DVD, directed by Taggart Siegel
Good Times Video
John Peterson was a toddler in the 1950s when his mother bought a movie camera. And while she succeeded in documenting the comings and goings on their beloved Illinois farm, she may not have realized that she was also kicking off a five-decade-long project that culminated in the film The Real Dirt on Farmer John.
From the opening scenes of John toddling around in his little overalls, his love for the camera is clear. This love developed into skill as John grew into an artist with a gift for storytelling and the patience, eye and wherewithal to create great shots. When he was a teenager his dad died, and John took over working his family's 350-acres of corn, soy, wheat and hay. Then he went to college, eight miles from home, and kept farming. It was the late 1960s, and, via friends he made in college, the '60s came over and hung out on his farm. Then came the '70s, the '80s and tough times. Though John couldn't have known where all this was going, from an early age he clearly intended to film it.
As the events of his life began to circle into a story that looked like it might actually have a happy ending, Farmer John the filmmaker got to work. With the help of a production team lead by Taggart Siegel this raw footage was spliced with present-day scenes and a few re-enactments into a tight movie that tells a compelling story.
You might expect a rehash of the standard foodie rallying cries of the day: The impossible economics of farming, the importance of knowing where your food comes from, local vs. organic, etc. Important stuff, to be sure. But as the film opens, this crew-cut Scandinavian guy walks across his muddy field, squats down, takes a bite from a handful of mud and chews thoughtfully, and you forget all about rallying cries and agendas.
"The soil tastes good today," announces Farmer John.
At once an artist trapped in the able body of a failed farmer, and a farmer trapped on a farm he loves desperately but can't hold onto, John provides narration. "In the 1970s, spirits ran high, and bankers lent money. Dreams and mistakes and misfortunes could all be financed with loans," he says. "Floods and frosts and droughts, bad seed and low hog prices could all be financed by eager lenders. Debt financed my dreams, then my nightmare. I owed banks, friends and a loan shark hundreds of thousands of dollars."
The Real Dirt on Farmer John is a dramatic story about a dark chapter in the history of middle America, told by an uninhibited artist who happened to be at ground zero with his camera, his wits and his creative spark. Most importantly, it's a story that gives a tangible, replicable road map out of the chemical, economic and corporate muck that modern American farming is stuck in.
It's also a story about the place of creativity in a complete person. The Real Dirt on Farmer John will probably make you laugh, might make you cry, and if it breaks your heart into little pieces, then it will put them back together again. It's a story about a deep wound in American history that has only begun to heal, and only in places. John's farm, we learn, is one of them.