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The Misfit Farmer

John Peterson didn't get along with his neighbors, but he refused to move even after he practically lost the family farm. Now he runs a successful organic farming operation--and his neighbors still don't like him much.

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John Peterson has been known to drive his tractor wearing a close-fitting, sleeveless yellow-and-orange bodysuit with an orange boa around his neck. Filmmaker Taggart Siegel, an old friend of Peterson, thought that would make for some good footage, and early on in his engrossing documentary The Real Dirt on Farmer John the camera moves from the tractor's big wheels and dual headlights to Peterson's getup--a sequence that's worth the price of admission. It captures the tension between glitter and grease that propels the film through Peterson's life--from rural idyll to rural nightmare and back again--in a short 83 minutes.

It'd be a different story if Peterson, the 56-year-old head of Angelic Organics, had just dropped into rural Illinois from somewhere else. But he's lived pretty much his whole life on the farm where he was born, in Boone County off the Northwest Tollway near the Wisconsin line. He learned farming from his father and uncle, both of whom died before he graduated from high school, but he also enjoyed art and ideas. Ambitious, thoughtful, eccentric people like Peterson usually get out of places like Boone County as quickly as they can, but he left only briefly. He was a farmer, and even when things got rough, this was his farm.

In 1967 Peterson started at nearby Beloit College while continuing to farm. He tells me he studied writing, performance, and design because of a young woman who dumped him when he was 19. "She came from a very cultured family," he says. "She used to come and sing and dance while I was milking the cows. When she dropped me I was a different person, and I had to do something with those emotions."

At Beloit he made friends unlike anyone he'd grown up with, and in the early 70s he started bringing them home. Calling the farm the Midwest Coast, they mixed agriculture with counterculture. Few of his relatives, neighbors, or high school classmates welcomed the newcomers or got to know them, apparently figuring they knew enough. His two sisters had already left home, but in the documentary one of them recalls his friends as "a bunch of people and none of them worked." Sometimes an image really is worth a thousand words: the film simply juxtaposes her stereotype with 30-year-old footage of the longhairs wielding shovels and pitchforks.

They didn't just work on the farm, which Peterson bought from his mother in 1975. When locals signed a petition to tear down the century-old schoolhouse across the road from the farm--where his father had gone to school and his mother later taught--Peterson bought the place, and his friends spent seven years helping him restore it and make it his home, using materials they salvaged from dozens of buildings that were being demolished as the area's economy cratered.

Like other farmers, Peterson eventually found it impossible to go on buying seed, feed, and equipment at retail prices while selling grain, milk, and meat wholesale. By 1982 he was half a million dollars in debt, and had to auction off his livestock, his equipment, and 328 of his 350 acres. He was devastated. As he says in the film, "It was like that whole big farm out there somehow just imploded, and what was left was me and the clothes I was wearing." He turned some of the farm buildings into homes and rented them, and each year he would raise a crop of pumpkins on his remaining 22 acres. He did just enough to get by.

The Midwest Coasters had dispersed. For them the farm was a way station. For Peterson it was a calling at which he'd failed. Many of his neighbors blamed him for losing what his parents had worked for. They waited to see if he'd commit suicide as his uncle had.

In the mid-80s Peterson rented the barn loft and other farm buildings to new friends, some of them artists who set up studios. "There was just a lot of traffic from time to time," a neighboring farmer and former high school classmate, John Edwards, says in the film. "Out of nowhere. . . . I didn't know who they were and . . . I just didn't know what to think." Other neighbors didn't know either, and a whispering campaign began.

A couple years later a local TV station broadcast clips from a movie Peterson and a would-be financial partner had made on the farm, in which Peterson played a crazed farmer who traps a loan shark in a grain silo and smothers him in corn. He tells me the role was personal--he'd owed money to a real-life loan shark at one point. But, he says, "Film acting isn't cathartic. It's all bits and pieces, not like stage acting."

In retrospect, he says, he's wondered if some of his neighbors confused the news that a film had been made with the action in it. At any rate, after the TV clips ran, the whispering escalated into rumors of cultism and ritual murder. Some local kids were afraid to go near the "devil farm"; others drove by after dark and tossed firecrackers. A fire of mysterious origin gutted a log cabin he'd built. Peterson says he and Siegel didn't want the film to get too dark, so it doesn't mention the death threat he received. He also says a neighbor took him aside and advised him to quit wearing his cowboy boots, black hat, and sunglasses: "You don't want to stand out." The message was simple and time-honored: conform or leave. He could do neither.

More than once during this period Peterson traveled to Mexico, which is where he encountered Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. He saw that Miller had turned his suffering into a work of art and thought maybe he could do the same. He was also impressed by the bond he saw between Mexican farmers and their fields. "Chemicals hadn't yet become an intermediary between them and their land," he says. "In Mexico I soaked that up. It reinvigorated my own feelings about farming." He started to think seriously about organic agriculture.

To his neighbors, his trips to Mexico meant only one thing--drugs. Eventually he summoned the strength to confront some of the rumormongers. The sheriff agreed to see that his no-trespassing signs were respected, and some neighbors backed off, though none extended an apology. In an awkward scene in the film, Peterson tells Edwards it was nightmarish having his farm called "a place of Satan worship, drug running, orgies." Edwards interrupts: "I didn't say anything about any orgies. . . . I think if everyone just relaxes a little, everything will work out." Yet Peterson tells me some neighbors still despise him.

In 1990 Peterson's mother, now retired, loaned him enough money to start growing organic vegetables. This kind of farming can work when the acreage is limited, and it suited Peterson's newfound conviction that conventional farming was bad for the land and bad for people. As he says in the film, "Raising crops under the influence of so many chemicals sort of warps or twists the life force." Using the label Angelic Organics, he sold his produce at farmers' markets in Chicago and to some restaurants and stores, and his mother watched over a roadside stand. Later, when he became discouraged with working 90 hours a week for little money, she kept him at it, telling him, "I live for that stand."

In the early 90s two Chicagoans, Bob and Cynthia Scheffler, found the farm's name on an organic onion at a grocery store. They'd been looking for a better source of organic food and called him up to ask if he'd be interested in making his farm part of the community-supported agriculture movement, which brings together people who want to eat food that's free of harmful chemicals and people who want to grow it. At that time CSA was a little-known fringe notion, practiced on barely 200 farms nationwide, most of them in the northeast. Now there are said to be more than 1,000.

Not at all sure he wanted a bunch of Chicagoans involved in his business, Peterson turned them down. But he came around. (My 1994 Reader cover story on Angelic Organics and two other area CSA farms gets a cameo in the documentary.) He started with a few dozen subscribers, each of whom paid a set amount up front to cover Peterson's costs, assuming some of the risks of farming. In return, each got a box packed with fresh-picked produce, plus a newsletter, once a week during the growing season; if a crop failed they simply didn't get any of that vegetable. This year the cost will be $560 for 20 weeks or $370 for 12. The farm now has 1,200 subscribers and between 4 and 20 employees, depending on the season--making it one of the largest CSA operations in the country.

The end of the documentary shows Angelic Organics members buying land next to the farm so it can expand, then helping erect a huge barn built in the old mortise-and-tenon style. The barn-raising scenes are intercut with home movies of the old barn being built back in the 50s, when Peterson was a child. The blending of the two events is both heartwarming and misleading. Both were communal efforts, but the community has changed. In the 50s it was a community of place--local friends and neighbors and relatives. Now it's a community of interest--like-minded friends from all over.

"What a beautiful tribute to the future, to the farm," Peterson says in the voice-over, "out of the values and traditions and the beautiful customs of the past." Here he's treading in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson, whose mythology about American agriculture has been fertilized and watered for two centuries by rural romantics. We want to believe that working hard outdoors producing the stuff of life makes people good.

Though the film suggests that Peterson's persecutors were just isolated bad apples, it hints at a darker view. The "beautiful customs of the past" in rural counties do include the old-time generosity of neighbors swapping work during threshing season. They also include a willingness to expel intruders and oddballs. The truth is, a close-knit community can be a terrible thing.

"The rural community provides a floor and a ceiling," Peterson tells me. "The floor props you up when you need it, and that's great. But when you need to branch out, it stops you very soon." He has to live with the fact that he's rooted in a place where he'll never really belong. There's no unalloyed happy ending to the tale of a divided self.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John has toured festivals and won 15 awards; audiences at the international documentary festival in Amsterdam ranked it third out of the 165 shown. Peterson hopes it will be popular enough to lift community-supported agriculture to a new level of visibility. He says it clearly appeals to one not-very-rural audience. "The gay community has a particular affinity for the film," he says. "It's about marginalization and being different. Last January, at a time when we were still wondering if people would sit through it, a gay man came up after a screening. He was sobbing. He'd had to leave Iowa and had to make himself hate Iowa. The film allowed him to let himself feel how much he loved Iowa, and the land, and even the people."

Ironically, though the film derives its central tension from Peterson's ties to Boone County, it's kept him far from home in a way his neighbors' hostility couldn't. It premieres commercially in Chicago and three other cities this weekend and in several more over the coming weeks. He's agreed to give media interviews ahead of time and to attend the first screening in each city. What started small has grown into a full-time commitment and a life spent hopping from one hotel room to the next. "I kept thinking it would die down soon," he says, "because documentary films don't usually go anywhere."

He's also trying to pull together books out of the 1,500 pages of manuscript he's written over the years--stories, autobiography, sketches. Soon to appear is a CSA cookbook that emphasizes how vegetables are grown on the farm. He says it's as much work as anything he's ever done for Angelic Organics, and he's as constrained by deadlines for book copy and personal appearances as he was by the ripening of his cabbage patch.

Holed up in New York City over New Year's, Peterson stole some time to write a short essay, in which he notes, "Suddenly I missed the farming year I had given up for this film: swirling soil; dust; dew; mud; mists; tomato leaves swaying just slightly; wagons of frilly kale bouncing towards the barns...the march of vegetables through the seasons." Grease still trumps glitter. "The film is a story about the irrepressibility of life," he goes on. "Farming, however, is not a story about the irrepressibility of life; farming is the irrepressibility of life."

The Real Dirt on Farmer John

When: Opens Fri 1/20

Where: Pipers Alley

More: Peterson will make an appearance at 7 PM on 1/20.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Taggart Siegel, Slava | Angelic Organics.

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