Breaking the Farm Bill Down on Netflix

I've been trying to come up with a way to talk about the 2007 (now 2008) Farm Bill that has been extended yet again to May 16. The nearly $300 billion five-year spending bill is so complicated it will turn your eyes inside out.

If it was only about subsidies for wealthy farmers (and non-farmers), that would be one thing. But, as a quick aside and to keep you up to speed, just a few days ago, President Bush threatened to veto the bill over the income limits ($500,000) proposed last week in Congress (and given the thumbs up by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi). Under this bill, non-farmers would still get payments until 2009.

But it's also about money for school lunch programs in the developing world, money for organic growers, food stamps, land conservation, and shucks, even tax breaks for thoroughbred race horses -- and that's just a nibble of what's at stake.

Instead, I'm going to break this whole thing down and talk about "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," a film now available on Netflix. It's a story about a farmer named John Peterson. Farmer John, as he's known, was born and raised on a working family farm in Caledonia, Ill., about 100 miles northwest of Chicago.

The 82-minute film traces the never-dull life and times of Peterson, who was 19 when his father, Lester, died, leaving him with all of the responsibilities for the family's thriving 350-acre farm. While a student at Beloit College in the 1960s, Peterson invited his hippie pals to commune on the property, which became a place for free love and open-air theater, activities that made Peterson a community outcast (he was accused of devil worship, among other things). In the 1970s, Peterson went into debt (about half a million dollars' worth) and was forced to auction all but 22 acres of his land in 1982, a fate that would eventually be shared by many other farmers in his community.

It would take several years of traveling to Mexico, writing and being depressed before Peterson would resolve to farm again, this time organically. Angelic Organics was born in 1990, becoming a full-fledged CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm in 1993. In 2006, when the film was originally released, Angelic Organics had 1,200 subscriber families on its books.

The story is far from simple; Even when he returned to farming in the early 1990s, Peterson almost gave up the pitchfork again, but he persisted, he says in the film, for his beloved mother, Anna, who loved selling vegetables at their farm stand. (She died of cancer in 1996.) It was years before harassment (including suspected arson on his property) and ostracizing came to an end, but Peterson's dogged spirit and passion for the soil is what ultimately gets him through. He has since written a cookbook (Farmer John's Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables) and earlier this year was traveling in Australia and New Zealand to promote the film.

The Columbia Pike farmers market, the market in my neighborhood, opened for the growing season on Sunday, and as I looked around, I noticed a similar passion for the soil and the work that these people do. I said hello to returning farmers and introduced myself to newcomers, such as Dora from Penn Farm in Montross, Va., and Luke from Stoneybrook Organic Farm in Hillsboro, Va.

It occurred to me, as I watched Farmer John on film and observed my neighbors interact with farmers, this Farm Bill stuff doesn't have to be -- no, shouldn't be -- complicated at all. There are people who still believe that growing food is a worthwhile enterprise, people who still have passion for the soil, people who believe in the link between farm and table. So if you want to better understand the Farm Bill and farming, rent "the Real Dirt on Farmer John" (YouTube trailer below) and say hello to the farmers in your dell this week. They can't wait to meet you.


Come chat with me today at noon: What's Cooking.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 6, 2008; 9:52 AM ET Food Movie News , Food Politics
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This aired on PBS a couple years back, as part of the Independent Lens series, which also just aired King Corn. The Independent Lens website has in-depth info on each: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens

Posted by: Amanda | May 7, 2008 3:31 PM

Just a few comments on yesterday's discussion - you have to try the Joe's Special with sauteed mushrooms on top as well. It's a pretty simple dish, but man, does it taste good! Oh, I miss being at home, going for a Joe's Special before the theater...

The mention of the electric skillet brings to mind...potstickers! Works best with freshly made ones so that the bottoms don't burn before the filling thaws out (and I find frozen ones wind up with mushy wrappers oftentimes). Just fill the wonton wrappers with your filling (not too much or they explode), heat some oil in the skillet, put the potstickers in, and let them fry for a few minutes. Then, not moving the potstickers, add about 1/2 c chicken broth, cover the pan, and finish cooking by steaming.

As for how to cook rice, I use a rice cooker these days (too busy to monitor the pot properly to get the nice crispy rice on the bottom ). I rinse the rice off in a wire mesh sieve, then pop the wet rice in the cooker. I've found that about 1:1 on rice and water works well for white long grain, and 1 rice:1.5 water works well for brown rice.

If you have time, want a stovetop way, and want to get a nice, crispy toasted coating on the bottom (the best part - my dad and I always have to split it), I have an imprecise (no times or amounts) but tried and true method. Take a 6 c saucepot. After rinsing about 2 c of rice, fill the pot with enough water that, when just touching the top of the rice with the tip of your index finger, the water comes to your first knuckle joint. Cook on medium, uncovered, making sure that it doesn't boil over, until the water level has dropped down to the level of the rice. Put the lid on, turn the heat down to low, and cook until you start to smell a nice toasty aroma. Keep your nose peeled for this - if you forget, you will either end up throwing out the pot, or will have a very sore arm from scrubbing carbonized rice off. This method worked for me for years when I was in middle and high school and made dinner. Of course, I had more time to monitor things then...

Posted by: Pam | May 7, 2008 9:57 PM

This is the report on Congress's new Farm bill on youtube. I see Barack Obama has already start to change things. It is clear and precise unlike other Congressional reports. I believe they will do exactly what the report says.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4e488ZH7WHU

Posted by: Paul Gehl | May 10, 2008 11:15 AM

I hit my local farmers market at 14th and U on its opening day this past Saturday. I can't tell you how happy I was to chat with the vendors and talk about what they were selling. I've had a rough week visiting my partner in the hospital following a harrowing bicycle accident that required hip surgery for him. Wanting to be there for him as much as possible, I'd had 7 of 10 meals (not counting breakfast) from the hospital cafeteria from Tuesday through Saturday. Going to the farmers market and chatting with the sellers just lifted my spirits. I was able to buy strawberries that had just been picked the day before and serve them plain to my partner in his hospital bed. He was overjoyed to have something other than the bland overcooked/canned hospital food, believe me.

I'm also going to try to cook more myself if only so that I can make something homemade to nibble over the week as I come and go from the hospital. We'll be all right eventually, but it was so comforting to spend 45 minutes with some familiar faces and ponder the goodies to come this summer. I feel truly blessed.

Posted by: Sean | May 12, 2008 4:15 PM

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