Q& A | John Peterson

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

It had to happen. In a world where chefs are standard television fare and college kids demand fresh-from-the-field food in their dining halls, celebrity farmers were the inevitable next step. And John Peterson is a natural.

A successful Chicago area organic grower in the Community Supported Agriculture movement, where people pay in advance for weekly boxes of produce in season, he is also a performance artist, writer, filmmaker and survivor of some difficult years for family farms.

The subject and co-producer of the documentary "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," Peterson is also the author of the new "Farmer John's Cookbook" (Gibbs Smith, $29.95), a companion to the film and an amalgam of life stories, science, philosophy and great recipes.

Recently, staff writer Judith Weinraub spoke with him about balancing the artistic and agricultural sides of his life.

You've had some bumpy times in your life -- assuming responsibility for your farm after your father's death when you were only 19, dealing with your neighbors' disapproval of the hippie commune you housed on the farm and losing almost all your land when family farms began to go under in the 1980s. And you've somehow managed to make time for your art. How have you handled all that?

My love for the soil and my love for expression and creativity have always been part of me. A farm is a continual evolvement of that process. Seeds grow into something live and expressive. The artistic process is similar to that: Things become expressed out of an original impulse.

I was a typical conventional farmer -- soybeans, corn, wheat, pigs, cattle. But I just felt that art and agriculture went well together. It's not a new idea.

How did that play out when your farm was a base for people who'd never seen a cornstalk or milked a cow?

The first sense people had of my creative side looked like a hippie movement. It didn't go down well in our rural community. We'd have big gatherings there, people dancing and wandering the fields. Sometimes we'd have celebrations we choreographed and scripted. I would send out invitations to people in the area, but they didn't come. When my farm went down in 1983, it was probably a relief to them.

Why did your farm go under?

Farming is cyclical. Land prices went down. Commodity prices collapsed. This has been a recurring event for many generations. I was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. I had to sell almost all the land.

Things finally got better when you got into Community Supported Agriculture in 1992.

People in the Chicago area who had bought our produce in a health food store tracked me down and asked me if I'd start a CSA. [After a while] I thought this CSA thing looked good.

How so?

You get the money [for what you grow] ahead of time. You have a direct relationship with the people you're raising the food for. The first year we had 25 families. Now we have about 1,300.

With the CSA structure, you found a way you could continue to farm successfully. How unusual is that?

Farms almost never come back to life. The auctioneer who handled my sale said he'd never seen a farm that did.

What's the appeal of CSAs?

I think urban people develop an unconscious yearning for the land. Maybe a lot of [our subscribers] don't know why they join the farm. Then they come to our open houses, bring their children and walk the land, see the people who do the work and get reunited with the land. It decommodifies food. It's a profound experience.

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