The Real Dirt on The Real Dirt

By Nick Fauchald Posted June 19, 2007

John Peterson likes to eat dirt and wear a pink feather boa. John Peterson has been wrongly accused of, among other things, drug trafficking, devil worship and murdering children. John Peterson is also an iconoclastic farmer, a CSA entrepreneur, a cookbook author and the protagonist of the most compelling food documentary (that’s right, Morgan) I’ve ever seen: The Real Dirt on Farmer John, which is gearing up for this week's nationwide release after winning dozens of awards on the film-festival circuit.

Thanks to a lifetime of video footage and some uncanny prescience, Peterson’s longtime friend Taggart Siegel has crafted an unexpectedly touching film (think The Grapes of Wrath meets The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), following Peterson for three decades as he struggles to maintain his family’s Midwest farm. In fact, the film is more misfit love story than documentary: Boy meets farm, boy falls in love with farm, boy loses farm, boy gets his act together and wins farm back. I expected the film to be a maudlin docudrama/sales pitch for CSAs (with corporate agriculture cast as the moustache-twirling enemy), but the Rudolf Steiner–loving protagonist never points the finger at anyone but himself (and the occasional slander-spewing neighbor). If you like love stories, verdant fields and happy endings (and need something to tide you over between Knocked Up and Transformers), buy a ticket. You'll leave the theater and sign up for a CSA.

Last night, fellow F&W editor Kristin Donnelly and I attended a preview screening, and the film prompted a cab-ride-long discussion on the nature of the “celebrity farmer.” I don’t think such a thing exists (though John Peterson, with his bumblebee costumes and his Warhol-like following, might become the first). Kristin feels otherwise. (I await her rebuttal). What do you think?

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