Farmer John Peterson

The movie star

September 25, 2007

A Midwestern farm boy, radical artist, and environmentalist who’s been known to don pink boas while tilling his fields, John Peterson defies categorization. He’s a strong believer in biodynamic agriculture, a system that focuses on maintaining healthy land by using herbal remedies on the soil, fostering biodiversity on and around the fields, and treating the entire farm as a living organism.

Peterson is also the subject of the 2005 documentary movie “The Real Dirt on Farmer John.” Shot over three decades, the film chronicles how Peterson turned his family’s defunct corn and soybean fields into a successful organic vegetable farm that sells produce through a community-supported agriculture program (CSA).

Your film has been very successful, both financially and critically. What’s that been like for you?
It’s been crazy. I step out for part of a day and come back and have 30 new emails. And these aren’t junk mail — they’re things like the State Department wanting to use [the film] for something, or the government of another country inviting us to show it.

We’re touring so many cities; we’re screening in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Czech Republic this fall. Then shortly after that, I’ll be opening cities in Australia and New Zealand. That’s a big deal for a little farmer.

Farmer John Peterson, sniffing onions.

In the film, you discuss how you were an outsider for so long, and now you’re at the center of the eco-food movement.
Well, I was an outsider for other reasons — it was kind of like, “Oh, yeah, that’s the weird guy.” But with organic food, the main thing is that people were afraid of it because they thought it didn’t taste as good as the stuff grown with pesticides.

There’s a groundswell of interest in CSAs, and I’m a lot more excited about that than I am about organics. Organic is great — it’s great not to dump so many chemicals in the ground — but it doesn’t really transform the consumer’s relationship to food. CSAs are different; with CSAs, people get connected to the farm, to the weather, to the climate. And that’s just a huge transformation.

Have you seen a big jump in subscriptions to your CSA since the film came out?
Well, we’re maxed out, but I see that CSAs all over the country are growing exponentially. Both the membership and the number of farms are just really taking off, and it’s so extraordinary. There are about a half a million to a million people eating that way now, and when you look at the possible impact that can have on our society, it’s pretty impressive.

It’s not just about food; it’s about something broader than that, because it affects people’s relationship to the earth. If people start really seeing the earth as their earth, the soil as their soil, the weather as their weather, and the climate as their climate — it’s very profound. We’re going to have a shift in how the planet is taken care of.

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[The CSA movement] is like organics was when it started, with this protective impulse toward the earth. That was a beautiful thing — small farmers, people who were idealists. There was a relationship there. People somehow managed to survive at it when [the market for organics was] small, and now it’s become something that big business can exploit.

Do you think that it’s a good thing overall that more people are being exposed to the principles of sustainable agriculture through organics? Or is the mainstream success of organics watering down those principles at some level?
People don’t really get connected in the same way. When it was more mom-and-pop, more about the farmer bringing stuff to the co-op and the farmers’ markets, then that connection to the agricultural process was more intimate. But now, really, the organic movement is just a cleaner way to grow food. You don’t know who the grower is, don’t know the farm, don’t know that soil. It’s still good not to dump all those chemicals on the earth, but it’s not transformation.

Then you have biodynamic farming, which is about the relationship of the farmer to the farm, whereas the CSA is about the relationship of the consumer to the farm. Both relationships are very important.

How did you become interested in biodynamic agriculture?
I really became interested through classical homeopathy. When I was very depressed — I went through a really bad time, I was at my lowest point — I moved down to Mexico. And it was homeopathic medicine that cured me. Biodynamic is very similar in terms of the herbal preparations, but also how it looks at the whole system — the whole person or the whole farm. Everything functions as a unit. With biodynamic, you have grasses, animals, livestock, insects, along with the crops, all balancing the soil.

What’s next for you?
I’m working on a manuscript of short stories about farming; I just can’t find the 30 to 40 hours that I need to finish it up. My agent wants it soon, though, so it has to happen.

Christy Harrison is a food writer and editor in New York.

There are 4 comments on this item
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1. by Charlotte on Sep 25, 2007 at 6:41 PM PDT

I remember some wild parties on John’s farm when I was an undergrad at Beloit -- and I have to say the movie brought me to tears. That’s my country. My grandmother still lives on our farm about 50 miles south of John’s (a farm that’s been in our family since the 1860s), and the older farmer watching the subdivisions going up just kills me: “They’re pouring concrete in that dirt.” I’m glad John managed to save even the little piece he did, and that he made it profitable is a triumph. Southern Wisconisn in the mid-80s was a very depressed place. Good on you John.

2. by anonymous on Sep 26, 2007 at 3:00 PM PDT

Thanks for making me aware of CSA’s. I live in Long Beach, CA and buy my produce every Sunday at our local Farmer’s Market. Because of this article I’ll probably start asking more questions about how the fruits and vegetables that I buy weekly are grown and migrate to those growers who’s practices are more in line with that of CSA’s. Thanks for enlightening me.

3. by Rebecca T. of HonestMeat on Aug 7, 2008 at 10:28 AM PDT

Farmer John’s movie brought me to tears. Your struggle to save the family farm, your struggle of being unique and creative in a rural society that only embraces similarity, your ability to break the mold and become the largest CSA in the country. I thank you so much for what you have taught me and taught the world.

4. by Rick Butler on Oct 3, 2008 at 7:11 PM PDT

Your timing for the movie (Dirt on Farmer John) is very special. With the financial crisis on Wall Street, I am praying you have been protected from the greed breed of stupidity.

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