The Real Dirt On Farmer John

  • 2005
  • Movie
  • NR
  • Documentary

Taggart Siegel's loving portrait of eccentric farmer John Peterson is an epic writ small that focuses on a life lived almost entirely on a Caledonia, Ill., farm yet encompasses six decades of changing American social mores and economic upheavals. When he was a child, Peterson says, he "thought the whole world was a farm." One of three children raised...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Taggart Siegel's loving portrait of eccentric farmer John Peterson is an epic writ small that focuses on a life lived almost entirely on a Caledonia, Ill., farm yet encompasses six decades of changing American social mores and economic upheavals.

When he was a child, Peterson says, he "thought the whole world was a farm." One of three children raised on some 300 acres that had been in the family since the Depression, he was the quintessential farm boy: strapping, clean-cut and hardworking. He loved the smell of earth and the satisfaction of hoeing, reaping and threshing. He loved his parents and ran around with the rest of the local kids — his mother's home-movie footage shows packs of squealing youngsters playing on and around combines, tractors and bonfires. When his father developed diabetes, the teenaged Peterson assumed more and more of the day-to-day work until, at age 19, he took full responsibility for the family legacy. Rather than forego college, Peterson attended Beloit because it was a mere 8 miles away. And then his troubles began: It was the height of the countercultural 1960s and Peterson embraced its art, music and attitudes, shocking his conservative neighbors. He let his new friends — including Siegel — live on the farm, prompting rumors that he was turning it into some dirty commune. He also discovered a love of glitter, feather boas and nude frolicking and fell for a series of hippie chicks with back-to-the-land ideals. But by the '70s, Peterson had run into financial trouble and was eventually forced to sell off most of his land. He tried to shake his ensuing depression by decamping for Mexico, and returned to find the economic prospects for small farms worse than ever. His neighbors were so hostile that they spread rumors that he and his friends were Satanists, drug addicts, perverts and child killers. He wrote and starred in a play about farm foreclosures that moved rural audiences to tears and caught the attention of the USDA's Farm Service Agency, who considered sponsoring it but told Peterson he'd first have to learn "not to act so gay." That Peterson rebounded, converting his limited acreage into an organic farm and joining the CSA movement (Community Sustained Agriculture) is remarkable, but less so than the fact that he eventually reached out to the community that had persecuted him.

Siegel combines home movies, interviews and footage taken over the course of his long-standing friendship with Peterson to produce a beautifully nuanced portrait of a true American eccentric who followed his own inclinations until the times finally caught up to him.

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  • Released: 2005
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Taggart Siegel's loving portrait of eccentric farmer John Peterson is an epic writ small that focuses on a life lived almost entirely on a Caledonia, Ill., farm yet encompasses six decades of changing American social mores and economic upheavals. When h… (more)

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