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A plain-spoken soul in the nation's heartland

Inspiring 'Farmer John' is both one man's story and a telling look at American agriculture.

July 27, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

If a man declared that he enjoyed working the land and getting dirty, you'd probably assume he were a farmer. If the same man took a bite from a handful of soil, proclaimed it tasty and then confessed to a proclivity for prancing about in glitzy, theatrical costumes, you might think him eccentric but you'd want to know more.

That is the provocative set-up for the outstanding documentary, "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," the epic story of a northern Illinois man whose half-century in agriculture features a lifetime of dramatic downturns and humbling reversals buoyed by a renaissance of biblical proportions. Though its title suggests an exposé on Dodger Dogs, the movie is the moving, inspirational account of John Peterson's discovery of an almost divine calling in the land beneath his feet.

Told by Peterson with wit and Middle-American charm, the experience is not unlike sitting at the kitchen table with a friend, cold pitcher of fresh lemonade at the ready and a comforting breeze coming in off the porch. It is a film built on relationships: between Peterson and his farm, Peterson and his mother, and perhaps most beneficial of all, Peterson and filmmaker Taggart Siegel, who together give the film an intimacy unimaginable in most nonfiction films.

The two men have known each other for more than 25 years; Siegel began filming Peterson in 1980 after he learned his friend was about to lose his farm. The hours of footage, along with earlier home movies shot by Peterson's mother, Anna, form the heart of the film. Peterson's plain-spoken, folksy voice, reminiscent of Garrison Keillor's, relates what is his unique story and the broader saga of the American farm in the 20th century.

The Peterson farm is located in Caledonia, 75 miles outside of Chicago. Like many family farms, it thrived for decades after the Depression and expanded in the 1960s to survive. Before John was out of high school, however, his father unexpectedly died, leaving him to run the farm.

He managed to attend nearby Beloit College. There he fell in with the hippies and artists who typified the era; they expanded his mind, turning him on to art, film and theater. By the early '80s, however, he was nearly $500,000 in debt and, like many of his fellow farmers, was forced to sell part of his land.

Peterson fell into an understandable funk, but through repeated trips to Mexico and the touching faith of his mother, he began to find himself. He started to write down his stories and, inspired by the more spiritual approach to agriculture south of the border, returned to Caledonia to reinvent himself as an organic farmer in the early 1990s.

Siegel combines multiple formats -- 8-millimeter home movies, 16-mm film, Video 8 - in crafting a warm visual tapestry that pragmatically reflects on a bygone era. The Rockwellian experience of growing up on a Midwestern farm, the calamitous failure of family farms in the age of corporate farming and the rise of Community Supported Agriculture form a rich backdrop for Peterson's personal evolution. The film's music -- written by Mark Orton and performed by the Australian folk-rock trio Dirty Three -- provides a sonic connection to the land that expertly complements Peterson's storytelling.

"The Real Dirt on Farmer John." Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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