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Documentary Reveals the Joys and Struggles of Being an Organic Farmer

Story at-a-glance -

  • Spanning two decades, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” shows how a Midwestern farmer beat the odds and transformed his failing family farm into a successful organic enterprise
  • Joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group is a powerful investment not only in your own health, and helps build a stronger, safer, and more sustainable food system
  • Factory farmed and processed foods are far more likely to cause illness — both acute and chronic — than organically-grown foods

By Dr. Mercola

The 2005 film, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John,” tells the unusual and winding story of John Peterson, an eccentric farmer in rural Caledonia, Illinois.

Spanning two decades, it shows how John — a lover of soil, heavy machinery, glitz, and glitter — beat the odds and transformed his failing family farm into a successful organic enterprise.

The film, directed by Taggart Siegel, has won awards in more than 30 film festivals, and it’s a heart-warming example of what can happen when you don’t give up on your dreams and passions.

While much of the film is biographical, it also delves into some of the benefits of organic farming in general, and community supported agriculture (CSA) in particular.

Farming Has Never Been Easy, Then or Now

After his father’s death, John went through the same financial hardships as other small farms in the area. In the 1980s, many were consolidated into larger factory farms, which were better able to survive thanks to larger subsidies.

John, on the other hand, chose to blaze his own trail — with varied results.

His ups and downs include a number of devastating financial setbacks, creative pursuits, hostilities from neighbors suspicious of his unorthodox artistic endeavors, and overseas travels where he again experienced people’s connection to the soil and their food.

Eventually, he returned to the defunct farm, renamed it “Angelic Organics,” and began farming organically. This too turned out to be easier said than done in the beginning.

Where the farm had previously grown four staple cash crops, he now grew more than 30 — including vegetables he didn’t know the name of.

Pests and weather took their toll while he learned the ins and outs of organic farming. But things began to change once he started collaborating with a CSA group in Chicago.

How Does Community Supported Agriculture Work?

While the rules differ from one CSA to another, as a general rule, participating farms sign up new members during the winter months for the upcoming growing season.

As a member, you basically buy a “share” of the vegetables the farm produces, and each week during growing season (usually May through October) you receive a weekly delivery of fresh food.

Joining a CSA is a powerful investment not only in your own health, but in that of your local community and economy as well. Thriving CSAs allow residents to form strong bonds with the farmers who grow their food, and this helps build a stronger, safer, and more sustainable food system.

John’s farm is just one example of how CSA can help revitalize a community. Today, Angelic Organics is one of the largest CSA farms in the US. What was once a one-family farm is now a farm for over 1,200 families; many of which have invested money into buying more land to add to the farm’s acreage.

The film also reveals another truth that many have forgotten — real farmers LOVE their work. They love the soil. They love the food they grow. The entire process is a labor of love, and they do it even when it can’t afford them to live a life of luxury.

Even with customers paying a premium for locally grown organic produce, most single family farms are barely able to keep going.

According to a previous article in Salon,1 USDA data for 2012 indicated that intermediate sized farms — defined as those grossing between $10,000 and $250,000 per year — obtain only 10 percent of their income from the farm, and 90 percent from off-farm sources.

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Organic Food Production Is Healthier and Safer

There are basically two different models of food production today. The first, and most prevalent, is the large-scale agricultural model that takes a very mechanistic view toward life, whereas the other — the local, sustainable farm model — has a biological and holistic view.

While efficient, the mechanistic, large-scale model has many unexpected adverse side effects. It’s a well proven fact that factory farmed and processed foods are far more likely to cause illness than unadulterated, organically-grown foods.

Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) for example, have become a primary source of antibiotic-resistant disease, which has now reached epidemic levels in the US. This side effect of our food system alone kills at least 23,000 Americans each year.

Conventional and genetically engineered fruits and vegetables are no better. The pesticides used on these crops are now recognized as a significant health threat in our food supply.

For example, more than 75 percent of the US population has detectable levels of organophosphate pesticides in their urine, and prenatal exposure to these pesticides has been linked to delayed brain development, reduced IQ, and attention deficits. 2,3 

Long-term exposure has been linked to neurological effects such as 4 anxiety, memory loss, and depression.

Glyphosate May Render Food More Harmful Than Healthy

Moreover, scientists have now proposed that one of the most widely used herbicides in the world, glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup), may be dramatically contributing to the rise of chronic disease.

Glyphosate was also recently reclassified as a Class 2A “probable human carcinogen,” AND it’s been found to boost antibiotic resistance to boot!

On top of its toxic effects, glyphosate also denatures the food by blocking nutrient uptake, and kills the microorganisms in the soil responsible for plant health and plants’ natural defense systems against pests of all kinds.

A Stanford University meta-analysis5 published in 2012 found that people who eat an organic diet tend to have far lower levels of toxic pesticides in their system — particularly children. This and other studies have also found that organic grass-fed meats are far less likely to contain multi-drug resistant bacteria.

Hundreds of studies6,7,8 have also shown that organic produce contain greater amounts of nutrients than conventional. In short, the widely adopted factory farm “bigger is better” food system has reached a point where the fundamental weaknesses of it are becoming readily apparent.

Growing Your Own Food Is Also Part of the Solution

The question is, what kind of food system do you want? If every American decided to not eat at a fast food restaurant tomorrow, the entire system would collapse overnight. It doesn’t take an act of Congress to change the food system. All that is required is for each and every person to change their shopping habits to support the system they prefer.

In addition to supporting local organic farms, another way to change your diet for the better and promote a more stable and sustainable food system is to grow some of your own food, even if it’s just a few pots on your balcony. During World War II, 40 percent of the produce in the US was grown in people’s back yards in so-called "Victory Gardens,” and this trend has started taking root once again.

If you’re unsure of where to start, I recommend starting out by growing sprouts. Broccoli, watercress, and sunflower sprouts are foods that virtually everyone can and would benefit from growing. It's inexpensive, easy, and can radically improve your overall nutrition. Sprouts can actually contain up to 30 times the nutrients of organic vegetables!

Where to Find Real Food

A website called Real Food University9 offers a fascinating analysis of where our food comes from, and reveals that despite what you hear on the news, every year we produce less and less of the food we really need. From massive industrial farming conglomerates to feedlot- and confined animal operations (CAFOs), to contaminated imports, Real Food University delivers the scoop on what you probably have on your plate right now.

Sourcing your foods from a local farmer — either directly or through a CSA — is one of your best bets to ensure you’re getting something wholesome. Every state has a sustainable agriculture organization or biological farming organization that is the nucleus of the farmers in that state. You can also find an ever increasing number of “eat local,” and “buy local” directories, in which local farms will be listed. The following organizations can also help you locate farm-fresh foods in your local area:

Weston Price Foundation:10 Weston Price has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can purchase organic foods, including grass-fed raw dairy products such as milk and butter.
Local Harvest: This site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area.
Farmers' Markets: A national listing of farmers' markets.
Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals: The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA): CISA is dedicated to sustainable agriculture and small farms.
FoodRoutes: The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find listings for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.