Why Isn't The Real Dirt Cleaning Up?

07/03/2007 12:07 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

We're a nation of Purell Puritans, determined to sanitize ourselves -- and our surroundings -- from head to toe. Maybe cleanliness really is next to godliness. After all, without dirt, we would all be DEAD, bringing us that much closer to heaven (if such a place exists.) Do you seriously think we can feed ourselves without soil?

You probably do. And why wouldn't you? After all, our food comes in plastic packages purchased from big concrete boxes sitting on top of acres of asphalt. It doesn't exactly grow on trees.

Oh, wait, maybe it does! But by the time it's been processed and packaged, every trace of nature's been eliminated. Those pre-sliced apples, as easy to eat as potato chips? Before they got bagged in plastic, they had a core, full of seeds, and a stem that connected them to a branch on a tree, which was once a seed itself, which sprouted up out of -- are you ready for this? -- soil. You know, dirt.

So, really, soil is the source of all life, and as such, ought to be revered. And the people who toil in it deserve our devotion.

But we think dirt is just, well, dirty. And our palates prefer the pasteurized pablum of "reality" shows to true stories unenhanced by added sugars or artificial flavors.

Oh, and by the way? We only want to watch people who look like us, apparently, which is why HBO plopped a half-white protagonist into their version of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown's historical Sioux saga, as a "hand-holder" to walk the white man through this particular trail of tears. The writer who adapted the classic book for HBO offered the following rational: "Everyone felt very strongly that we needed a white character or a part-white, part-Indian character to carry a contemporary white audience through this project.''

But sometimes even a white man can't get a break, if he's different, or dirty. Consider the case of John Peterson, aka Farmer John. The poignant and powerful documentary of his life, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, hasn't made any inroads at the box office despite being declared "unbelievably special" by Al Gore and reaping bushels of rave reviews.

The New York Times called it a "fascinating documentary about loss and reinvention," offering "one man's extraordinary life as a gateway to a larger history of tragedy and transition."

The movie follows an odd fellow's odyssey from local-boy-made-bad to a buy-local-maverick-made- good. But this intensely personal story, filmed in rural Illinois and woven into a glorious patchwork of home movies and new footage held together by Farmer John's endearingly quirky narrative, also highlights two pastoral plagues that infect every region of our nation: sprawl and bigotry.

If you've ever been bullied for being different or had people spread nasty, unfounded rumors about you, if you've ever mourned the sight of ticky tacky houses sprouting up on former fields, this film will touch you whether you've ever given a thought to the way our food is grown or not. The Real Dirt on Farmer John is a true tale of how a handful of wild and woolly idealists, faced with fear and loathing from a hostile community, turned the other cheek and sowed the seeds for an agrarian revival after the advent of industrial agriculture nearly bled the family farms to death.

Newsday's review noted that "very few folks have the eloquence and force of personality to portray their own story on screen, at least not in the peculiarly winning combination embodied by John Peterson," but if Peterson is the star of the film, his extraordinary mother is its anchor, holding things together through decades of hardship with a perpetually sunny outlook undimmed by disease and disaster.

Our news is flooded with tales of toxin-tainted foods from China and near-biblical catastrophes brought on by climate change, from fires to floods to record drought. It all seems so discouraging, but there's an antidote to these scourges -- the community supported agriculture that Farmer John pioneered with his Angelic Organics farming venture.

Community supported agriculture gives those of us lucky enough to live near a farm that participates in a CSA program the opportunity to buy healthy, locally grown food that's untainted by toxins, so it's fresher, it tastes better, it's better for you, and it doesn't waste fossil fuels racking up food miles from Peru to Peoria.

The trouble is, most Americans have never heard of CSAs. The Real Dirt on Farmer John could change that, doing for community supported agriculture what An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change. At least, it could if it played in enough theaters. But the movie is struggling to gain traction despite all the accolades. Why? My theory is our culture has grown so disconnected from the soil and the souls who nourish us that the words "dirt" and "farmer" are a turn-off to prospective movie-goers.

And that's a tragedy for all of us, because Farmer John and his fellow CSA farmers hold the key to our nation's salvation in their callused, dirty hands. The commodity crop growers are tripping over each other to plant more top soil-depleting corn and bring on another Dustbowl/Depression -- see Timothy Egan's best seller, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl --or, the way things are going, just wait a few years and you'll get to relive it.

As Egan pointed out in a great New York Times op-ed on Thursday, entitled "Red State Welfare," our current system of agricultural subsidies "sets the rules for the American food system and helps to subsidize obesity. It rewards growers of big commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat -- the foundation of our junk food nation. So, a bag of highly processed orange puff balls with no nutritional value is cheaper than a tomato or a peach."

Egan notes that "the American Farm Bureau, which represents some of the biggest corporate welfare recipients, is terrified that a motley mix of peasants are now at the door with pitchforks. On their Web page, the bureau warns members that "forces outside of agriculture" are demanding change."

Are they talking about me? 'Cause I'm doing just that. We populist bloggers haven't got pitchforks, but we can sharpen our pitch to the rest of you to help us support folks like Farmer John, who are growing fruits and vegetables in a healthy, biodiverse eco-system, instead of planting millions of moncultured acres of chemical-dependent commodity crops destined to become high fructose corn syrup or bogus faux green bio-fuels.

So, please, call your local indie theater and ask them to show The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Just because it's a film about dirt doesn't mean that it shouldn't clean up at the box office.