"The Real Dirt" one far-out farmer's heartwarming story

When you consider that John Peterson embodies many of the All-American values you'd find in a Norman Rockwell painting, it's a bit jarring to think that most of his rural neighbors used to suspect "Farmer John" of drug running, orgies and Satan worship on his family's multigenerational farm in northern Illinois.

The rumors were false, and when Peterson confronts a contrite neighbor about the character assassination that nearly ruined his life, it's just one of many emotional scenes of healing redemption that gracefully unfold in "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," an extraordinarily personal and invigorating saga of one man's reclamation of traditional American ideals.

Peterson's colorful, bohemian eccentricity only deepens the film's appeal, deriving from a perfect assembly of Peterson's home movies and 25 years of footage lovingly shot by Peterson's friend, filmmaker Taggart Siegel. The product of this symbiotic artistry is surely one of the greatest films ever made about America's farming traditions. And unlike the downbeat Hollywood dramas that chronicled the plight of farmers in the wake of '80s Reaganomics, this one has the happiest of endings as it points the way to a bold and visionary future of organic, community-supported agriculture (CSA).

Peterson's personal odyssey would make an interesting film by itself, but Siegel (with the immeasurable aid of Peterson's self-written narration) layers his portrait with compelling parallels of time, family and heartfelt emotion ranging from suicidal depths to infectious euphoria.

As Peterson's life charts the highs and lows of American farming over the past half-century, "The Real Dirt" follows a hard yet often humorous course of tragedy, depression and ultimate rebirth — of Peterson's sensitive soul, his livelihood and now-thriving CSA farmland that nearly didn't survive. Siegel's film allows us to experience this rebirth almost as palpably as Peterson himself, and it's an inspirational gift beyond measure.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Movie review 4 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Real Dirt on Farmer John," a documentary directed by Taggart Siegel. Written and narrated by John Peterson.

83 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences.