Earthy: Farmer John Peterson communes with his harvest.
Eventually, Peterson adopted a style of farming the Illinois land he was raised on that recalls the days before pesticides.
As told in a new documentary, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, the story of John Peterson is an allegory for the woes of family farmers — and the triumphant return to traditional artisan farming that is giving new life to small-scale agriculture.
Growing up on an Illinois farm in the 1950s, Peterson watched his Uncle Harold use teams of horses to plow his fields, decades after tractors had revolutionized American farming. But after his father's death, Peterson, at 19, became responsible for the farm himself, even as he attended a local college.
It was the 1970s, and Peterson embraced the age in a way that attracted artists and eccentrics — and repelled his more traditional-minded neighbors. Peterson grew his hair long and wore extravagant outfits, and rumors of drug use, animal sacrifices and odd rituals swirled around the farm.
The farming crisis of the early 1980s brought financial hardship, and much of the family land was sold after Peterson's bank foreclosed on his loans. With the struggle between his family business and his own urge to write and make art seemingly over, Peterson traveled in Mexico and Central America, writing about his life.
When Peterson returned to the homestead, he began to orchestrate his largest transformation, using his farm as a canvas for his ideas about farming and community.
Documenting 70 years — the Petersons were prolific filmers of their own lives — The Real Dirt on Farmer John paints a picture of a man whose enigmatic passions went against the grain of life in tiny Caledonia, Ill., a town about 75 miles west of Chicago.
But Peterson's idiosyncrasies, which once brought death threats and rumors, eventually led him to go the organic route, adopting the Community Supported Agriculture model of farming. His company, Angelic Organics, is thriving. It now sends herbs and vegetables to 1,000 families in the Chicago area.
The Real Dirt on Farmer John was directed by Taggart Siegel, who has known Peterson since 1979. Siegel's other work includes The Split Horn, which follows the family of a Hmong shaman who is transplanted from Laos to Wisconsin. The Real Dirt premieres on PBS' Independent Lens on June 13.