Moving Pictures ™ – A Review of The Real Dirt on Farmer John

By Terri Catlin

I was sick in bed when my husband went to our local video store (when those still existed) and picked out The Real Dirt on Farmer John. With an endorsement on the front from Al Gore, he knew it would be my cup of tea – green tea. I don’t usually like watching documentaries when I’m under the weather, preferring something light and cheerful. But the sight of Farmer John on his tractor in a fuchsia feather boa told me this might just do the trick.

Farmer John Peterson is not typical – which is an understatement. He talks about his personal dichotomy. “I love moving iron and pushing iron through the soil.” And then, “I love glitz, I love glitter, I love glamour.” And yet, Farmer John is in many ways an ordinary man. A farm boy who can’t get the land out of his blood. A man searching for purpose when he can no longer farm.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

On the one hand, this is a film about the demise of the family farm in America, and the rising phoenix of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and the biodynamic and organic movement. But whether you’ve ever had a concern about where your food is from or not, this is still a film that everyone can relate to and enjoy. For this is also the story of one man’s journey of self-discovery through trying circumstances and seemingly hopeless challenges. Faced with bankruptcy at the age of 30, Farmer John nearly lost the family farm that his grandfather had managed to keep while weathering the Great Depression.

There are two major themes that struck me in this documentary. The first is about the power of community to cause both harm and healing. When John inherits the farm as a young man in the ‘60s, he turns it into a communal experiment called the Midwest Coast, attracting hippies, radicals and artists – and a lot of negative attention from neighbours. When rumours of his wild parties rage out of control, the accusations are so damaging that John leaves the country to escape the pain. Never underestimate the power of gossip – even by well-intentioned people. But when John eventually faces those that caused him harm, he rediscovers the power of community to come together and create something extraordinary.

The second theme is that of self-expression. What is a cross-dressing, artist farmer to do when the bottom falls out? What are any of us to do? In Farmer John’s willingness to share his humanity, his imperfections, his fears and ultimately his courage, we can find ourselves. In his unwillingness to sell out on who he is, we can find inspiration. John has his mother to thank for passing along her values of tolerance and perseverance. She is the driving force behind his will to carry on when all signs point to Quitsville. It is this foundation from which he lives his life and eventually finds his niche, demonstrating the power of those immortal words of Bill Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.”

Michelle Leduc head shotTerri Catlin is an award-winning actor/writer/director and a network marketing professional.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John is available on DVD.  

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