Film Review - The Real Dirt on Farmer John

This documentary tells the story of one farm in Illinois and the man who was responsible for its evolution from a failing single-family farm into a lively and successful community farm.

“Farmer John” is John Peterson, the son and grandson of hardworking Illinois farmers who worked the land for generations, making it their home.  It remained John’s home even after the rest of the family moved away. The Real Dirttells the story of his turbulent but evolving relationship with his neighbors and his land, and with the farm legacy that he decided was worth preserving even when preservation required sweeping change.

The film begins with John’s childhood, one of tractors and pitchforks and a rich family life. When his father died, a teenaged John took over the farm responsibilities and began to navigate the complexities of bad harvests, aging equipment and farm loans. He ran the farm even while attending college in a nearby town. A free spirit, but a hard worker, John did his best to keep the large farm alive in the face of rising costs and a severe shortage of farmhands. His best efforts were not enough and he was forced sell off most of the farm in 1982 to pay accumulating debts.

In the 1980s, debt left many farmers landless and hopeless. John was no exception, and thinking about his family and friends magnified the disappointment he felt after the sale of the farm.

Most of the farms in the area were consolidated soon after and the diminished community became bitter and intolerant. Bigger farms relying on bigger subsidies — this was the beginning of “modern” farming. Still, there was room for smaller operations if farmers were willing to be creative and brave their own paths.

John decided to do just that and started farming organically under the name Angelic Organicson May 1, 1991. It was an incredibly hard process. Where the farm had once grown four crops, John was now growing over thirty different crops — and he didn’t even know the names of all of them! When he started collaborating with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)   group in Chicago, the farm really began to evolve. As people signed on to share in each season’s harvest, John began to see the immense possibilities in community-supported farming.

John Peterson’s farm, once a difficult-to-run, single-family operation, is now a successful community project with hundreds of people willing to share in the challenges of growing organic food. The Real Dirtdoes a beautiful job of showing how the love and dedication of one man can combine with the hopes of so many others to preserve farmland and produce food that is healthful and delicious. Watch the trailer and visit the Angelic Organics website for more information on the farm and the documentary.

Check out our review of the companion book to the movie, Farmer John’s Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables.

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