Eco-conscious consumers may rush to the farmer’s market for local, organic meats, fruits, and vegetables, but “Peter and the Farm” suggests that they might spare a thought for the tormented soul who reaps the harvest. For more than 35 years, Peter Dunning has presided over the 187-acre Mile Hill Farm in the rolling green paradise of rural Vermont, but mistakes and personal demons have turned his breathtaking idyll into an open-air prison of the mind. With this rueful, cantankerous yet hugely charismatic figure at its center, Tony Stone’s beautiful documentary reveals the twin burdens of working the farm alone while beating back an encroaching inner darkness. “Peter and the Farm” isn’t afraid to get dirt under its fingernails, which may turn off the weak-stomached, but those same visceral qualities are essential to understanding a man who cannot be separated from the land.
Opening with a resplendent vision of rural Vermont in the fall, with multi-colored leaves giving way to dissolves of Dunning’s farmhouse, barns and acreage, Stone presents a storybook impression of Mile Hill Farm before digging for worms under its surface. With his sonorous voice and Old Testament beard, Dunning seems cut from the mold of stoic Puritan farmers of the past, before agri-business took over, but he proves to be a much more complicated figure. His methods may invoke centuries of wisdom — separate calls for the animals, how to get a season’s worth of seed out of a single ear of corn, Sheep Psychology 101 — but Dunning is also an artist and poet, somewhere between a freethinking hippie and a farmer of the old school. (He’d prefer to impress the farmers.)
As Dunning goes about his daily routine, he also holds court on any number of subjects, from the way sheep hatch escape plots like prison inmates to the various places on the farm where his children were conceived. With enormous patience behind the camera, Stone allows Dunning to keep talking until the tragic dimensions of his life start sprouting from the earth. Dunning’s wife has long since left him, along with his now-grown children, who he claims wouldn’t even pick up the phone if he called. Though he’s vague on the specifics, it seems likely that depression and alcoholism were the culprits then, just as they cloud his spirit and judgment now. When Dunning descends to a cellar to pick up a glass jug of his homemade cider, the specter of all the empty jars piled to the ceiling looms large. He also pulls back the glove on a hand mangled in a logging accident, which curbed his ambitions as a painter and sculptor.
There was a time when Mill Hill Farm was a flourishing operation, with friends and family working in harmony, but that time has long since passed, even though Dunning’s expertise continues to keep it from collapsing. But “Peter and the Farm” catches the 68-year-old at a low, introspective moment, when his sense of isolation has become devastatingly acute and his alcohol addiction is threatening to shallow him alive. “I care more about the farm than I care about me,” he says, and the film makes that co-dependency palpable by showing the expertise and effort Dunning puts into tending it every day. He may be killing himself and the farm is doomed die with him, but until then, every inch of the grounds will flourish with verdancy and life.
It should be stressed that Dunning’s dark side doesn’t snuff out his wry sense of humor. In fact, they often go together, like the tragicomic story of boozing with his Marine buddies in Waikiki, which involves $5 plasma donations and a drunken chorus of “West Side Story.” At the same time, Stone rightly believes that Dunning can only be understood through his work, so “Peter and the Farm” commits itself to the grimy business of tending to the fields and animals, which leads to some casually graphic scenes involving a cow pregnancy and the origins of farm-to-table mutton chops. It may be upsetting for some, but never gratuitous: There are ugly and beautiful qualities to Dunning and his domain, and Stone renders them with a texture as rich as the soil through his fingers.