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(San Francisco)--Humorous, heartbreaking and triumphant, THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN tells the story of Illinois farmer John Peterson's 55-year journey of life, death and resurrection. The film, by Taggart Siegel, will have its broadcast premiere on Tuesday, June 13, at 10 PM on the Emmy Award–winning PBS series Independent Lens, hosted by Edie Falco.
Critically acclaimed and the winner of a number of awards, THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN makes audiences want to laugh, cry, cheer and eat their spinach. Farmer John is no laconic Grant Wood type with a scowl and a pitchfork--he's a truly eccentric American original. Equal parts performance artist, writer and farmer, Peterson has been known to go from overalls to leopard latex to purple-feathered boa and back to overalls. In the early 1970s, while a student at Beloit College, just eight miles from the farm, Peterson was exposed to the wildly accelerating cultural changes that fed his natural artistic bent. His new student friends flooded the farm with a riot of artistic expression, rock music and freedom, creating an art commune in the heart of conformist America.
Recalls Siegel, "In 1979, John invited me out to the farm, and a whole new world opened up. It was very powerful. I was a painter and I wanted to explore making films on the farm, and John just let everyone express themselves. It was the total fusion of a real working farm and an artistic community, a melding of traditional and unorthodox ways." "I live in a small provincial area," Peterson reflects, "and if you remember the '70s, you'll appreciate that it would have been pretty hard, actually impossible, for folks to accept us." In fact, Peterson was demonized by his neighbors as being a drug-dealing cult murderer of animals and children and was blamed for the general decline in farm fortunes.
Then came the 1980s and the unrelenting pressures faced by family farmers across the country. Farmer John was no exception. Siegel, by now a student at Columbia College film school, made a 10-minute documentary, Bitter Harvest, recording Peterson's struggles to keep the farm and the eventual auctioning off of his farm equipment. The profound pain of Peterson's losses and the ultimate resurrection and transformation of the farm and his farm-based life provide the soul of THE REAL DIRT.
"In the end, it's really an optimistic story about the resurrection of the American soul," says Siegel. "And it starts with the soil." Peterson was resolute, continually recommitting his energies, reinventing himself, reinvigorating the enterprise. Seeing the ongoing multinational corporatization of farming and betting instead on the future of organic produce, Peterson turned his enterprise into an organic operation, naming the farm Angelic Organics.
Soon after, he was invited to become a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farmer. "I didn't want to do it," Peterson recalls. "I was afraid I'd lose my independence." He dabbled in it for a while and in the process discovered that the movement was really all about community. "I realized that my whole life had been about community--enabling people, bringing them to the farm, working and playing together, sharing the farm experience." So he committed Angelic Organics to the CSA program.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, he and Siegel, who had remained a close friend, found themselves standing in the middle of one of the fields, astounded by the crops, the bounty, the beauty. "It was a sight for sore eyes," says Peterson. "At some point," recalls Siegel, "we stood there and realized, ‘Hey, we need to tell the story of this resurrection--the redemption of our bleak, dismal tale of the '80s.'"
The story of Angelic Organics' success as a CSA farm over the last 15 years is the final delight of the film. A multifaceted enterprise, the farm now provides fresh organic produce to 1,200 shareholder families, on-site educational programs, employment opportunities for people who really want to get back to the earth--and for Farmer John, the life he always wanted.
John Peterson, the screenwriter, has several books being readied for publication, including Farmer John on Glitter and Grease, Farmer John's Uneasy Autobiography: I Didn't Kill Anyone Up Here, and a cookbook, Farmer John's Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables, which will be published by Gibbs Smith in May.
THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN interactive companion website (www.pbs.org/independentlens/realdirt) features detailed information on the film, including an interview with the filmmaker and links and resources pertaining to the film's subject matter. The site also features a Talkback section for viewers to share their ideas and opinions, preview clips of the film, and more.