of the answer has to do with organic farming — his company, Angelic Organics, has a web site where you can learn more at And there's more to the story too. Suffice it to say, while his neighbors reaped only a spiral of frustration as the reward for their hard work and decades of dedication, John was rediscovering his love for the earth, the things that grow from it, and the community of people that grows up on it. He found a way to put the passion back into farming. What it took was not sticking to tradition but that other prairie virtue — striking out in a pioneering direction. "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" is ultimately a story about imagination and the American dream, no less so than if it were about wagon trains striking out west or poets spinning verse in Greenwich Village. It's the great unforeseen discovery of the Brooklyn and Seattle film festivals, a film rich with sadness, joy and a renewed love of life.

    JUNE 1, 2005

    Reader comments on The Real Dirt on Farmer John:

  • The Real Dirt on Farmer John   from Lisette Prince, Jul 25, 2005
  • Re: The Real Dirt on Farmer John   from Henri, Nov 13, 2005
  • Dazzling display of a life of love, wit and faith.   from Pepijn de Boer, Dec 4, 2005
  • [no subject]   from Steve-O, Feb 22, 2006
  • another day in paradise   from Corrie Hogenboom, May 9, 2006
  • Is John Gay?   from Maelon, May 18, 2008

  • Post a comment on "The Real Dirt on Farmer John"