(director: Taggart Siegel; screenwriter: John Peterson; cinematographer: Taggart Siegel; editor: Greg Snider; music: Mark Orton/Dirty Three; cast: John Peterson (Himself, narrator), Anna Peterson (Mother); Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Teri Lang; Awakened Media; 2005)

“Couldn’t help loving this film, it gets under your skin like real dirt under your nails after some farm work.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The self-discovery odyssey of a northern Illinois (near the Wisconsin border) third-generation maverick farmer, a fiftysomething, who goes from almost completely losing his inherited 350 acre farm to a struggle in finding an alternative way of surviving as a farmer. Being a farmer is what John Peterson is determined to be; to carry out the rich tradition he was born for. It’s a heartfelt and moving classic American Dream story that is affecting because the subject is the kind of person anyone open-minded wishes well and not because director Taggart Siegel’s documentary is innovative or especially cinematic. The film gets the passage of time recorded because in 1950 John’s caring schoolteacher mom (who raised three kids) bought a Super 8 movie camera and caught on film many treasured moments. That gets woven into the film with interviews and farm footage shot by Siegel from the 1980s on (Siegel first met John in the 1980s).

Farmer John Peterson narrates his own story as he wrote it (the film’s major flaw, as he seems too self-congratulatory and flowery in tone) from the time his grandfather bought the family farm for a steal during the Depression and his father, beloved by the community as a regular guy, carried on the farming tradition. When his father died in the late 1960s, John was left the farm. While attending Beloit College as a commuter John met a group of artistic student city friends and brought them back to the farm. The place became an experimental hippie sanctuary called The Midwest Coast, a place that stood out in the middle of the conservative Midwest and did not sit too well with the neighbors. John attended college, ran his dairy farm and a head shop, and had a Jewish Long Island girlfriend named Isa who was a stranger to farm life. During the 1970s when John was 30, he lost all but 22 acres of his farm by running up a $500,000 debt to loan sharks and bank lenders. He also reluctantly sold all his expensive farm equipment in a painful auction. Left alone in the 1980s as his girlfriend of the last five years splits, John headed to Mexico to think things out and wonder what went wrong. John considered himself a failure, while his elderly mom, relatives and neighbors blamed him entirely for the loss. To express himself John made pins and met another girlfriend. But the now hostile neighbors who imagined he was in a satanic cult, had sex orgies on the farm and grew drugs, let their dogs attack his woman’s sheep causing the distraught lady to split. On another trip to Mexico, John writes about his experiences and then returns to find it common for American farmers to lose their farms. John puts on a play in the farming communities that realistically depicts what it means to lose your farm and gets some support from fellow farmers, but his farmer neighbors consider him a weirdo and begin to harass him. Trying to farm again as his mom backs him financially, John receives another setback when arsonists burn down a log cabin he built to live in with his new artist girlfriend. Not able to bear the loss of her life’s artwork going up in smoke, she also splits. No charges were ever filed, but the sheriff agreed to enforce a No Trespassing sign John posted on his property. This seemed to work and by 1993 John began to farm organically (Angelic Organics), something rare for the Midwest. This led to his single-family farm becoming a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture cooperative), a revolutionary concept of farming where the farm has share-holders so John can meet his expenses. Slowly but surely John was able to survive and see the farm grow into a success, as it now has 1200 share-holders and persecuted refugee workers from as far away as Africa and migrants from Mexico. John has a new compatible girlfriend, who also loves to dress up in costumes and make personal artistic films with him.

It’s an oddball film about a lovable, intelligent, hard working farmer who loves to dress in glitter and is a tolerant person with an independent spirit (something he has in common with his neighbors). John never seems like a hipster, but a square with a touch of prankster blood in him who means well and is sincere.

Couldn’t help loving this film, it gets under your skin like real dirt under your nails after some farm work. It tells America’s story. It won many festival awards including those at Slamdance, Nashville, San Francisco, Newport, Santa Cruz and Wisconsin.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John Poster