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January 25-31, 2006

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The Real Dirt on Farmer John

Hide and Leek: John Peterson is not your average salt of the earth.

Ploughman's Bunch

'The Real Dirt on Farmer John' follows the row hoed by eccentric cultivator John Peterson

By Richard von Busack

SENTIMENTAL, rambling and absolutely lovable, The Real Dirt on Farmer John is a profile of Caledonia, Ill., farmer John Peterson by his long-time friend Taggart Siegel. The film offers an affectionately told life of an agriculturalist who weathered the 1970s Earl Butz Fever and the subsequent foreclosures of the 1980s. Those who can't bear the suspense of the movie—and it is rather suspenseful—can go straight to to see how Peterson gets along now.

Peterson was one of a family of farmers from Illinois' black-dirt region. His mother taught school, and he lost his father early. Peterson went across the Wisconsin border to Beloit College just as the 1960s hit—a strong physical resemblance to Andy Warhol must have worked some magic there. Peterson's farm became a crash pad and backdrop for some of the farmer's talented experimental filmmaking. While Peterson claims to have had nothing to do with drugs, his conservative neighbors began to worry about devil worship and whatnot going on between the corn rows—cows are easily frightened. Harassed by local teens and possibly visited by arson, Peterson was left alone when the '60s circus folded its tent. Later, after Nixon's agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, urged farmers to overproduce corn, the banks extended excessive lines of credit, which, as banks will, they snatched back, and Peterson almost lost everything.

So it is a pleasure to see John Peterson as he is today: tasting the dirt; begowned, wrapped in a feather boa and glittering on his muddy tractor; making folk-music videos when not working his 13-hour days. Though Peterson's sexuality was a matter of concern in his small town, the farmer would seem to be someone who cross-dresses strictly for theatrical purposes. Incidentally, who knew farms were such chick magnets? Thanks to this compressed view of his life, Peterson always seems to have a good-looking woman companion on his premises. They say that if a man is a success with women, he should thank his mother. The movie is dedicated to Anne Peterson, seen as her son's devoted friend and strong companion.

Every J.-J. Rousseau-loving nerve tingles during this movie, so full is it of irresistible goofy charm. What The Real Dirt on Farmer John has to say is serious, though. Peterson exemplifies the hard-working, golden-hearted eccentric who once made this nation. And he stands as a living rebuke to agribusiness, which is trying to make our food standard and our farmers passive. Also, the siege on our land by Tyvek-wrapped minimansions is just as dismaying in this film as it is elsewhere, in Pennsylvania's Amish country, in our own Morgan Hill or wherever would-be squires are trampling irreplaceable farmland. But Peterson's story is framed as a happy one. We see the preservation of a family farm as a place where Peterson can both make a living and express himself a little. This is as good as any news as we have received from the heartland in a long time.

Movie Times The Real Dirt on Farmer John (Unrated; 83 min.), a documentary by Taggart Siegel, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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