By Gregory Crofton
With a mangled left hand and bushy white beard, organic farmer Peter Dunning makes a striking image on camera.
Once you tune in and listen, you’ll find his irascible controlling tendencies, his functional alcoholism, his days as an orphan, and his poetic intelligence just as interesting as his appearance on the screen.
That’s some of what makes “Peter and the Farm” worth writing about, even six years after its release in 2016.
I recently found it on the Criterion Channel and was able to watch it again. It’s not as brilliant as I thought the first go round, but still it is pretty great. It consists of a bunch of trips to Peter’s farm, interesting vignettes strung together by director Tony Stone and his producer/wife (of Hole and Smashing Pumpkins fame) Melissa Auf der Maur.
Together they made choices that make the film look and sound fantastic. Of course Dunning’s Mile Hill Farm in Springfield, Vermont, is itself 136 acres of beauty. But there’s also a great rock/punk soundtrack (even Aphex Twin music in a beautiful snowy scene) that pops in and out of the film at the right times.
These aesthetics help create resonance for the storyline: Dunning no longer speaks to his children. It’s just him and his farm, one he’s worked for 35 years. He is tired of doing the same tasks over and over. He is an alcoholic who makes his own cider, a failed artist but a successful farmer who is now ready to die. Suicide is mentioned on camera. Thankfully it doesn’t come to fruition.
Dunning died in 2018, but not from suicide and he was buried on his farm. Here is an audio interview with Dunning conducted by Erica Heilman in 2017 for her podcast Rumble Strip.
What probably drove the film into production was that Dunning saw a chance to work with some filmmakers and make some art before his organic farm — his real art — shut down. It was a good move.
“Art is never made when everything is fine and I’m very aware of that,” says Dunning at one point in the film.
Peter was part of a generation of men and women in the 60s and 70s who left behind the increasingly corporate world to purposely go “back to the land.” They would produce their own food and in turn connect with life differently.
Some of Dunning’s own poetry comes across as spoken word in the soundtrack. The audience also gets to observe the work he’s done year in and year out on his farm, the work that helped support billions and billions of healthy microorganisms in the soil.
You watch the gun jam as he shoots a sheep in the head to butcher it. You find out how tricky it can be to build bales of hay. You see how few seeds he needs to grow food. And of course you learn how he mangled his hand at the sawmill he worked at as a 26 year old.
“Peter and the Farm” is as close to a “grunge” film as there will ever be.
Watch the trailer below and rent it here. Here’s an outtake from the film that shows Peter beekeeping.