The Midwest Coast
John Peterson grew up on a farm. His parents and grandparents farmed, his neighbors farmed, and, dressed in pink boas and tights, John also farms. The Real Dirt on Farmer John begins as he scoops up a handful of dark, rich dirt and takes a bite. “The soil tastes good today,” he says.
His mother Anna began filming the family with her Super-8 in the 1950s, recording everyday lives as they seemed extraordinary: chasing pigs, diving into grain piles, setting brush fires, and riding in the steel shovels of tractors, the kids developed fearlessness and creativity. John speaks lovingly of the farm’s rhythms, its ample grounds and towering steel his playground. But that world collapsed when John’s father, Lester, died unexpectedly in the late ‘60s.
Though he is expected to take over his dad’s 350 acres, John instead pursues higher education at nearby Beloit College. Only eight miles away, school nonetheless exposes John to a campus culture of free love, radical politics, and psychedelics. It is the genesis of John’s curious flamboyance, as he brings his new friends back to the farm with him, determined to create a utopia on what they dubbed “the Midwest Coast.” John’s home movies at the time capture the hippie hayrides and artistic indulgences that marked his cultural awakening. It is amusing to watch, but such theatrics will not be without consequence. As John’s sister Mary Jane wryly comments, “They wanted to get close to the land, but they didn’t know what to do with the land, and they didn’t do much.”
John’s fanciful vision eventually contributes to the farm’s demise. “Debt financed my dream, then my nightmare,” he laments. It’s clear John means to impress us with his language, even while making us wonder about his actions. Faced with staggering financial loss, John auctions most of the family’s equipment, and reduces the property from 350 to 22 acres. Neighbors once friendly towards John start lashing out at the eccentric hippie, sending police to spot check his property for “orgies and rituals” in the middle of the night. John flees to Mexico, where he discovers the works of Henry Miller, and then, inspired, begins transferring his own pain and disappointment into prose.
Despite this setback, nothing could keep John from realizing his independent vision on the farm. When he’s not welding hay balers, he’s mowing in drag, or baking “Pig Newtons,” a cookie he develops as an additional source of revenue. Still, Peterson often finds himself alone. The townspeople harass him for his refusal to conform; kids terrorize his property, even setting his cabin afire; and when he produces a play indicting “corporate America” for abandoning farmers, John’s backers insist that he first mask his “gay mannerisms,” if he wants to be taken seriously. At the same time, John’s own guilt for squandering his family’s legacy leaves him tender and introspective.
Written and narrated by Peterson, The Real Dirt is equal parts cathartic and self-serving. Now 55 years old, he often appears detached from the controversy around him. While his parents lived and died by their land, John displays no such devotion. He admits, “The farm got in the way of every romance I ever had,” shattering relationships with girlfriends and keeping him from traveling as much as he’d like to. Still, he always returns to the place he calls his “sanctuary,” often with a renewed will. Driven by his mother’s unflagging spirit, and a lifetime spent with his hands in the mud, it’s hard to see him anyplace else.
John’s salvation eventually comes with the burgeoning demand for organic produce. Embracing biodynamic, chemical-free production gave his vegetables a much desired appeal, but the real breakthrough comes when a Chicago cooperative pitches John on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Consumers become shareholders in the Peterson farm, subsidizing his production. In return, John ships them a crate a week of fresh, pesticide-free veggies, along with a newsletter detailing the farm’s growth, and passionate philosophy. Describing Peterson’s Angelic Organics, John speaks excitedly of the “direct relationship with people you grow food for.”
The film celebrates the farm’s diversity of vegetables and people alike. Peterson hires migrant Mexican workers alongside white staffers who look like they just dropped off a Phish tour, encouraging a diverse harmony seldom seen in the heartland. People come from across the country to participate in Peterson’s enterprise. “I’ve gotten comfortable with my body, just by working with the tomatoes,” notes one of the young interns.
John revels in the connection they find to his land. Accompanied by a girlfriend half his age, he seems reborn, filming music videos and skipping about dressed like a bumblebee. He’s even started reasserting himself in town, where Peterson says he still feels “the penetrating eyes of the old-timers.” Surrounded by young workers, he presides like a father over his idyllic microcosm. But with no children of his own and a decidedly alternative lifestyle, John repeatedly notes, “It all ends with me.” The Real Dirt convinces otherwise. Already a local legend, Farmer John’s legacy seems assured.