“Shake the hand that feeds you.”
-Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
It started as a simple e-mail from our website:
“Dear Benjy and Heather,
I was at your last year’s concert at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Rockford and talked to you after the show. I currently work for Angelic Organics Learning Center and mentioned I would be happy to give you a guided tour of the farm on your next visit to Rockford. The offer still stands. Please contact me if you have time when you are in the area. You may even get to meet Farmer John.”
These last words immediately quickened my pulse. In a time where finding a hero can be a daunting task, Farmer John Peterson stands out in my mind as a uniquely heroic embodiment of perseverance, of creativity as sacred practice, and of the invitation that Hanuman unswervingly offers: each of us can step into our fullest power by seeking to understand how we might best serve the world.
But to step back for just a moment: how did we come to be in Farmer John’s neighborhood?
Well, to say the least, our experiences at Rockford’s Emmanuel Lutheran Church have always been unique. Their longtime pastor Jim Roberts (formerly an atheistic nuclear chemist, amazingly enough) has made a point of offering kirtan to his congregation as a church-sponsored event. Jim is himself a gifted musician and shaman who travels widely, presenting a wide range of devotional practices from myriad traditions around the world. Since our first time playing there, he has also offered regularly scheduled interfaith chanting events at his beautiful church.
Our Rockford kirtan this year was powerful and deeply inspiring, especially given that we were sharing it with the incredible singer/songwriter Joe Jencks, possibly my favorite tenor in the world.
Joe grew up in Rockford, and his roots and sensibilities are a fascinating combination of Catholicism, Buddhism, and a commitment to social justice that honors the great folk music roots of such seminal figures as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
After the kirtan, we talked briefly with Randy (who had written us from Angelic Organics) about getting together the next day for a tour of the farm. We firmed up plans for a midday trip to Farmer John’s legendary home. I was so excited that sleep proved elusive, yet I still awoke fully energized on the morning of our pilgrimage.
By now you may be wondering: Who is this Farmer John? What’s the big deal about Angelic Organics? Where is Rockford anyway?
Good questions all, especially if you haven’t seen the movie The Real Dirt on Farmer John.
In short, The Real Dirt is one of my all-time favorite movies, detailing the life, times, struggles and triumphs of John Peterson, one of the few remaining classic family farmers in northern Illinois.
Although the USDA classifies ninety-eight percent of farms in the USA as “family farms,” fully half of these farms have total sales of less than $50,000 per year. Overall, the “small family farms” in the USA (under $250,000 in total annual sales) comprise ninety-one percent of all farms in the country, yet produce only twenty-seven percent of the total agricultural output. This statistic is even more telling when we consider that a significant number of “family farms” only exist under the umbrella of larger agribusiness conglomerates, and in fact the number of farms (and of farm families living on the land) has dropped every decade in the United States since 1920.
Without giving too much away, this film follows John’s farm as it morphs through time from an old-school monoculture enterprise to a hippie haven of creativity, communal farming and reconnection with the land to a monumental financial failure and, ultimately, to a Community-Supported-Agriculture (CSA) farm that became a template for hundreds of other CSAs around the globe.
It is a great story, beautifully told, and a reminder that there need not be a burgeoning corporate entity that stands between us and the food we eat. In addition, The Real Dirt reminds us of other important truths:
- – Many tales of “overnight success” are actually stories of repeated failures.
- – As Michael Pollan so brilliantly puts it, “You are what what you eat eats.” Hmmm.
- – The combined energy of a group of people focused on service – one of the many great forms of love – is not merely additive but rather exponential in its growth.
I invite you to read reviews of The Real Dirt on Farmer John in the Resources and Connections section at the bottom of this post.
But back to the farm itself …
We arrived shortly after noon on an absolutely exquisite autumn afternoon – the sky a brilliant cerulean blue, the leaves beginning to turn yellow, orange, crimson, even purple … and a light breeze hissed across the prairie grasses, refreshing our skin even as it cooled the intense rays of the Indian summer sun.
Randy and Jessie greeted us in the parking area, taking us first to the chicken tractors and the goats. These moving chicken tractors (large rolling pens for the chickens) are an ingenious technology used in biodynamic farming for moving the chickens across the pastureland in a way that ensures that they consistently fertilize the land while consuming troublesome parasites from the cow dung – in much the same way that birds and ruminants (such as cattle egrets and cows) symbiotically help one another in nature.
The chicken tractors were very reminiscent of the ones I’d read about in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book that has impacted me tremendously and forced me to reflect deeply on all the choices we make about food and the impact of these choices on virtually every element of our ecosystem. As we made our way from the chickens to the goats, I combed my memory for details of grass-based (versus corn-based) models of sustainable agriculture as embraced by Joel Salatin (a self-described “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic,” who practices “mob stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization”).
Being of a more pragmatic bent than I, however, our beloved dog Barkley was clearly far more concerned with figuring out exactly what kind of dogs the goats were.
It was time to move on to other parts of this magnificent farm.
Randy and Jessie walked us to the first of several rows of crops that stretched out for hundreds of yards. We first stopped at the kale; here I must confess that, even though kale may well be one of the most nutritious vegetables you can get, I’ve never had much of a taste for it. It’s generally too astringent for me. Yet this kale had none of the bitterness I’ve come to expect, and I had a hard time keeping myself from taking several more bites. Even Barkley wanted more than one sample!
Clearly some of the subscribers visiting the farm that day were just as taken with both the vegetables and the unusually warm weather as we were.
We moved onward, seeing row upon resplendent row of some of the most vibrant vegetables I’ve ever seen. Just as impressive (once Randy had explained it to us, that is) were the large swaths that were either unused or planted with soil-enhancing ground-covers such as clover and vetch. Randy pulled up some of the clover with his pocketknife, showing us how the rhizomes were coated with patches of microorganisms that fed the soil, and hence ultimately would go on to feed the 1500 families that subscribed to the Angelic Organic CSA.
Across the road, Randy and Jessie showed us the tree-covered native savanna, explaining how this part of the land was just as important a part of the farm as any other. It is in fact a key element in what allows Angelic Organics to provide 1,500 boxes of food a week to about 4,000 people from only 22 acres of land. As pointed out in Omnivore’s Dilemma, encouraging adjacent untouched ecosystems to flourish naturally is a key part of long-term sustainable agriculture.
We walked on, and my heart was filled to overflowing with wonder and gratitude for this opportunity to reconnect with the land, the sun, and the unending Grace that miraculously brings the food forth from the earth year after year.
As our tour drew to a close, I found myself recognizing several elements from the movie that served as my initial inspiration for coming to this northern Illinois oasis – the old red barn, the VW beetle that was a centerpiece of the Bug Song, and a range of objets d’art that were distributed across the land.
When we neared the worm beds that were the culmination of our tour (the castings from these beds are the most efficacious mulch additive available), we saw that many of the newer structures on the farm used the whole-tree-building approach pioneered by Roald Gunderson.
It turns out that a whole, unmilled tree can support 50 percent more weight than the largest piece of lumber milled from the same tree.
This allows very small-diameter trees to be used for rafters and framing (hence dramatically reducing re-growth time frames for sustainable tree farms), and even big trees felled by wind, disease or insects can be utilized as powerful columns and curving beams.
All too soon, it was time to leave. Yet even as we drove off to our next kirtan in northern Chicago, we took great joy in knowing that our path was paralleling that of hundreds of boxes of food – the home where we stayed in Highland Park that night was a drop-off point for Angelic Organic subscribers!
As for meeting Farmer John … maybe next time …
Resources and Connections
Biodynamic farming is quite near and dear to my heart, as my great-aunt and great-uncle Christy and Henry Barnes ran the Rudolf Steiner Farm School in upstate New York for decades. To find out more about biodynamics, visit the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association website or the Angelic Organics Biodynamics page.
For more information about Michael Pollan and his offerings, please visit his website.
Click here to find out more about Joel Salatin, his lectures, and his farming practices.
To learn more about whole tree architecture and Roald Gunderson, please visit the Whole Trees Architecture website.
Here’s what a few folks you may know have had to say about The Real Dirt on Farmer John:
“A loving, moving, inspiring, quirky documentary.”
~ Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
”Unbelievably special…a real and gripping story with insight and humor.”
~ Al Gore
”[The Real Dirt] offers one man’s extraordinary life as a gateway to a larger history of tragedy and transition. It’s an unflinching account of what farming takes — and, more important, what it gives back …”
~ Jeannette Catsoulis, The New York Times
”The film evolves into a deeply moving metaphor for the struggles of an entire generation. His triumphant story is essential for all of us city folk who have found ourselves despairing for the Earth and what has seemed like our inevitable alienation from it.”
~ Mark Achbar, director, The Corporation