“The soil tastes good today.”

Next up in my efforts to catch up with popular (err, popular in circles I value, anyway) culture…

The Real Dirt on Farmer John!!

When I first read about this film, several years ago, I kept a postcard about it in my ‘files’ to remind myself to eventually see it. Well, time passed and ate up the reminder, but I immediately recognized the DVD cover on my library shelf and brought it home. When I popped the disc in, I thought I’d do a crossword puzzle and catch up on some newspapers while it played. No. This is not a film to play in the background, not even for an avid multi-tasker like myself.

This tale demands your full attention from scene one, in which farmer John Peterson, plods through a muddy field, kneels down, and tastes the soil. Yes, he scoops up a bit, and proceeds to savor it as if searching for flavor notes in a glass of wine. That’s when I knew this was not just going to be an interesting story about farming, but a story about a real character (and there’s nothing I love more than a character).

Background is provided about the farm, how it was passed down to John through his father and grandfather. John has not had children, and firmly declares that he is the end of the family line. When his father succumbed to diabetes, it was his obligation, though barely a man, to run the entire 250 acre farm in Northern Illinois.

Fuzzy old home movies show John’s idyllic childhood, captured by his mother, a school teacher with three children of her own. Anna Peterson would always be an influential person in her son’s life, even obviously inspiring him to consistently document and catalogue his life, with video, audio, and plenty of tangible trinkets.

She is featured in the film, sitting by a kitchen table with John, thumbing through photo albums, discussing the ups and downs of the farm, and finally the horrible diagnosis of lung cancer that would take her life. Abruptly, she is shown emaciated towards the end of the picture. Her spirit – her “enthusiastic and gung-ho’ attitude – were at the heart of the entire farm. John would dedicate his life to the farm, if only to make her happy. In her 80s, her greatest joy was being a part of the farm, helping to maintain and run the farmstand.

No matter what arose in John’s life, his mother was there for him. He managed to attend Beloit College, a mere eight miles down the road from the farm. There he met many vibrant characters who he would offer sanctuary to, on his property. Being the late 60s, John and his friends were another pocket of youth culture ‘disturbing’ a small community with old fashioned values. People were quick to assume the worst of John, and rumors would grow and persist to plague him for many years to come.

In 1982 John was forced to sell most of the land; land that his grandfather had bought during the depression. Racked with disappointment and guilt, John became the scapegoat for his family, and his community. He wouldn’t be the only farmer to suffer however, as evident with other struggling farmers, such as his Uncle Harold, who took his own life in one of his fields.

John went to Mexico. Inspired by what he saw, and by the book Tropic of Cancer, he decided to write. He stayed for two years, attempting to turn his suffering into art, only to return home to find most farmers in crisis. At this point in the documentary, a random old farmer shares his view, likening the homes being built on old farm land to scars, as he chokes up and fights back tears.

Disenchanted, John hunkers down, focusing on sorting through mementos and remnants of the past two years of his life. He even takes to making pins – “things that were interesting to look at and hold… things I could wear on my body”. (His flamboyance throughout the picture is welcome comic relief.)

With irrepressible creativity, John writes a play based on the story of a down-and-out farmer, which would be performed in communities throughout Illinois. Many women married to farmers would tell him that it was the first time they had seen their husbands cry.

John and friends made many films, and in 1989 one called ‘Ember Days,’ about a farmer going nuts, made local news for its scene depicting the death of a loan shark tied up in a silo quickly filling up with corn.

With such publicity, it was easy for rumors to grow. Local kids would drive past the farm, shouting ‘Satan’ regularly; ludicrous allegations of animal and even human sacrifices were made. With all of this negativity boiling up, John needed to escape to re-evaluate his life. He once again returned to Mexico.

While living on “credit cards and tortillas” John witnessed the local’s rural farming and true appreciation for land. When he returned home, it was with new inspiration. He vowed to his mother, that if she were to loan him starter money for seeds, he would revitalize the farm. She was thrilled with his newfound passion.

Workers at Angelic Organics

The best part of John’s decision to dive back in? He planned to go ORGANIC! John believes that “chemicals warp and twist life sources”. Angelic Organics was founded in 1991. With a small crew of many young, eager volunteers and interns, immigrants, even refugees, and of course his mother, John planted 30 different crops. Hand weeding, heavy rains, and insect invasions – “every scourge that the Bible mentioned and then some” – provided challenge after challenge.

But John was never one to quite give up when the going got tough. At this junction, he opted to start a Community Supported Agriculture group (CSA), welcoming 25 families to the farm, which in his mind, began to heal the farm. Everyone who worked there and shared in the bounty developed a sense of identity with the farm, and pride. It didn’t matter whether or not volunteers were skilled – as John said, many of the new farmers “might never have held a hoe before but they want to heal the Earth,” and that was all that mattered.

After a feature article in a Chicago newspaper, the amount of shareholders jumped from 75 to 400, which meant more money for equipment and supplies and the addition of a learning center.

Land and soil can only yield so much, and so the next challenge casting a dark shadow over the future of the farm, was whether or not more land could be afforded. Fortunately, shareholders culled together $180,000 to purchase adjacent land to keep operations going, bolstering the entire project to what is still the amazing example of hard work and dedication that it is today.

I wish there were more farmer Johns in this world. And more women like his mama.

You can check out the website for the farm, still going strong here, where you can also buy the DVD, cookbooks, and other goodies.


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