Star Farmer

14 Jul 2006

Can a farmer become a star celebrity? Judging from the internet website, his books and especially the film relating his life, you would say that farmer John Peterson from Illinois just about fits the bill. And at first sight this might cause your average Italian farmer, always plagued by his day to day problems, or your worldly-wise man in the street, to be somewhat disdainful. All the more so if they were to see this farmer holding a pitchfork, dressed in working clothes, gumboots, straw hat and … a feather boa!

I’m not inventing things, I am describing one of the most interesting people on the American farming scene, or rather, that part of the farming world which is finding the right alternatives to make their produce more sustainable and wholesome. Not only is he capable when it comes to working the land, John Peterson is also able to present himself as a media personality, he is a good and original communicator. But there is real substance behind it and what he has achieved on his farm is exemplary.

If you want to find out more, just see the film about him, The Real Dirt On Farmer John. You can buy it at and there will soon be a version with Italian subtitles, like the one presented in the documentary section of Slow Food on Film, where it won first prize.

John grew up on the family farm and his father taught him how to tend the land from when he was a small child. In the 1950s and 1960s, John’s farm conformed to the large-scale agribusiness model: it was a farm typical of the American Midwest, vast expanses of soy, corn and rape stretching as far as the eye couldsee. But John’s father then died at a fairly young age and all the responsibility for the family farm fell on John’s shoulders. It was the 1970s and John was attending the nearby University, where he cultivated artistic ambitions. His farm soon turned into a sort of commune where artists from all over the US came to work and live together.

The situation soon began to sour however, John was abandoned by his friends, he was forced to sell a lot of his land – one can imagine the distress at having to undo everything his father had created – and the farm was reduced to a size where it wasn’t possible to make a living. John, in a totally depressed state, left it unproductive for years. In the 1980s, after a trip to Mexico where he saw with his own eyes the relationship that Mexican small farmers had with the land, he found the strength and inspiration to give it another go. In an upsurge of enthusiasm he tried organic farming but the initiative failed again: he was too much on his own and too inexperienced to return to a non-industrial type of agriculture.

The seeds had been sown however and he did not let himself get too demoralized. With the encouragement of new friends he became a pioneer of the Community Supported Agriculture movement, a farm-marketing system where subscribers purchase part of the harvest in advance, guaranteeing a fair return for the farmer. All these ups and downs, events that range from hugely entertaining to sad (such as the death of his mother from cancer), have been filmed over the years by his friend and director, Taggart Siegel.

So the film is a very original documentary: packed with archival material, it is almost a reality show covering fifty years and the life of a farm. John’s farm is now reborn and flourishing, thanks to the sustainable farming systems and the alliance with consumers, members of the public who come to his farm at the weekends to pick up their produce, or show their children where their food comes from.

The film tells a great story which is presented outstandingly well. Few other films touch the emotions and entertain as successfully. What’s more, the film website also features John’s new book The Real Dirt On Vegetables, a fascinating cookbook, completely dedicated to vegetables. It gives advice on how to grow them, describes their agricultural characteristics, taste and aroma, discusses seasonality, varieties, and offers tips on conserving, cleaning and cooking. A comprehensive work, enhanced by photographs, anecdotes and reflections, it is a further demonstration that John is not so much a star as someone who practices ‘gastronomic agriculture’. What John is doing gives us much to think about.

First printed in La Stampa on June 18, 2006

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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