March 28, 2011

Art, Love and Agriculture: An Interview with Farmer John

Brent Kim

Brent Kim

Project Officer, Food Production & Public Health

Center for a Livable Future

Farmer John with BeeThe 2005 documentary The Real Dirt on Farmer John chronicles the life of John Peterson, a man who has been described as a “flamboyant, cross-dressing, hippie-loving third-generation farmer [who] saves his farm… by being different.”  A vibrant artist and storyteller, John unabashedly documents the crippling failures, deep losses, passionate loves and soul-searching quests that are part of his ongoing relationship with the land.   He is now the owner and operator of Angelic Organics, a biodynamic farm (think organic, with an added appreciation for natural rhythms) with one of the largest CSAs in the nation and a thriving education center.

“We had a big paper-mâché cat head that we installed in the packing barn…”

I took a moment to chat with John at the 2011 Financing Farm to Fork Conference in Chicago.

Brent Kim: I think of your film as a story about relationships – a love story, in a sense.  You explore the ties between family, between young couples, between humans and the land, and even between the plants and microorganisms that make up the farm ecosystem.

Farmer John: The film has been called many things, but never a love story.  That’s beautiful.  I have such a love for the farm, and so much is based on love.  When I see people acting out of sorts or hard-headed, I remind them of what Michael Jackson would often say:  “It’s all about the love.”  I often forget that myself.

BK: What is it about a farm that fosters that emotion?
“A farm is vulnerable – you could say it has needs and impulses.”
FJ: I think of a farm as an individual – a being – something that you can develop a relationship with.  This is a cornerstone of biodynamics.  A farm is more than a source of food; it is a place where so many things converge – nature, humans, machinery; buildings, trees, birds, microorganisms, foliage, cover crops….

I traveled for five years during the film, and I became disenchanted by the way people regarded farms through a purely utilitarian lens.  It seemed like they were missing the point.  If you view farms as a source of food and nothing else, you risk viewing them in a commodifying way – in a harshly economic way.

A farm is vulnerable – you could say it has needs and impulses, that it should be cared for as one would a friend, or maybe like a child.  We need to allow farmers to cultivate this relationship – to be the stewards of their land, without having to lie awake at night wondering how to pay the bills.  Let’s give them some space to think about bees and trees, to relate to the farm, and to bring some beauty to it.

BK: You integrate performance art, visual arts and storytelling into your farming experience.  Do you see other opportunities where the arts can help further the journey toward a sustainable food system?

FJ: Art is really an exploration of the heart.  Ideally, it’s not taking place in the head; it’s something more in the feeling realm.

Running a farm can be a tremendous burden of responsibility and stress.  The weight of it can push a person right down into the earth.  Art can be a way to mitigate that; to remind ourselves that life goes beyond the toils of the farm.  When you bring art directly onto the farm, say, in the development of the buildings, the landscaping, the layout, the paint – all of that becomes the creative side of the farm, part of the aesthetics.  For example, we had a big paper-mâché cat head that we installed in the packing barn.  It prompted this conversation of how workplaces should be a little frivolous and mysterious, so you’re not always in the mode of survival and hard work.  The plastic dinosaurs, the cat heads, the strange paintings – I think it’s all very important.  Farmers can be no-nonsense, and something needs to be there to perk things up.

Rudolph Steiner, the founder of biodynamics, was very much a speaker and presenter until he realized that all his knowledge was lodging in people’s heads.  He said information became completely dead there – the thoughts turned into a corpse – unless it came down into people’s hearts.  So he went from lecturing to artistic creativity.  Take it down into the heart – that’s where we belong in life.


  1. Megan Clayton

    Posted by Megan Clayton

    What a fun read. I love the comment that, “knowledge was lodging in people’s heads; thoughts turned into a corpse – unless it came down into people’s hearts.”

    I think this is very true – and an important lesson for how we, as public health researchers, must consider the process of translating our work into practice.

    Thanks for sharing!

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