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The Real Dirt on Farmer John

Land of the Lost and Found

How interesting is a documentary about a farmer? Very, if the farmer drives his tractor wearing a colorful dress and bright feather boa. And if he likes to eat the dirt he plows.

Taggart Siegel's The Real Dirt on Farmer John is a fascinating profile of John Peterson, an eccentric, creative man who farms the land he grew up on in rural Illinois in a style very much his own. Venturing beyond a typical PBS documentary about the trials and tribulations of contemporary family farming -- which you probably already know is perilous, especially as more and more monster homes get built on "beautiful black soil" in rural America -- Siegel's film explores deeper, more complex terrain by delving into the psyche of a farmer and uncovering the essence of what it means to farm, and for whom farming is important (that means us).

One of the film's strengths is its visual quality and use of footage spanning decades. This film was literally decades in the making. Having spent a lot of time with Peterson in between other film projects over the course of 25 years, Siegel accumulated a wealth of revealing footage about his subject -- some of which he already used in Bitter Harvest, his 1983 film about the downfall of the Peterson family farm. Siegel also tapped into the treasure trove of home movies that Peterson's mother took on the farm from the 1950s onward. It's like opening a time capsule that depicts farming in the most idyllic sense of the word.

Peterson's mother is very much a supporting character in this film. She steals the show on numerous occasions. Her infectious spirit informs her son's very being and she contributes to the film's depth by lending it a slightly different, perhaps old-fashioned point of view that is no less idealistic than that of her son.

As for Peterson himself, his penchant for creative expression -- the costumes and theatrical, hippy sanctuary he creates for his artist friends -- not to mention the slightly queeny manner of his voice run afoul of local standards of decorum, deportment, and masculinity. Rural life shows its ugly, intolerant, and fearful side as ignorant (and nosy) neighbors assume the worst about this nonconformist farmer in their midst.

But Peterson doesn't back down. He even confronts the sheriff and chastises him for shirking his duty, which is to protect him and his land. According to Siegel, Peterson is a "very passionate person about whatever he does. It might be a relationship or it could be the farm, which is certainly the number-one thing. [Sometimes] it does overwhelm him because it's this calling, always to return to the farm and give it the energy it needs."

The Real Dirt on Farmer John is an inspiring resurrection story. There's the farmer's period of innocence, his fall from grace as he is forced to sell off 330 of the 350 acres his family has farmed for generations and that has been entrusted to him, and then there's his reemergence into a new reality that ensures the farm's survival as Angelic Organics, providing 30 crops to 1200 local families who are direct investors in the farm's operation.

As Peterson put it in a recent interview, "We don't know our future. I mean, I thought I'd never farm again. This place is done. It's ended, it's over. Now we're standing amid the splendor of organic vegetables."


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars