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Meeting Farmer John

Posted at 4:51 PM on January 10, 2006 by Euan Kerr

John Peterson, the star of "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" dropped by the MPR studios today. He's a charming, forthright fellow, who is proof positive that buying a family movie camera can lead to cinematic glory.

In the 1950's John's mom bought a Super-8 camera to make home movies of her family and life on their northern Illinois farm. John was two years old, and so appeared a great deal on camera. As he grew older and began doing more around the farm, he also began taking the camera. He later documented some of the 'happenings' he organized on the farm in the sixties with a video camera.

Then in the 70's he met film-maker Taggert Siegel who captured what happened to John as he went through the farm crisis, and lost more than 90 percent of his land. As things went downhill Peterson found himself the center of a whispering campaign by many of his neighbors, who spread false allegations of wild goings-on at the farm. Some even claimed Peterson was a satanist. One night one of his buildings burned to the ground, a fire Peterson believes was arson. Siegel was there with his camera. Eventually Peterson demanded and got police protection, but had to deal with the ugly rumors for a long time after. He gave up farming for a while, but no matter how hard he tried to move on, the land kept calling him back.

Siegel stuck with him and, as the years passed, followed the re-birth of the farm as an organic operation which now is going from strength to strength.

One day when Peterson and Siegel were standing in one of his fields they came up with the idea of putting together a historical account of what had happened. Peterson said he had forgotten how much film and tape he had lying around. They shot some extra interviews including some somewhat shame-faced, but friendly, exchanges with the rumor-mongering neighbors.

The resulting film, which is woven through with Peterson's writings and narration, is a compelling portrait of the best and the worst of the American agricultural experience of the last half century. John Peterson is a dedicated farmer who is deeply committed to the acres his family has worked since the Depression. He thinks and writes a lot on the importance of the human connection to the land. He is also a bit of an eccentric, who is not beyond riding his tractor in costume. This combination makes "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" extremely watchable as a result.

The film has been on the festival circuit, and now is going on limited release, with the Twin Cities being first on the list. It opens here on the 20th. We'll air the interview closer to that date.

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