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July 12, 2005

The Real Dirt on Farmer John

This movie will be out in theatres in fall. I got an advance copy from the distributors, and Becky and I watched it last night.

It's one of the best movies I've seen in years. John Peterson, the scion of a farming family in rural northern Illinois, tells his life story. That story is hopelessly intertwined with the story of the land he farms.

And I write that, and I know what I'd be thinking if I read it written by someone else: oh, lord, one more lyrical ode to rural life, like Wendell Berry interpreted by Steven Spielberg.

It's not like that. The film is pretty damned unsentimental about rural life. When I said "hopelessly intertwined," I chose the adverb carefully. Peterson is as much artist and eccentric as he is farmer, and the sheer fearful ignorance his neighbors felt resulted in rumors of drug dealing, satanic cult murders, and other unpleasant things. Peterson was driven into exile from the farm his grandfather bought, not once but a few times. Mounting debt forced him to sell most of the farm's 300+ acres. He came back from Mexico, borrowed (literal) seed money from his ailing mother to give farming one last chance, and struggled on the brink of another failure for a few years.

And then it all turned around when he put a few ideas together, and his 22 remaining acres eventually became one of the state's most successful small farms. He began the process of confronting his old neighbors about the old bad blood, forcing a reconciliation. He's been able to buy back some of the land his family once owned. From four crops, his production has diversified to several dozen. He's part of a thriving, committed community.

The film veers a little bit into regrettable Rudolf Steiner mysticism, and at times sheds its lyricism to sound a bit like a commercial for the Community Supported Agriculture business model. But this is a profile of Peterson, and he's a Steiner devotee, so my wishing for a rebuttal to the notion "homeopathic soil amendments" was probably unfair. And CSAs do save farms. Neither flaw is even close to fatal. This film is probably going to be restricted to art houses and indie shops when it's released, so look for it. It's jaw-droppingly good. The film made me want to go to Illinois, and that never happens.

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 12, 2005 04:05 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

Quite the recommendation. However, as a former resident of Illinois - may I suggest you have a bit of a lie down until the urge to visit passes?

*hides from midwest fans*

Posted by: Space Kitty at July 12, 2005 04:48 PM
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Having just posted a lyrical ode to farming myself, I figured I'd have to do some squirming but I'm glad Peterson's story had a happy ending. The old models no longer work here in the rural northeast either, but new models are having surprising success. It has given me hope that the family farm is not necessarily a thing of the past, and that all the agricultural land in my home state of Vermont won't become three-acre plots-with-a-view for people fleeing the cities and suburbs of New York, New Jersey, and Boston. Will look for the film; thanks for the recommendation, Chris.

Posted by: beth at July 13, 2005 07:56 AM
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