Most farmers don’t like the idea of strangers poking around on their land. Then again, John Peterson, a.k.a. “Farmer John,” is not like most farmers. Rather, he’s given countless tours and shared many of the secrets to his farm’s success.
Peterson has been working on his family’s land for the last 40 years, and in that time he’s made the farm, Angelic Organics, into a haven for others in the Upper Midwest looking to learn about sustainable growing practices. Since 1999, the farm’s sister nonprofit, The Angelic Organics Learning Center, has also been training new farmers, offering workshop and summer day camps, and working to bring people from nearby cities out to the farm.
“I feel that people should have a farm they can access, and that they can put into their heart and take wherever they go,” says Peterson, who is currently raising money through Kickstarter to fund the final stage of the renovation of an old dairy barn on the farm into a meeting space for large groups.
This Illinois-based organic and biodynamic farmer grows a range of foods for a 1,600-person Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, and was the subject of the 2005 documentary, The Real Dirt on Farmer John. He spent farm capital on the first round of work on the barn, and he describes the remaining renovations as, “tiny compared to what it would take to build it out from scratch.”
In the fundraising video, the barn is shown being painstakingly rebuilt, and Peterson tells the camera: “This building almost met the fate of many barns on farms… they just decay until they’re gone.”
Indeed, the barn represents a merging of the old and new, although Peterson will tell you that the way he farms dates back hundreds if not thousands of years, even if his approach is seen as a relatively “new” alternative to conventional agriculture.
A lack of nuts-and-bolts infrastructure—in everything from distribution to education—has limited the growth of organic farming in recent decades. And projects like Peterson’s have the potential to do much more than is visible on the surface. The campaign will go toward roof repairs, a new classroom, interior stairwells, and a fire escape. But perhaps more importantly it will help Angelic Organics—and other similar groups that are used to existing as small islands surrounded by a sea of commodity corn and soy farming—institutionalize their approach.
Does organic farming need to be institutionalized? Maybe not. But considering the odds they’re up against, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
“Conventional farming has the capital, the political lobbying and the ad dollars,” says Peterson. “They can get their message out to a very wide audience whenever they want. I believe an alternative to that needs to be empowered—and I think it’s best if it happens on a farm.”
There are no other teaching farms within driving distance of Angel Organics, making it all the more important, as Peterson sees it, as a place to spread the gospel of faming. As his Kickstarter campaign reads:
“The improvements will transform our successful working farm into a premier gathering place for children's groups, beginner farmers, members of our CSA, national organic and biodynamic farming associations, and people who just yearn for the chance to smell fresh-cut hay in summer, hold a newly-hatched chick in their hand, and taste a carrot still cool from the earth.”
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Twilight Greenaway is an Oakland-based freelancer who has been writing and editing for the web since 2000. Her articles about food and farming has appeared in the New York Times, the Bay Citizen, Smithsonian.com, Civil Eats, and on Grist, where she served as the food editor from 2011-2012. @twyspy | TakePart.com