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The Real Dirt on Farmer John. 82 minutes, 2007. Collective Eye, Inc. $16.95.


REVIEW of The Real Dirt on Farmer John

John Peterson isnít your average Midwestern farmer. While he grew up on his familyís 360-acre farm in Illinois, it wasnít until after returning from college in the Ď70ís that Farmer John began farming his own way. Fueled by his duel passions for agriculture and artistic expression, John created a one-of-a-kind farm that was characterized by music, dancing, costumes, and creating, and which attracted free-thinkers, cultural-creatives, and artists to live and work together. However, Johnís neighbors saw this arrangement as problematic to their rural community and saw John as a degenerate. He became an outcast in his hometown. This is only one of the many struggles John must overcome as a modern-day farmer. In The Real Dirt on Farmer John, we are introduced to a rich story of a farmerís love for his familyís land and the great sacrifices he must make to keep it.

In this film, we witness Johnís life through his own eyes. Home videos from his childhood and subsequent years on the Illinois farm document the decline of rural America as represented in this small town and told through the story of one family farm. Through interviews and skilled storytelling, the viewer sees the evolution of John, his farm, and the surrounding community as they cope with the consolidation of American agriculture. John must continually reinvent himself and his farm and eventually come to terms with his past to keep afloat in such difficult times. Ultimately, John is able to find redemption by embracing a different kind of farming, one that is ecologically balanced and supported by others who also value the land, good food and the strength of community. Today, Johnís farm, now called Angelic Organics, operates as a community supported agriculture (CSA) and draws many of its committed members from the city of Chicago.

This artful telling of one farmerís life and struggle against a backdrop of rural societal change is painful to watch, yet Johnís resiliency and reinvention inspires hope for a new era of agriculture. The film focuses less on the political and societal context and more on what happens to real people affected by it. Similarly, Johnís reasons to switch to organic production are addressed, but they are only a piece of the overall narrative. Therefore, viewers will not be instructed on the need for and value of a new kind of agriculture but will instead experience its challenges and rewards for themselves, through Johnís story.

Supplemental Resources

The Real Dirt on Farmer John can be paired with other books that highlight in more detail the benefits and difficulties of community-based and ecological agriculture. A look at the history of American agriculture would shed light on why farmers in Johnís community and all over the nation are forced to ďgo big or get outĒ. Finally, as ĎReal Dirtí follows one farmerís story, Lisa A. Hamiltonís book, Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, chronicles the lives of three farmers in America who have chosen an uncommon path to maintain the integrity of their livelihood.

Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1977. Print.

Lyson, Thomas A. Civic Agriculture: Reconnecting Farm, Food and Community. Medford, MA.: Tufts University Press, 2004. Print.

Hamilton, Lisa A. Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009. Print.

Strange, Marty. Family Farming: A New Economic Vision. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. Print.

Howard, Sir Albert. The Soil and Health; A Study of Organic Agriculture. New York: Schocken Books, 1947. Print.

Lia Spaniolo
Michigan State University

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS for Culture and Cuisine:

1. What was Farmer Johnís dirt? Why was he considered unconventional or eccentric?

2. What do you think about pairing farming with artistic expression? Do they fit well together? Why or why not?

3. Put yourself in Johnís neighborsí shoes for a moment. Would you also be offended by or uncomfortable with how he chose to run his farm? Why do you think some of the neighbors were so upset with him?

4. What do you think made Farmer John keep coming back to his familyís farm? Why was he so committed?

5. Why were so many of the farmers in the town forced to sell their land? Why couldnít people farm anymore in the same way Johnís father once farmed?

6. Do you know of farmers who were also forced to sell their land? If yes, how did it affect them?

7. John eventually adopted the practices of biodynamic agriculture. Is this similar to organic agriculture? How is it different?

8. How did the community supported agriculture (CSA) model allow Farmer John to keep farming his land? Specifically, what was the role of the community in this new style of farming?

9. How would your community respond to someone like John?

10. What does it mean to have a close relationship between farmers and eaters? Who benefits and why?

11. Like Johnís town in the film, rural towns are diminishing and suffering all across the United States. What do you think are the broader causes of this trend?

12. Could Johnís new way of farming help to maintain small communities and towns? Why or why not? What might be the downfalls of following Johnís model?

13. Why do you think John was hesitant to begin the CSA? If other farmers share Johnís hesitation about starting something new and different, what could help them feel more comfortable?

14. What messages do you think John Peterson was trying to convey when making this film?

Questions by
Lia Spaniolo

in cooperation with
Michigan State University
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