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Billy Collins: A Poet's Affection For Emily Dickinson

When Emily Dickinson died in the 1880s, she was a reclusive, barely published writer. Today, she is a fully canonized, iconic poet. Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins says the progress of her status was unprecedented.

18:09

Other segments from the episode on June 7, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 7, 2006: Interview with John Peterson; Interview with Billy Collins.

Transcript

DATE June 7, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: John Peterson, subject of the documentary "The Real
Dirt on Farmer John," discusses his life in farming
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Throughout the 1970s and '80s family farms across the US were disappearing.
Some of that land was swallowed up by larger corporate farming operations.
Urban sprawl took over other plots of land that used to grow food. My guest,
John Peterson, lost his farm in the early '80s. It had been in his family for
generations. Next week PBS stations will air a documentary about Peterson
called "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," directed by Taggart Siel--Siegel. It
shows how Peterson was later able to start a successful organic farm, which is
now one of the largest community-supported agriculture farms in the US. John
Peterson took over his family's farm when he was still in high school after
his father died in the late '60s. His family had 350 acres on which it grew
soybean and corn and raised chickens, cows, and hogs. When Peterson went to
college he continued to run the farm.

Well, when you took over the farm, you also transformed it in a way. It
became a home, or a home away from home, for a lot of your friends who
were--this was like--what?--the early '70s maybe? You know, a lot...

Mr. JOHN PETERSON: Late '60s, early '70s.

GROSS: Late '60s, early '70s. And a lot of your friends were hippies. They
were artists. And a lot of them, I don't know whether they moved onto your
farm or just hung out there a lot.

Mr. PETERSON: Well, some of them camped there. There really wasn't housing
on the farm for them, but they hung out there a lot, and then some of these
people started farming with me and rented houses in the area. And then we
raised crops together.

GROSS: You know...

Mr. PETERSON: So it became a kind of a community that was built around a
functioning farm, a rather conventional farm, but with some very unusual
people from all over.

GROSS: OK, so your farm was a way for a lot of people to live in a beautiful
setting or to live out their fantasies about farming or going back to the
land. What did the connection to the people who were living on your land mean
to you and how are you changed by knowing all of these kind of like artistic,
countercultural urban people?

Mr. PETERSON: I--because I was so involved in farming and so fascinated with
farming, my response to all of these people being in my life was how do we
bring this into the farming experience? How do we incorporate all of this
exotic influx of cultures and, you know, different ethnicities, how do we
bring that into the farming life so that we can broaden farming? And so what
happened was I came up with this--gradually this idea or this concept evolved
which I termed `art and agriculture' which was, in a way, seeing a farm as the
foundation for a kind of cultural renewal or maybe we could say cultural
synthesis. But because so much new was coming out of this, you know, we'd
celebrate this solstices and the equinoxes and the harvests, and then, you
know, we worked a lot with natural materials. We'd take stone from the
quarries and incorporate it into the walls and into additions on this one
house, in particular, and so I felt like we were really getting closer to the
earth and bringing these principles of--about the earth and about, in a way,
agriculture that has maybe been a bit overlooked because agriculture had
become so commercial. And we were building a farm out of these broadened
principles.

GROSS: While you were trying to redefine the nature of your farm and make it
a more--make the experience more of an artistic as well as an agricultural
expression, were you doing pretty traditional farming at the time?

Mr. PETERSON: I didn't really examine closely the implications of that.
There was something that when--in the '50s, when chemicals were starting to
come onto the scene, the people in the community were very excited, and they
were saying `Wow, we can get rid of our crabgrass. We can get rid of our
broadleaf weeds. What a great thing.' And I remember these lunch
conversations when the farmers would sit around and talk about these chemicals
and marveling. And because I came from that tradition of wanting to be more
effective as a farmer and always trying to figure out how to do less work,
because all you do on a farm is work and then notice how much you're not
getting done, I was excited about the chemicals too and about--feeling about
farming effectively through those conventions.

GROSS: Now, the film says that after a while, after you took over your family
farm, you were hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to banks, friends and
loan sharks. What got you so deep into debt?

Mr. PETERSON: Optimism. Hope.

GROSS: What do you mean?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, my mom would say, back in the '50s and in the early '60s
when agricultural was still flourishing a bit and occasionally you'd see a
barn being built in the community, and my mom would say, `There is a family
that believes in the future. They're building a new barn.' And capital is
what fuels expansion, and I felt that I could undertake indebtedness, I could
undertake it and that I would somehow be able to, you know, prosper my way out
of it because I had this deep sense of the farm as my destiny and the thought
of losing it was actually inaccessible to me. There was really no possibility
in my mind, in my being, that this farm could ever be lost. So I was really
quite casual in taking on debt to renovate the buildings, to finance the
acquisitions of equipment. And, I mean, there were lot of charts at the time
that would justify that kind of expansion. I don't think they would have
justified putting money into celebrations and some of the renovation work that
we did on the farm. But as far as that kind of expansion, that was very
commonplace back then. I mean, there was this idea that a kind of scale was
essential to survive as a farmer. So I borrowed a lot of money, and then this
impossible thing happened. The banks were calling the loan. So this idea
that I had for this--I guess I'd almost have to call it a knowledge--it was
challenged. It was, you know, it was exploded.

GROSS: How did the loan sharks come into it, because you mentioned that you
owed money to loan sharks, too.

Mr. PETERSON: Oh my. There was--at that time when some of the farms were
starting to get really shaky in the early '80s, there was, well, one
organization in particular that advertised that it had sources of capital, and
desperate people, which I was becoming, will do desperate things. I went to
an attorney during that time. I wanted to come up with, I think, 300,000 or
$350,000, and he asked me a few questions and he finally said, `Well, I can
get you the money but the problem is you don't have children.' And I said,
`Well, why is that a problem?' He said, `Well, the people who will lend you
the money, they know that they're not going to get far with threatening you,
but they're going to come to you, if you don't repay them, and they're going
to threaten to kneecap your children. And they're going to tell you exactly
when they get out of school, and they're going to tell you exactly, like, what
they wore to school on certain days, so you will know that your children are
under surveillance, and then, when the loan is due, you're going to find a way
to come up with it because you're not going to let that happen to your kids.
Well, I was so shaken by what I was descending into, that when I drove away
from his office that day, I realized that it was time to put the land up for
sale.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Peterson. He's the
subject of the new documentary "The Real Dirt on Farmer John."

So, tell us what it was like. You know, your land was auctioned. You kept, I
think, 22 acres and auctioned off the rest. What was it like the day of the
auction? Would you describe it for us?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, all the equipment was lined up south of the farmstead,
and I was in shock, really. I was in a certain--a kind of denial. And
because this farm, years earlier, had a tradition of bringing people together,
because of my mom and my dad and all the picnics we used to have on the farm,
the neighborhood picnics, there was an element to it that was like an echo of
that, in a very perverse way, and a lot of people were there to snoop. And
they were looking in the buildings, they were looking through the windows,
they were very, very curious about this farm. So here was a social event, a
cultural event, a very dark event with the people who I'd grown up with, who'd
been friends with my parents, and at the time I couldn't really absorb it. I
just was looking around feeling like, `Oh, this is a community event.' And
then here was this machinery which I had strong attachments to. I'm a
machinery person. I love equipment, and it had been carefully selected and
well-maintained. And here it was being auctioned, so I was a mixture of
emotions. And I was relieved. I was in this kind of odd stage of euphoria
which I can only attribute to shock, because later, when I was decompressing,
I went into a very, very dark morbid space about this. And it's interesting,
when all this equipment was being pulled down the driveway and leaving the
farm, there was something about not farming that appealed to me. It was a
relief. It was a big relief. And I was just--I just saw this big--and I'm
not going to say "opportunity" in my--I call it a hole. But at least it
wasn't something that was loaded with debt and threats and involvements with
loan sharks. It was a very different space that I was now going into.

GROSS: Looking back on that time now, do you think the fact that you ended up
so deep in debt and that you had to sell the farm, do you think that has more
to do with the larger, like, social economic forces that were prevailing in
family farms at the time, or did you think it was something unique to your
situation?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, a lot of farms went down then.

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. PETERSON: I think my--I was more vulnerable because of--I had spent
money on things besides expanding the farm, and I'd been a bit diverted from
farming, even though I loved that, but I was financing some other things,
activities on the farm that heightened my debt load, which turned out to be
fortunate, because if I'd gone down a couple of years later, when land values
had completely collapsed, there wouldn't have been anything left, and there
wouldn't be a film about the resurrection of a farm. So I was forced out
right at the beginning. And it's not that I think that this is a good
argument for extravagance or for having a lot of festivals, but I do notice
that it did cause a certain type of fortune to come my way. I got out when
there was still some value left in the land.

GROSS: My guest is John Peterson. He's the subject of the documentary "The
Real Dirt on Farmer John," which will be shown next week on public TV
stations. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is John Peterson. He's the subject of the documentary "The
Real Dirt on Farmer John," which will be shown next week on public TV
stations. Like many farmers in the 1980s he had to sell his farm after
getting deep in debt.

You were very depressed after you sold the farm. You traveled for a few
years. Eventually you decided you wanted to become a farmer again, and you
wanted to buy the land back, so--and you succeeded. I don't know whether you
bought all of it back or like, did you get--was it exactly the same land that
you bought back?

Mr. PETERSON: No, and the land has actually been acquired by various friends
and members of the farm community, the Community Support Agriculture
community. I never really cared that much about reclaiming the land. There's
something about that kind of ownership that I think I got over. I wanted to
farm. I wanted to be involved with the land, and that requires having some
security with the land, some continuity, and so the land that's been acquired
contiguous to the 22 acres is all, or almost all land that's in long-term
leases, and it's quite secure in terms of my being able--my knowing that I can
farm it year after year.

GROSS: So, when you went back and started farming again, eventually you got
into not only organic farming, but a community supported agriculture group,
which we'll talk about in a second. But did you try to be your father for a
while at first? Like when you went back to farming, did you try to do it your
father's way, to do it the traditional way, or the traditional chemical way?
I don't know what exactly what word to use for that. To do it like your dad
did?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, no, no. I didn't want to farm conventionally. I didn't
want to farm with chemicals. I knew that, and I know that I'm, like--I don't
want these crops in this soil propped up with what they call now `crop
protectors,' but back then they just called them, like, `ag chemicals.' I
didn't want that. I wanted to be in this space where I was dealing with--what
I saw was what I was truly dealing with, not a mirage.

GROSS: But for a while you were beset with plagues of all kinds of bugs. So
how did you turn that around?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, a lot of layers of management--fertility, fertility
practices, roll covers. In organic farming there are microbial insecticides
that are permissible to use that parasitize larvae. Rotation. Learning a lot
but, really, building the soil up more. We adopted biodynamic practices which
seem to enhance the health of the plants. So there were a lot of things we
had to put in place. Tremendous learning curve. I had not raised vegetables.
There's all this diversity to manage. I'd not farmed organically. I also had
a sense of scale that I could start off pretty big that I was not humble
enough to know that I should have started small. So tremendous learning curve
and after a few years we started having good results.

GROSS: You eventually became a CSA, a community supported agriculture group.
This was at the suggestion of some city people who wanted to have this kind of
arrangement, have this kind of relationship with your farm. For people who
don't know what a CSA is, would you describe it?

Mr. PETERSON: It stands for Community Supported Agricultural, and it's a
program where people sign up with the farm for a whole season, and usually
it's to get vegetables from the farm. But not always. And they pay in
advance to help capitalize the farm's needs for that growing season, and they
enter into a relationship with the farmer and with the farm. So it's a kind
of a covenant that people enter into with a piece of land. In our case, there
are many people who sign up many years in advance. We have a lot of people
actually who have signed up with our farm for the next five years and paid for
that membership.

GROSS: So people pay, that helps subsidize your farm and, in return, they get
like a box of food every week? A box of fresh vegetables?

Mr. PETERSON: That's right. And they take on some risk. They agree that
they'll accept what the farm provides that year. So it might be a great year.
It might be a poor year. In our case, because we have enough of a land base
because our customers stepped up and bought a nice piece of grand next door,
we have half our land fallow every year, so we have a fantastic fertility
system. So the last several years, we've just had fantastic abundance on my
farm. So even though the people who sign up with our farm accept the risk,
they have not had to--they have not encountered any shortfalls for many years.

GROSS: So is the money they pay enough to keep the farm growing or is that
just part of the solution to keeping it going?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, it's part of the solution. I mean, it does seem like
it's kept some farms afloat. It's certainly brought some farms into being
that otherwise never would have been there. There's, I believe, 2 to 3,000
CSA farms in the country now, and there are a lot of things that happen out of
it. One, the source of capital does not have to go--it doesn't come from a
bank. It's person to person. So it's a warm personal source of capital.
Two, it brings the customer into an understanding of the farm, because, you
know, the weather that starts happening on that farm starts to be the
shareholder's weather. And the crops are the shareholders crops or, you know,
the customer's crops. So a lot of things happen that build this relationship
between the farmer and the consumer that can empower farms in a lot of
different ways. So often the shareholders will figure out how to help
capitalize the farm in other ways.

GROSS: John Peterson is the subject of the new documentary "The Real Dirt on
Farmer John." It will be shown next week on public TV stations. He'll be back
in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John Peterson. He's the
subject of the documentary "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," which will be shown
next week on public television. It tells the story of how, like many farmers
in the 1980s, he went into debt and had to sell the family farm. Now he runs
a large and successful organic farm.

There was a period after you returned to farming when some of your neighbors
were pretty hostile because you again had friends working and living on the
farm, and because it wasn't a traditional family kind of farm. You were
accused of housing devil worshippers, and people thought it was a cult group.
What does it do to you when some of your neighbors in this kind of rural
setting think that you're crazy and evil and demonic?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, actually that hysteria started before I started up the
farm again. So there were about seven years that passed between when the farm
went down and then when I started it up again as an organic farm. And a lot
of other farms went down during that period, and there was quite a--I'll guess
I'll call it a collective shadow that formed out of all that loss. And there
was a lot of grief and there was a lot of confusion, and I think what happened
was rather than people take responsibility or just accept what was happening,
they needed a place to project that shadow. And my farm was the right
candidate. And so, this dominated my life when I was on that farm for several
years, and I just saw how a community can really go down and become deranged.
You know, I became, I actually became a bit deranged myself out of what was
happening. But just to create a picture of it, on a nightly basis there were
kids driving in to my farm, sometimes several times a night, screaming out
their window, `The devil,' `Satan,' throwing firecrackers, shooting rockets at
the buildings. People were actually walking around on my farm, digging holes
in the fields looking for bones. There were a lot...

GROSS: Bones of the dead people you allegedly killed and buried, is that it?

Mr. PETERSON: Yeah.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. PETERSON: And this just escalated, and I thought, `Well how can this be
escalating? I'm not interested in devil worship. I'm not a drug runner. I'm
just someone who lost a farm.'

GROSS: How did you turn that around?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, we had a fire on the farm. This beautiful cabin which
was a very sacred place that I had built in the woods about 12 years earlier
burned, and it was a carthartic fire, a cathartic event for me. This happened
when a lot of other things were sort of crystalizing or actually reaching such
an extreme hysterical point that I felt like I was losing my mind through my
community. And then this beautiful, beautiful home burned. My friend lost
all of her paintings from her whole life, all of her journals. And something
snapped. And I realized, in just an instant, I realized that I had to stop
these visits to the farm. So the visits were coming from two main sources.
The kids and the deputies. I thought, `OK, I'm going to go to the sheriff,
and I'm going to confront him, and I'm going to seek his help.' And I went
down to the sheriff, and I stormed into his office and I confronted him, and
here was this, you know, person that, right in front of him, you know, person
to person, who, I think had really been kind of an enemy and I think the
suspect in his world because the whole community had all this suspicion about
me. And there I was saying, `There was a fire,' and I said, `You can come to
my farm and you can open every drawer and look into every closet and you can
explore it all you want, all you want. And then you're going to figure out
that I'm not involved in any of these things the community says I'm involved
in and then I want you to get on my side.' And he was, you know, this is a
great thing about humanity, it was a very human moment. He just, you know,
after I said my piece, and I was quite aggressive or assertive, he said, `I'll
do it. I'll arrest people who are bothering you. I'll take care of you.
I'll look out for you.' And that's where it turned around in the community
because he just started arresting people, and then the word got out that if
you went to the Peterson farm to bite the heads off of squirrels or to throw
firecrackers at the buildings, you're going to get arrested. And it died down
pretty quickly. I mean, it took a long time to die down completely, but at
least it made it so that it was, you know, settled enough so I could start
farming there.

GROSS: Just describe for us what the land around your land is like now. Is
it still family farms, corporate farms, is it condos, what is it?

Mr. PETERSON: The land is--these fairly big tracts are being bought up for
people to plunk one big house down on. We don't have subdivisions nearby.
There are restrictions against that in our township. But further out, within
a few miles, there are a lot of subdivisions, a lot of the farmland is being
paved over. But in my community there aren't many farms left, very few
working farms. Ironically, we're one of the few, and the land still has a
somewhat pastoral quality. But the barns are certainly caving in, the
farmhouses are caving in, and there's a new kind of a gentification that's
going on in that area.

GROSS: John Peterson, thank you so much for talking with us, and good luck
with your farm.

Mr. PETERSON: Thank you. Enjoyed it.

GROSS: John Peterson is the subject of the documentary "The Real Dirt on
Farmer John." It will be shown on public television Independent Lens Series
next week. Peterson also has a cookbook called "The Real Dirt on Vegetables."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Recording artist Eddie Erikson and Becky Kilgroe perform
song from Erikson's new album "It's a Great Feeling"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Before we get to part two of our interview with former poet laureate Billy
Collins, there's a new recording I want to play for you. It's a duet with
Becky Kilgore, who's performed several concerts on FRESH AIR, and the
guitarist and singer Eddie Erickson, from Erickson's new album "It's a Great
Feeling."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BECKY KILGORE: Hey Eddie, how do you feel?

Mr. EDDIE ERICKSON: Oh, I feel so great.

Ms. KILGORE: Really?

Mr. ERICKSON: Unbelievable!

Ms. KILGORE: It's a pretty nice day, isn't it?

Mr. ERICKSON: This is a beautiful day. The birds are chirping and the sun
is shining. Wow! What about you?

Ms. KILGORE: Well, you know what. I'm going to tell you how I feel.

Mr. ERICKSON: Tell me.

Ms. KILGORE: It's a great feeling to suddenly find the clouds are
silver-lined when the sun breaks through.

Mr. ERICKSON: You have a way of putting things.

It's a great feeling to walk down the street and see the folks you meet
smiling back at you.

Ms. KILGORE: I know that's nice.

Mr. ERICKSON: Isn't that nice?

As long as I have someone to embrace...

Ms. KILGORE: As far as I'm concerned, the world is such a lovely place.
It's a great feeling.

Mr. ERICKSON: Oh, it sure is.

Ms. KILGORE: (Unintelligible)...never make a mil

Mr. ERICKSON: I hope not.

Ms. KILGORE: But nonetheless I state...

Mr. ERICKSON: Well, what are you going to state?

Ms. KILGORE: When you're in love and feeling great.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Coming up, former poet laureate Billy Collins. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Pianist Hilton Ruiz dies from severe head injuries
suffered in a fall last month
(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

TERRY GROSS, host:

I'm Terry Gross. We're ending today's show with music by pianist Hilton Ruiz,
who died yesterday after suffering severe head injuries last month in New
Orleans, which the police attributed to a fall. Ruiz was known for his
virtuosity in both jazz and Latin music. Hilton Ruiz was 54 years old.

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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