The vast majority of us are so far removed from any common farming past that we idealize it and the people who live that lifestyle. “Peter and the Farm” is a sober reminder of how hard and callous that life is, and will come as a shock to anybody with romantic dreams of “chucking it all” to live off the land.
Peter Dunning is living in “paradise,” as he himself puts it. He’s been working the same 187 acres of Mile Hill Farm in Vermont for over 35 years. It’s a small farm, and he’s a smart, articulate guy who has adjusted to doing what it takes to make a small farm work in this era of corporate farms, Monsanto and producing for mass consumption.
He’s tailored his acreage to raising and selling “organic” lamb, chicken, pork and beef. It was a natural transition for a college art major who joined the “back to the land” movement of ex-hippies in the ’70s.
He manures instead of buying fertilizer, saves legacy seed so that he doesn’t feed the livestock genetically=modified corn or beans, and when it’s time for “culling,” he does much of the slaughtering himself.
But Dunning has had enough. He’s embittered, takes no pleasure in the routine and doesn’t allow himself any kindness to the animals under his care. “Stupid jerk” is the nicest thing he’ll saw to an errant milk cow, he curses and manhandles the sheep with all the brute force his 68 year-old body can manage and doesn’t dare show affection even to the loyal sheep dog who stays by his side.
As he fills giant bottles with new batches of home brew, we start to understand. He drinks, and he’s a mean drunk.
“I could, in front of you, call ALL of my children,” he says to filmmaker Tony Stone. “Not ONE would answer the phone.”
He’s chased off wives and kids, insulted too many apprentices to count. And he knows it. Around him, all he sees is entropy. The farm peaked in 1998, and it’s been in “decay and decline ever since.” Every board of the house that hasn’t seen paint in this millennium, every tumbledown out-building, every gate or fence that shows signs of “that’ll do” repairs backs him up.
Even shooting the coyotes who slaughter his sheep gives him no pleasure.
He talks of “suicide notes,” and suggests on camera that what Stone will capture in the end is “my suicide.” Yeah, this is the life, eh?
Dunning is as articulate as you’d hope a college graduate to be, and as self-aware. He spent his life and his inheritance on this farm, and gave up his calling — painting and sculpture — to keep it. He’s nimble and fit, but scarred in ways we can both see and simply sense.
The life has hardened him to suffering. Botching the killing of a ewe by using a rifle when a pistol is called for earns the barest shrug. But memories of his lowest points are often punctuated by some circle-of-life moment that pulls him back to those he’s responsible for.
“Life announces itself with force,” he rhapsodizes. “Death slinks off.”
The graphic slaughter footage will rattle the squeamish just as it did with an earlier trouble-on-the-farm documentary, “Brother’s Keeper.”
But the restorative power of working beautiful land with your hands, your heart and a John Deere tractor can be inspiring.
In a country whose city dwellers have less in common with their country kin than at any point in our social or political history, it’s good to be reminded of where that meat comes from. There’s a toll taken in season after season of harvesting it, and that sometimes-idyllic, sometimes grim and gruesome grind of getting their food onto out tables is worth understanding and appreciating.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with animal slaughter, alcohol abuse and profanity
Cast: Peter Dunning
Credits Directed by Tony Stone. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:31