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Arts and Entertainment

Movie Review: The Real Dirt on Farmer John

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In the opening scene of The Real Dirt on Farmer John, the eponymous farmer, John Peterson, kneels down in a plowed field and chews on a good-sized clod of dirt. It's exactly the sort of thing you might expect a true farmer to do when gauging the quality of his soil. Soon enough, though, John is riding his tractor dressed in a feather boa and being followed by a nude woman who appears to be channeling a zombie from Dawn of the Dead. It's that dichotomy of character and action that lies at the heart of this fascinating and odd documentary.

John Peterson is another one of those true American originals that the best documentaries always seem to unearth. We learn that as a young man in the 1960's he inherited his family's thriving farm which he soon turned into a sort of hippie farming/artist collective. Within a few years, his grand experiment failed and John was forced to sell most of the property. In most cases, the story would end there, but John couldn't let go of the land. After a long journey, both physically and mentally, he found his way back to the farm.

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Today, John is one of the pioneers of Community Supported Agriculture, selling his organic produce throughout Chicago and Northern Illinois. In that sense, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, serves as a model for how the modern, small farm can compete against the massive corporate entities that raise much of our country's food. That larger story is told, however, through the daffy antics of John, the charm of his elderly mother and the conservative backdrop of the local community where John is considered gay, a devil-worshipper or both.

Director Taggart Siegel is a close friend of John Peterson's and his affection for his subject shows throughout the film. With access to over 20 years of footage from which to cull, Siegel has crafted a documentary that is as whimsical as it is significant with respect to our country's agricultural policy. John, who also wrote and narrates the film, may be strange and often self-indulgent but his ideas are worth considering if this country truly wants to help small farmers and produce healthier food.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John is currently playing at the Laemmle Music Hall 3

Photos courtesy of CAVU Pictures