A struggling Depression-era family farm in the Midwest turns to biodynamic farming and becomes a thriving community-supported farm.
John Peterson has spent more than 40 years working the same piece of land in northern Illinois that his grandfather bought during the Depression. The farm, originally 350 acres, is much smaller now. Peterson, who took it over at age 19 following the death of his father, lost most of the farm to foreclosure in 1982. But after years of struggle, he has transformed the remaining 22 acres into a thriving Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) using biodynamic farming and called the farm Angelic Organics. This interview focuses on the evolution of the land Peterson managed to keep — and his own evolution as a farmer.
His story is also told in Farmer John's Cookbook, The Real Dirt on Vegetables, Seasonal Recipes and Stories from a Community Supported Farm and in a documentary film, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, which has reaped awards at film festivals throughout the United States.
The cookbook offers recipes for fresh vegetables, stories about the farm, tips on long-term vegetable storage and preservation methods, and "food for thought" from nutrition experts, shareholders, farm workers and Farmer John. The film — a fascinating and moving exploration of 50 years on the farm, with archival footage taken by Peterson's mother — has been shown on the Emmy award winning PBS series Independent Lens.
Peterson continues to live on the property in a restored schoolhouse that his father attended and in which, later, his mother was the grade-school teacher. He is also a writer, performance artist and producer.
What were the origins of the family farm? What was it like being a farmer's son?
The Peterson dairy and poultry operation started in the 1930s when my grandfather bought the land; he had been farming next door since before 1920. When my father and mother were married, they moved to the farm, raised hay, corn and oats, and had chickens and dairy. What was it like being a farmer's son? Well, a lot of things you don't examine until later. It never bothered me to work hard, but it didn't seem like work, it seemed like life. Later on in high school, I became more excited about the work. Being a farmer's son, I learned a lot, but I wish I had learned more. When my father died, I really didn't know enough to take over the farm, but I took it over anyway. I had to learn on the fly. Farming is its own world, its own culture.
Like many farmers in the 1980s, you lost a large portion of your farm to foreclosure. Although people may lose money in the stock market or housing market, most of us will never know how devastating it is to lose a family farm. How did you cope?
Losing a family farm is more than losing a business. It is losing a way of life. How did I cope? I could hardly get out of bed for two years. I was miserable, a mess. I had no ambition. I don't know if that's coping. Perhaps most therapeutic was going through all the junk – farming and art residue — that had accumulated through the years in vast spaces of the barn. I went to Mexico; I started farming again; I did performance art.
Tell me about CSA farms in general, and yours, specifically.
Community Supported Agriculture is a model whereby the shareholder and the farmer — regional to one another — enter into a contract: The farmer agrees to provide a season's worth of organic vegetables for an established price. The member shares in the farm life by getting to know the farmers who grow the food and the farm through its produce, newsletter and farm visits.
There are about 3,000 CSA farms in the United States, and about a million people who get their vegetables from CSAs. This is an astounding figure considering that there were none in the United States 20 years ago. How did this model come about? I'm not really sure what has caused this phenomenon but the fact is, there are now at least a million people who are in very different relationships to farms, farming and food because of community supported agriculture. It's extraordinary. All these people are eating from farms that they know and can visit. Consequently, they develop a more positive relationship to farmers, to their providers of food, and they start to create a different kind of support for the farms: not just a social support but sometimes a structural — financial — support.
Our farm isn't a pure CSA model in that we have more autonomy. We have a lot of happy shareholders. We tend to sell out our entire program by March and that's pretty amazing. We have more than 1,000 families who sign up months before we start delivering.
Who are your shareholders?
Angelic Organics is about an hour and 40 minutes from Chicago so we serve the city and its suburbs, and some local members. We've done surveys to learn why people become members of our CSA. Some want to support a farm; others because it's regional; others because it's organic or biodynamic; some join to support the CSA model. It's quite a range of reasons but perhaps on an unconscious level, people have a yearning for a new relationship to the land.
Between 5,000 and 6,000 people a week eat from our farm during the growing season. We are fanatical about providing a box of vegetables that is high quality, a rich variety and consistent quantity, delivered to the site at the same time week after week, like clockwork. We haven't had a bad year in many years because we have a great soil fertility program and good management. It's our reputation. You can go crazy to make that happen because it's a weather-related business. It's a real art.
How do you decide what to grow?
You establish which crops will do well in the Midwest. We don't raise asparagus and sugar snap peas because they come in too early; we raise pretty much everything else. Some people don't want beets or cilantro but generally, people like diversity or they like the challenge of working with foods they normally wouldn't work with. We've surveyed the customers to see if they would rather have free choice, and amazingly, they want to keep the system that we have, which usually includes 10 to 14 different vegetables and herbs in each box, each week.
Biggest challenges for a CSA farm?
The biggest challenge is getting good enough to provide the quality, quantity and variety — consistently. Our planting schedule is designed around what goes in the boxes, and when. We harvest two vegetables each day. You have to manage the crew, equipment, good soil. After doing it for so many years, we've become consistent.
And farms are voracious for improvements. There's always a need for capital. I want to complete the infrastructure needs. We have a patchwork system of handling the vegetables, packing and cleaning. And the coolers are inadequate.
I don't want to expand into prosperity, so I'm not looking to expand the number of shareholders; I'm more interested in making it more efficient and profitable by refining the systems, tweaking the operation as we have it. There's always something you can do better. That's exciting, but I often wake in the night wondering what I'll focus on the next day.
What does it mean to be an organic farm?
Growing organically means that if you follow a set of rules, you can sell your produce anywhere on the planet without knowing the person you're selling to. Organic is not regional; it's not about a relationship with the farm. Being certified organic is mostly for selling in commercial markets, which is the antithesis of the CSA model.
The third party seal of approval isn't necessary for CSAs because the person buying your food knows you. Angelic Organics is not certified, and our customers are unconcerned because they know the farmer and they know the farm. I used to certify but now I don't because it's expensive and there's a tremendous amount of paperwork. That has happened to a lot of farms.
If you're going to have success with an organic farm you have to start with the soil. Twenty of our shareholders pooled $180,000 to purchase the land next door so we're able to keep our land two years in production and two years out of production, during which time we plant sweet clover and alfalfa. This rotation contributes tremendously to the plants' vitality and capacity to stave off pest damage.
Now that even Wal-Mart is selling organic vegetables, will this industrialize organics?
The two movements in alternative agriculture that I'm partial to are biodynamics and community supported agriculture because agribusiness cannot emulate biodynamics very well.
Biodynamics creates and nurtures a farm's individuality as a living organism. While our specialty is vegetables, I'm working to enliven and energize the farm by adding different elements to its synergy. For example, what can I do to support bird and insect life, a healthy prairie, woodlands and wetlands? How do we have a balanced livestock component? A productive orchard? It can all be accomplished through management practices, diversification and by creating internal harmonies. It's very exciting.
The organic model that agribusiness is working in is not about relationships. It's about the commoditization of food in a specific way. Certified, approved, but not personal, regional or friendly to the small farms, which is where the relationship and stewardship of the land is most likely to occur.
There are a lot of people who love the idea of cheap, organic food, but I predict that the people who are going to be producing it will be producing it through agribusiness — industrial models — and that's just an assault on the earth. It's better than what's in place now with all the chemicals, but it's not about building love for the earth, respectful and relational. It's just another model that empowers massive industry. It's not humanizing, in my opinion. I'm about relationships: the farm, the farmer and the customer.
The government isn't involved at all in community supported agriculture and that seems to be the key to why it's flourishing as it has and why it has become such an extraordinary phenomenon. A million people eating from CSA farms during the growing season is extraordinary. That's very different from the experience of going to a store and buying something with an organic label on it. Someone may think, oh, I'll buy this and support the earth, but it's not transformational . . . to society, to the land. It's just making the earth a little less toxic, which is a good thing, but it's not the ultimate thing.
Linda Shockley is a feature writer living in New York City.