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Documentary film series kicks off in Beaver Creek

Fraidy Aber
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily/Taggart Siegel
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What makes documentaries so intriguing is they are true stories, with actual footage of a time and place.

When the Vail Symposium kicks off this year’s Beaver Creek Documentary series, the first film will feature over 25 years of footage clips rolled into a tale of the eclectic farmer, John Peterson. The filmmaker, Taggart Siegel, captured the essence of Farmer John over decades of friendship, when Taggart himself was a part of the farm’s scandalous history. During this time, Peterson nearly destroyed and then ressurected his inherited farm, a story of transformation that speaks acres of insight into the recent decades of trials and creative solutions of small community farms in this country.

In his earlier years, Peterson was more of a performance artist and a writer than a farmer. He used his farm as an artist colony in the wake of the ’60s, hosting films, artist gatherings and entertaining. His livestock, crops and acreage dwindled through the ’60s and ’70s until the point of near collapse in 1983 during the national small farm crisis. John was considered a pariah amongst locals, and rumors spread about the goings on on the farm. The rumors that included animal scarifice, drugs and homosexuality were largely unfounded. But what is true is that he has a propensity for dancing in a bumblebee costume.

It was during this time of transition that Peterson discovered the writings of Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf education and biodynamic farming. Steiner’s agricultural practice is something like homeopathic treatment for farms. According to Peterson, biodynamic farming leads to a natural balance of human, plant and animal elements on a farm. John adopted these practices, selling his belongings and renting out his home to finance his farm improvements.

About two hours from Chicago, located in Boone County, Peterson’s farm, Angelic Organics is now one of the nation’s largest Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) centers. CSA was a relatively new idea in the mid-’80s, adapted from similar models in Europe, and met with great skepticism here. Consumers, also called members or shareholders, form a partnership with a farm operation by pledging to financially underwrite a season’s harvest. In turn, these members receive a portion of the farm’s bounty during the harvest season, as well as share the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to unfavorable weather or pests. This farming model has gained much popularity and success since its beginnings in the United States, and CSA farms currently number more than 400, most located near critical mass of urban centers.

During the time she lived in Chicago, Bookworm co-owner Nicole Magistro heard the Angelic Organics story. Magistro and her husband made the shareholder commitment to the farm in 2001, and after a few months of collecting the weekly brown box of veggies, she decided to make the trek to the farm to meet the curious Farmer John, volunteer for a few days, and write a story on it.

“At 52 years old, [Peterson’s] blue eyes sparkle behind fashionable, wire-rimmed glasses. He wears a wide brimmed straw hat and jeans, but his shirt is two parts Abercrombie, one part Orvis. An open pack of Swisher Sweets protrudes from the breast pocket. He doesn’t smoke them but gnaws on the end of one when he relaxes after a meal. He speaks eloquently, telling tales that often end with a philosophical question or roaring laughter,” she later wrote in a cover story for Conscious Choice magazine.

Winner at more than 30 film festivals, including awards at the San Francisco, Newport and Chicago International Film Festivals, the Sustainable Planet and Jury Awards at MountainFilm in Telluride, and Grand Prix Awards at the Tokatsu Film Festival in Japan, this documentary touches the hearts and tickles the funny bones of audience members across the nation. Slow Food On Film awarded “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” the international Golden Snail Jury Award and the film received the first ever Reel Current Al Gore Award. Al Gore described it as “A real and gripping story with insight and humor.”

After the film, attendees are invited to the lobby for coffee, cookies, and conversation with Denver film critic Walter Chaw. And, “Farmer John’s Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables” will be on sale courtesy of The Bookworm of Edwards.

Fraidy Aber is the executive director of the Vail Symposium. Nicole Magistro contributed to this article.


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