The Real Dirt on Farmer John: A Review

Barbara Bamberger-Scott
16 Min Read

I saw this film on a rainy day in the Bay Area.  I had no preconceptions about it except that the venue, a charming old theater in the heart of the university district, and my companion, my niece Cindy who has lived most of her life in the Independent Republic of Berkeley, were indicators that the subject matter would be unashamedly liberal.

Getting to the theater had been fraught with what I discerned was normal for the Bay Area—drivers whose avowals of peacefulness evaporate as soon as they put tire to pavement, and a chronic lack of parking that has caused the people’s advocates to sabotage parking meters with explosives.  Cindy and I had just spent a contemplative hour in a nearby bead shop.  I can think of no better place for women to meet and catch up on old times than by grazing in a bead shop.  The Real Dirt was to be the capper to our pleasant reunion, despite my shock at the prices—tickets and food together cost more than my usual (rural North Carolina) entertainment budget for an entire month.  Cindy with her nachos n’ cheese and I with my less sophisticated popcorn settled back in comfy seats to glom the big screen.

The action begins with a pleasant-looking chap in overalls tromping through a cultivated field.  He crouches down and nibbles a tidbit of mud, announcing with satisfaction, “The soil tastes good today.” Then we see the same chap in full female drag including pink boa, in the driver’s perch of a giant combine.  Switch to different drag, different farm equipment, same general idea.  A voice-over tells us blandly how much fun it is to farm.  Thus we are introduced to our hero in his natural habitat.

The Real Dirt is certain to enthrall and occasionally appall almost everyone.  Farmer John, a.k.a. John Peterson, is both ordinary and extraordinary, a bundle of contradictions who lets them all hang out.  For much of his life John has been followed by a camera, and that exposure has been responsible in large part for his successes.

Farmer John is a man with a bee in his bonnet (and he sometimes is one, as you will learn).  He wrested victory from certain and disastrous defeat after the farm crisis of the 1980s by becoming a biodynamic organic small-holder whose business, Angel Organics, is all the buzz.  A member of the Community Supported Agriculture movement, he is messianic in his zeal—and John Peterson would be a good candidate for messiah, if you like your messiah soft-spoken, balding, boyishly handsome, driven, and a little fey.  Where I come from, we’d call him a “moon calf.”

John Peterson was a farmer’s son and grew up doing man’s work from an early age.  He dominates The Real Dirt with a combination of voice-overs and direct conversation with the camera.  By his account, John Boy loved forking hay and shoveling manure.  He never expected to do anything other than work the family farm, over one hundred acres of rural Illinois mostly devoted to dairy and poultry.  It was his destiny, his moral and spiritual heritage and his birthright.  In later years it would become if not a wife, certainly a significant other whose requirements for faithful attention ruled out the possibility of long-term human partnerships.

The first camera to admire John was one held by his mother, Anna, a teacher and enthusiastic hyperactive farm wife, a loyal mom (and being loyal to her son at times required near-saintly patience) and a central character in The Real Dirt.  Through Anna’s super-8 camera lens we view little John in overalls or church clothes, always following his dad doggedly and imitating his manly moves.  Later, it is John who films his mother as the two reminisce about the 1950s, the golden years when it seemed that the farm was all there was and all there needed to be.

Then begins a redemptive process.  In a portion of the film that comes across as wooden and only marginally believable, Peterson confronted his old nemesis the county sheriff.  In an attempt at on-camera candor (which may have been a cinematic replay of something that did happen in real life) Peterson quietly explained how much he was hurt by the interplay between the law and the locals in the grim days when Peterson and his companions were branded as Satanists and drug users (Peterson absolutely disavows any connection to drugs).  The sheriff seemed to be stifling an urge to giggle with embarrassment like a schoolboy caught trying to steal the teacher’s apple.

Freed from the past, John nourished fresh hopes that he could transform his farm into a living organism.  Her son’s most enthusiastic booster, his mother Anna lives to see the beginnings of the farm’s re-growth, and dies bravely.  One of the most heart-rending scenes in the movie shows her final days of life, barely squeezing John’s hand and gazing at him with intense focus as he murmurs, “I love you.”

John hooked into the biodynamic stream of small-scale farming and gardening.  Things fell into place.  Despite lean years of drenching rain and plagues of insects, the new husbandry prevailed.

Now everything is suddenly in brilliant color, everything is on the upbeat.  We watch Farmer John stirring the biodynamic preps in the prescribed manner, creating sensitive chaos in the elements, joking and preaching to a band of the newly converted.  He has overcome his inner demons and gathered a new flock of admirers—the healthy young green revolutionaries of America’s hip heartland.  Children come to visit and pet the animals.  Grown-ups with delighted smiles arrange boxes of vegetables so clean and perfect they fairly shimmer.  Music by international folk-rock band The Dirty Three rolls us happily along from strength to strength.

John becomes part of the CSA, an organization that finds farmers willing to grow food organically and deliver it by the box-load to individuals or small markets in the city.  Farmers then solicit the buyers to become co-owners/investors, plumping down a yearly membership fee that subsidizes the farmer to buy the seed to grow the crops to deliver to the customer/co-owners, the circle complete, everything in its season.

Because John Peterson is who he is, hippy, cross-dresser, dramatist, and above all farmer, he has made his little patch of the CSA stand out.  Calling it Angel Organics was more than serendipity.  Peterson understands his market.  The film is a marketing ploy, admiring and advertising Angel Organics as well as Peterson himself, whose products will ultimately include books as well as brassicas.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The Real Dirt ends as it began, with Peterson in costume.  He and someone he proudly introduces as his girlfriend play “bubble bees” fleeing in terror from an evil plane spraying pesticides.  Cramped into in a vividly decorated compact car, the two brightly costumed bees hide and hug, two adorable darlings endangered by the big bad chemico-industrial complex.  In the background, an incongruously snappy tune whisks us back to simpler times, creating a jarring pastiche of Monkees meets Benny Hill meets the Mega-Industrial/Chemical Complex.

John Peterson remains an enigma.  There is no dearth of material about him and the film on the web.  On his Angel Organics website, he is disarmingly dressed in a cotton shirt and straw hat while in a review of The Real Dirt he frowns in contemplation, resplendent in a zebra stripe jacket, around his neck one of his broken doll pendants, fat stogie protruding from his clinched teeth.  A snap taken at a film awards event shows him next to Taggart Siegel.  John donned a pink feather boa for the occasion.

Al and Tipper Gore celebrate John Peterson.  Al once introduced a showing of the film and the man himself. The Real Dirt has won numerous jury and audience awards including those at Sundance, a benchmark of American subculture acclaim.

As Cindy and I walked away from the theatre and searched for her car among the exploded meter stalks, she told me that she was a member of a CSA farm.  She receives weekly boxes of fresh veggies and fruit, organically grown, during the long California growing season.  To her, eating organic is taken for granted, and we concurred about the health benefits of consuming produce in its proper season.  Of course, Cindy lives in a haven of eco-idealism just a few miles from the fertile fields of the San Joaquin Valley, boasting some of the best soil and climatic conditions in America.

I sadly opined that we had no such options in North Carolina, where the initials “CSA” generally bring to mind the “Confederate States of America.”

But I was wrong.  Not only are there a smattering of CSA-related farm/orchard garden businesses in my home state, but there is one in my hometown of Dobson.

Dobson is the county seat of Surry County, a sparsely populated traditional tobacco-growing area.  The county’s claim to minor fame is that Andy Griffith was raised in Mount Airy, a cute village tucked up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  Some years back Mt. Airy was officially declared to be “Mayberry,” the mythical home of Sheriff Andy, Barny and Aunt Bea.  It wrested that appellation from its rival, Pilot Mountain, by what assertions of superiority or deviousness I know not—and it’s been trading off that folksy status ever since.  It brings in the tourists and keeps Snappy Lunch in business churning out pork chop sandwiches on Main Street.

Dobson gets some reflected glory just by being near Mayberry, but its growth industry, now that tobacco is on the wane, is viticulture.  It cautiously touts its two large vineyards, one in full wine production.  The backbone of the county’s agriculture is its ambitious and hardworking Mexican population who come here to plant, “top” and harvest bright leaf tobacco, toil in the vineyards, and perform drudge labor at the chicken processing plant. Mexicans have started almost every new business in the town since we moved here nine years ago.  They coexist nervously but so far without rancor among the good old boys, and attend special Spanish services at the Baptist and Pentecostal churches.

Dobson is a long way from Berkeley, and a long way philosophically from Angel Organics.  Yet I found the Soaring Eagle Farm at, a user-friendly information site that allows you to locate CSA and related farms by state or zip code.  Soaring Eagle Farm stands out as a rarity in our region, raising, on a small scale, sheep, goats, cows, poultry, berries, herbs, vegetables and bees for planned honey production.  SEF’s owner, Dori Fritzinger, makes this declaration on the website: “Many of our seeds we use have been gathered and kept for the following years.  We grow a variety of heirloom breeds of tomatoes—some have been in the family for over 60 years and some of our heirloom sweet Italian peppers have been grown for generations from seeds originally brought over from Italy for over 125 years ago.”

Intrigued, I talked to Dori.  She said she farms “the only way I know.  It’s the way I was raised.”  I asked if I could visit SEF, only ten miles from my own little rural home.  Dori readily agreed, while warning me that the farm was in its raw state, stripped for winter.

…But perhaps this is a story for another rainy day.

Meanwhile, watch The Real Dirt and be prepared to be assailed by wild, wacky wonderful sensations.  It’s not showing in Mayberry but a quick web search will turn up dates and times, mainly in college towns and larger cities.

John Peterson’s spirit guide, Henry Miller, had something to say about why we read.  Substitute the words “watching a movie” for “reaching for a book” and you’ll have a good reason to check out The Real Dirt on Farmer John:

“What we all hope in reaching for a book, is to meet a man of our own heart, to experience tragedies and delights which we ourselves lack the courage to invite, to dream dreams which will render life more hallucinating, perhaps also to discover a philosophy of life which will make us more adequate in meeting the trials and ordeals which beset us.”

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