Flash in the Pan 

A farmer’s film of art and heartache

John Peterson was a toddler in the 1950s when his mother bought a movie camera. She wanted to record the comings and goings on their beloved Illinois farm.

From the opening scenes of John toddling around in his little overalls, his love for the camera is clear. This love developed into solid camera skills as John grew into an artist with a gift for storytelling and the patience, eye and wherewithal to create great shots. When he was a teenager his dad died, and John took over working his family’s 350-acres of corn, soy, wheat and hay. Then he went to college, eight miles from home, and kept farming. It was the late 1960s and, via college, the late 1960s hung out on his farm. Then came the 1970s. Though John couldn’t have known where all this was going, clearly, even from an early age, he intended to film it.

As the events in his life began to circle into a story that looked like it might actually have a happy ending, Farmer John the filmmaker got to work. With the help of a production team led by Taggart Siegel, the raw footage was woven together with present-day scenes and a few reenactments, creating a tight movie that hits all the notes, high and low.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John was released in 2007 to wide acclaim, and will be shown at 2 p.m. on Sunday, February 24, at the Crystal Theatre, at Missoula’s first annual Reel to Real Food Film Festival. The Festival runs February 22 through February 24 at the Roxy and Crystal Theatres. In addition to movies (including shorts for the kids on Saturday), there will be local food menus at select downtown restaurants, and parties at 515 Restaurant and Biga Pizza.

As the film opened, I’ll admit, I was braced for a rehash of the standard foodie rallying cries of the day: the impossible economics of farming, the importance of knowing where your food comes from, local versus organic, etc. Important stuff, to be sure, but as our crew-cut Scandinavian walked across his muddy field, squatted down, took a bite from a handful of mud and chewed thoughtfully, I forgot about rallying cries and agendas.

“The soil tastes good today,” said Farmer John.

At once an artist trapped in the able body of a dedicated but failed farmer, and a farmer trapped on a farm he desperately loves, John narrates and stars in the film. His narrations are mostly readings from his soon-to-be-released book, Farmer John on Glitter & Grease.

“In the 1970s, spirits ran high and bankers lent money. Dreams and mistakes and misfortunes could all be financed with loans,” he says. “Floods and frosts and droughts, bad seed and low hog prices could all be financed by eager lenders. Debt financed my dreams, then my nightmare. I owed banks, friends, and a loan shark hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Particularly striking about this movie is John’s ability to document the scenes of his life in which most people would be too busy feeling sorry for themselves to think of filming. It speaks to the depth of his slavery to art.

Here’s John in a depressed stupor after he’s sold all but 22 acres of his family’s farm to pay off his debt. There’s John hunched over a coffee cup by the barn, on a cold brown windy day as an auctioneer liquidates three generations of farming equipment. You get the impression he’d rather have sold both of his lungs. Farming was his dream and his life, and he had failed. On camera. Not for the last time.

“There’s a feeling of theater with farming, a feeling of drama, with weather, people, machinery,” he narrates, shortly after eating the dirt, while a montage of gritty farm work flashes across the screen. “I love iron. I love steel. I love moving steel around. I love pushing iron through soil…I love using hammers and big wrenches.”

He also, it turns out, enjoys driving his tractor while riding sidesaddle in the tractor seat and wearing a scandalously short gold summer dress, his chin held high and his neck wrapped in an orange feather boa. But if you’re thinking this is a movie about John the cross-dressing farmer, you’re wrong. Drama queen, yes—which is why you’ll also see him in a bumblebee costume.

It’s a dramatic story about a dark chapter in the history of Middle America, told by an uninhibited artist who happened to be at ground zero with his camera, his wits, and his creative spark. Most importantly, it’s a story that gives a tangible, replicable road map out of the dark woods of modern farming.

This is a story about story itself, about the place of drama, art, and inspiration in a complete person. The Real Dirt on Farmer John breaks your heart, and then puts it back together again. It’s a story about a wound in America that has only begun to heal, only in places. John’s farm, it turns out, is one of them.

For info on the Reel to Real Food Festival, call 880-0543

Ask Ari: Plotzing over planting is pointless

Q: Dear Ari,

I recently moved from the Garden City to the Queen City. So far Helena’s not so bad: good breweries, decent restaurants, easy access to trails and skiing. However, as I look at the calendar I’m realizing that spring’s not too far off, and what Helena doesn’t have, as far as I can tell, are ideal growing conditions for a vegetable garden. The soil’s dry and rocky, there are hoards of hungry mule deer everywhere, and I hear the growing season is about two to three weeks shorter than the one in Missoula. Plus, I moved in the winter, so I don’t even have a plot started. What should I do? I was just getting good at gardening! I crave fresh greens, sun-ripened tomatoes, juicy peppers, dirty carrots and sweet beets! Help!


A: Jeez, lighten up—it’s not like you moved to the North Pole. I’ve been to the Helena Farmers’ Market and I saw tons of your greens, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, and beets, all of which you should be able to grow in Helena. And so what if the growing season over there is three weeks shorter than Missoula’s? Ours has grown by about three weeks in recent years anyway, so you’re kind of breaking even.

What should you do, you ask? Well, if you’re really getting good at gardening, then plant a darn garden. Find a spot, figure out what the dirt needs – peat moss, compost, manure—and turn it over and over with a shovel. Then go down to the farmers’ market or a nursery for your peppers, greens and tomato starts, and get some carrot and beet seeds.

As for the deer, well, putting up an eight-foot fence is a pain in the ass, but you’ll only have to do it once.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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