The real life of a farmer

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The Real Dirt on Farmer John is a film about the true story of John Peterson, a third-generation farmer in northern Illinois.

“It is the story of the resurrection of a farm, a fallen farm,” Peterson says. He calls it a metaphor because it shows “people can make comebacks. Cultures, societies, countries can make comebacks.”

John Peterson’s life as a farmer has been filled with comebacks. The movie takes us from Peterson’s birth on the farm through the period in the sixties when he turned the farm into some kind of a hippie commune. That time was followed by John’s very serious efforts at conventional farming, which ended in the 1980s when he almost went bankrupt and lost most of his farm. He had become a victim of high hopes and easy credit. Like many farmers at that time he had taken on too much debt on the assumption that farm incomes would continue to rise. When grain prices plummeted, John had to sell his equipment and most of his farmland.

After a period of utter despair and re-discovery, John returned to farming the few acres he had left. He decided to go organic. Looking for a way to share his products and his philosophy about life, John eventually teamed up with people in nearby Chicago who were looking for sources for healthy, organic food.

Today John’s farm – Angelic Organics – is a part of the “community supported agriculture” movement or CSA. In John’s case, people in Chicago sign up to have boxes of fresh, organic produce delivered to the city every week during the growing season. It is a way to reconnect city consumers with the farmers who produce the food they eat, a reminder that food doesn’t come from the supermarket, but is grown by hard-working and dedicated people. It also is a way for grocery shoppers to buy “fair trade” – knowing the farmer receives a fair price for his products.

The CSA movement is spreading, for example closer to the Twin Cities, Harmony Valley Farm in Viroqua, Wisconsin, is working in a similar way, as are some Minnesota farmers.

The plot of the movie is serious — after all, it is about a farmer struggling to survive. But there are many lighter moments, caused by Farmer John’s – let’s call it “unique” – personality. He is an artist and that personality shines through in various ways, for example, the movie shows him riding his tractor dressed in outrageous costumes — or sporting a feather boa.

The movie also shows that rural communities can be very hard on people who go outside the mainstream. Even though John grew up in Caledonia, Illinois, where his farm is located — his antics, especially in his hippie period, led to rumors of devil worship at the farm, and harassment by his neighbors.

Although the film focuses on the life of one farmer, the message is broad, Peterson says. He has noticed that people come away from the movie with a feeling of possibilities for their own lives, “because they are on this journey with me and they go into the despair and the hopelessness.” The message is an optimistic one, because “eventually those feelings turn into a new model, a new type of farm, a prosperous, dynamic farm.”

From loss and despair to hope, Peterson says. “I’ve noticed that what people take away from the film is a possibility for their own life and an affirmation of their own lives. So when people who are watching the film are in their own hopelessness and despair – and a lot of people are – they can remind themselves that they saw someone in hopelessness and despair and they saw his life turn around.”

The Real Dirt on Farmer John opens the weekend of January 21 in the Regal Theater in Brooklyn Center and in the Crown theater in Block E in downtown Minneapolis. For more information check Peterson’s Web site at www.angelicorganics dot com.

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