When I decided to make The Real Dirt on Farmer John, I wanted to pay tribute to the small family farmer and to Farmer John. He is a testimony of endurance, resilience and passion in fighting for a new form of community. I have known and documented Farmer John and his family for 25 years, witnessing the drama and turmoil of his farm and his life. I have been able to re-examine my past through my own personal journey with The Real Dirt On Farmer John. In fact my first film, Affliction (based on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of The D'Urbervilles), was shot on John's farm in 1980. I was 20 years old. I cast the pigs, the chickens, the cows, the hired hands, Farmer John and a talented actress named Margaret Gude. Although I didn't know it at the time, I witnessed a crucial moment in American farm history by living on the farm when it was an “Art and Agriculture” commune in the late 70's and early 80's.
At the same time the whole family farm culture was beginning to unravel and disintegrate. I will never forget when I found an arrowhead on John's land and soon after I was riding on his tractor as he confessed to me that he was going to lose his farm. Saddened and dismayed at seeing my friend's life fall apart, I decided to capture the collapse of his family farm on film. It was my first documentary, Bitter Harvest (1983) that charted the end of an idealistic era of “Art and Agriculture,” as the farm debt crisis forced John to sell most of his land and brought about the end of John’s farming operation.
When John lost his way of life, I saw his spirit break and watched as he became ostracized in his community for not fitting into the rural straightjacket and traditional farm community mores. We journeyed together in Mexico and Guatamala on and off in the mid to late 80's when John was searching for a new way to express himself through writing and performance. I always had a camera around so I documented our lives that ultimately ended up in The Real Dirt on Farmer John. We even collaborated on a feature screen play about the farm crisis and shot a short film called Ember Days, about a farmer who goes crazy. John plays the insane farmer.
A major upheaval in John's life was in the late 80's when his community had scapegoated him as a devil worshipper/drug dealer and he still found the strength to start up farming again. Farming was in his blood. My goal is to challenge preconceived notions about farms and farmers; to inspire audiences by a tale of tenacity; and to challenge viewers to examine more closely their prejudices and judgments about others. Also, through John’s personal struggles and powerful connection to the earth, viewers will discover an appreciation for where our food comes from and the vital link to community.
The Real Dirt on Farmer John is a culmination of 55 years of John’s life as a farmer, writer and activist, seen through family home movies, photographs, film and video. By filming the emotional events unfolding in John’s life, I’ve tried to tell a story that unearths the fate of the American farmer and the impact it has on all of us.