We watched a DVD last night that turned out to be an unexpected delight. The Real Dirt on Farmer John is a 2005 documentary about the life of a farmer, John Peterson of the Angelic Organics farm at Caledonia, Illinois, which is just a little northeast of Rockford, close to the Wisconsin border.

Peterson’s family had been farmers for generations, and as he grew up, his idyllic childhood was captured on film by his mother, Anna Nielsen, who bought herself a movie camera in 1950 and shot all sorts of footage of her family working and playing on their 350-acre farm.

Peterson and his adorable mom both tell his story as it progresses from those beginnings. John enters Beloit College just as late-1960s counterculture is sweeping the nation, unveiling hitherto unknown aspects of his personality. It turns out that this clean cut, hardworking farmboy has a flamboyantly whimsical side. He brings his artistic hippie friends to live communally with him on the farm, and together they engage in all sorts of fanciful flower child activities which are not always well received by the surrounding farmers.

The hardships of farming, financial ruin, and the scorn of his neighbors all make for some very difficult trials as the 1970s give way to the 80s and 90s, but John has a quiet determination, a nurturing mother, and a legacy to live up to.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John tells a wonderfully touching tale by immersing us in Peterson’s life. Listening to his own narration as we watch the decades pass though one tiny corner of the world, we get a chance to contemplate the most basic things — the earth, plants and animals, food, work, success and failure, self-expression, and respect for others. The tone is easygoing, and you’d never suspect so much could be packed into 82 minutes.

I rate it 3 and a half out of 4 stars.

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