A Conversation with Farmer John (Peterson)

Susan Gerhard May 30, 2006

Old MacDonald had a farm. But what John Peterson, a.k.a. “Farmer John,” has is something else. I imagine you could probably get a quack, quack here and a quack, quack there, if you tried. But more than pigs, cows, and roosters, what Farmer John has known on his green acres over the years is scandal, debt, and art. Farmer John wears a feather boa and invites friends over to make masks and music videos. He sometimes rides a tractor in a zebra-striped jacket, which scares the neighbors in rural Illinois, who, at one point, were convinced he was conducting Satanic rituals in his barn.

The main issue, however, was that on that farm, he also had a lot of depleted dirt and massive debt, which he eventually turned around with organic farming and the support of a new breed of vegetable buyer. As seen in Taggart Siegel’s “The Real Dirt on Farmer John,” a documentary that hits the Red Vic Movie House this weekend, and is accompanied by Farmer John on book tour with “Farmer’s John’s Cookbook,” Peterson is an innovator who’s turned his Community Supported Agriculture farm into a cultural mecca. It’s taken the CSA into another realm altogether — a tourist attraction, maybe an artist’s colony, in some ways, as well as a working farm.

“The Real Dirt…” won the Best Bay Area Documentary award at last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, and screens on PBS through Independent Lens June 13, but more importantly, it recently won the “Golden Snail Jury Award” from Slow Food on Film, perhaps the highest prize for a man like John Peterson. I spoke with Farmer John over the phone from a hotel room at Telluride, where he was also being feted. He was a man who was dearly missing his tractor.

SF360: Congratulations on the film. A lot of the footage is footage you or your mother took over the years. What sorts of cameras were you using?

Farmer John: She used a Bell & Howell camera — regular 8mm, not super 8mm. And when you see my mom there, my dad was probably shooting. I loved the home movies that we had. For some reason, I just decided to document things; it was pretty random. Over the years, you acquire a lot of footage…. Taggart starting filming in the early ’80s, and continued until ’96. That’s when we decided to make the documentary. During that time, I was filming with the 8mm camera, the video camera started around ’91. Some of that video footage from early ’90s is mine.

SF360: How did you meet Taggart Seigel?

John: I met him at an art opening in ’79. We became friends. He hung out at the farm