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.
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.
[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.
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