It’s Not All Pretty, But It’s Honest Work In ‘Peter And The Farm’

“It’s amazing what the love of the earth can produce”

We city dwellers are so far removed from our food that a documentary like Peter and the Farm might seem like a foreign film. Set in the craggy hills of Southern Vermont, Tony Stone’s brilliant, haunting little movie about an old-timer named Peter Dunning is, on its surface, a portrait of a troubled personality, but it’s so much more. Peter and the Farm forces us to consider the small organic farmer and just how much work goes into our food.

It’s not all pretty in its realism, but there is a beauty in the way Stone’s film gives voice to a little-seen segment of society. Dunning, the 68-year-old agrarian who runs Mile Hill Farm in Brattleboro, Vermont, toils on the land, bracing himself for the coming winter. As he battles alcohol dependence, Dunning’s farm and sanity seem to always be on the brink of collapse. But Dunning keeps on keeping on, and there’s always a ribald yarn to be told as he’s doing it.

We talked to director Stone about his experiences on the farm with Dunning and what we might learn from the film about organic farming. Peter and the Farm opens in select theaters on November 4.

Still from Peter and the Farm (2016)

Hi Tony. I’m originally from Vermont, so this film immediately piqued my interest. You’re from Vermont too, right?

I grew up in Lower Manhattan, but we would spend three months a year near Brattleboro, Vermont. Once school ended, my parents would bring me up there, and we’d unplug. I lived in a cabin that had no road to it or running water. I just got married up there (to musician Melissa Auf der Maur, who also produced the film) last weekend.

Congratulations! Having that interaction with Vermont when you were younger, how did farming play a role in your life?

It didn’t really. My existence in Vermont was in the wilderness, building forts and running around with my friends who lived up there. So my connection to Peter was just through the Brattleboro Farmer’s Market. My parents were friends with him, but only through the market. It wasn’t until I was older and I had my own friendship with Peter, that he invited me up to the farm. But the Famer’s Market in Brattleboro is one of the most utopic things I’ve ever seen. The level of love that goes into these farms—you see it in the final product.

I’m always taken by the fact that farmers are so proud of what they do, down to a single apple.

And that’s Peter and his meat. You can see the love in the flesh. You’ll see the yellow sinewy fat in his steak from his cows eating all these dandelions. It’s not in the film, but he has a wild orchard, and he was showing us the apples and saying that they were the best. And they were. It’s amazing what the love of the earth can produce.

When you started making this film, aside from the character of Peter, what were your impressions of his style of farming?

You could tell it was rough-and-tumble. The first time I visited the farm was when Peter presented the idea of making the documentary. His idea was that we should document his suicide. He was testing us, and being provocative, but then we ended up having a serious conversation. We were thinking about it.

That initial day when we toured the farm, and saw everything in balance, but also seeing how fragile and delicate it was, and that it was about to collapse—we saw this moment to get in there and document it. You could see how the jagged roughness was what made it so special. We felt like if we could sum up that initial trip to the farm, we’d have a film. Everything that Peter said was so captivating, and we knew that there would be more of it.

We wanted to let Peter be the tour guide of his life. But part of learning about Peter and the farm was doing those chores on the farm with him and filming them over and over again. The actions would bring about a new memory or a new anecdote each time he did them. He was storing memories through the physicality.

Still from Peter and the Farm (2016)

Peter has all these issues, but he’s not the only farmer that has alcoholism. When most people think of organic farming, they think of something soft and pleasurable and free-range happy chickens. But this might be an eye-opening experience for some people. How can understanding the difficult life of a farmer like Peter help people?

You said it. Peter is this unique individual, but his story is universal. Aging farmers and idle hands in the winter makes people mad. These are common problems. And you’re right, most people think of organic farming as this bucolic, clean thing. It’s the opposite of the reality, which is the dirtier, the better. That’s why we put the slaughter at the beginning of the film—you’re understanding Peter through the work, and the process, and the art of dissecting an animal. But that animal has lived the most idyllic life, even if you think there’s some sort of brutality, because you’re seeing it put to death. The way that sheep lived is as good as it gets.

Seeing my farmer friends in the Hudson Valley who are in their 20s and 30s—people don’t know the work that goes into what you’re eating and producing. It’s anti-bottom line. It’s the tiniest of budgets to survive and hold on. A tractor goes down with a flat tire, and the wheel costs $500. I think understanding what it takes is important. People are dedicating their lives to supplying people with food, and it’s harder and harder fighting against big ag. There are tougher regulations for processing meat, and then there’s the lack of slaughterhouses for farmers. It’s an unbelievably trying existence.

That really comes across in the film. It’s not romantic. But it seems like there’s a satisfaction in it. Maybe Peter has his issues, but it’s almost like the farming is keeping him going.

Definitely. When you look at him, in the film he’s 68—he’s 72 now—but he’s in amazing shape. He’s not sitting on his ass. He’s not retired. He has a level of alcoholism I’ve never seen, but he can throw 200 bales of hay up into a loft. Peter, in a sense, is thriving.

When your existence is based on the land as a tangible reality, it is a completely different state of mind. It is also the most beautiful way to exist, being that present in the earth, basing your life on the cycles of the day, the weather, and the temperature. There is an incredible reward to it, but it takes work. The repetitive nature of the cycles—it’s Sisyphean. That’s the most honorable part of it—staying with it year after year to do the whole thing over again. It’s admirable.

Still from Peter and the Farm (2016)

The one romantic thing in the film is how Peter has all these tricks of the trade. He calls different animals with different calls. He can raise an entire field of corn with the kernels of one ear. Does he get the feeling, or do you get the feeling, that there’s something being lost as big agriculture takes over?

Absolutely. He says that. There’s so much common sense that goes into farming. We’re talking about being able to grow a field with one ear of corn, but then big agriculture is trying to monetize seeds. If it’s balanced out, there doesn’t need to be 500 acres of corn. Things can be done at smaller scales.

But these new regulations are, unfortunately, usually made for larger farms and have too much of an impact on smaller farms. When you have a small farm, you have to become your own secretary. There’s too much to manage and paperwork. You see that on smaller dairy farms. A neighbor of mine was talking the other day about how you need a permit to spread manure on a field with 30 cows. There’s so many things that you have to take care of; a few more strains can break a farm.

A farmer like Peter sees what he’s up against. He has to keep the farm going to get the right tax breaks. Otherwise, he can’t retire. It would be technically illegal if he wanted to sell the meat from the sheep that he butchers in the beginning of the film. It’s an uphill battle. Seeing what he could do 20 years ago to now, it’s more and more restricted. That’s part of what’s also driving Peter mad. But he wants to stay on the farm. What’s the alternative? The farm is a prison, but it’s also the only option.

Peter describes himself as a back-to-the-earther. But at this point, he’s more of an old-school farmer. In the film, Peter says that, though he’s an artist and a farmer, he’d “prefer to impress the farmers.” How do you think farmers will see this film? Do you want to impress them?

I love that line too much. I think we all kind of identify with that. Other farmers seeing it has been amazing—especially guys Peter’s age. We’ve talked to them after screenings, and they tell us the film ends up being this mirror for them. They know all the pieces of machinery Peter’s using. They have all the similar demons.

One farmer came up to us last week who looks like Peter, down to the beard, and he has problems with alcohol, and he hasn’t talked to his daughter in five years, but he wants her to see the film. Everybody has their own story, but it encapsulates the dynamic that can happen when you’re putting your all into the earth like that.

Trying to get the film out to farming communities is super important to me. Media about farming is usually surface level. It’s never in the trenches. Granted, there are much calmer farms, but the age Peter is at, the fights he’s been through, coming out of the ’70s, his story is more universal than unique. I just wanted to inject more honesty into this sterile, bullshit idea of farming.

That was the beginning impetus to jump into Peter’s world. The dirt on Peter’s farm is so amazing. The mud on the hide of the cow, or the endless cobwebs—that’s what you want. The grit affects the product in a beautiful way when people love their animals.

Poster for Peter and the Farm (2016)