Most everyone told John and Molly Chester that farming in harmony with nature—without using commercial chemicals—was a reckless idea. Impossible even.
But John and Molly, who star in the eco-documentary “The Biggest Little Farm,” were undeterred by their bleak odds of success. They were believers in a force more powerful (and mysterious) than modern science.
Industrial farming’s short-term productivity gains have created unintended consequences that have denigrated our land, and our health, and the couple was determined to be part of the solution.
Before they decided to leave their Santa Monica apartment lifestyle and start their impossible farm, Molly was a private chef and food blogger, and John was an Emmy award-winning cinematographer.
They purchased the 214-acre Apricot Lane Farms with the support of an undisclosed, and apparently very generous, investor who believed in their mission.
The lemon and avocado orchard had been farmed conventionally (with chemicals), and had failed at least twice as a going concern.
On first arrival, one could not get a shovel even one inch into the dirt. The ground was lifeless, compacted, and what you’d call in farming lingo as “dead.”
Not to mention, the property is less than an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles. Its not exactly an arid rainforest in that part of the world. Dry and dusty is more like it.
The condition of the earth was the predictable result of decades of farmers relying on chemical cocktails—the bare bones that can grow a plant—without regard for the ecosystem.
Modern farming can, and does, grow produce, but the flavor and nutrition in food actually comes from the work of billions of unseen microbes that live in healthy soils.
You may have noticed your produce doesn’t taste like much these days. Dead soils and chemical cocktails are the reasons why.
Modern farming's biggest accomplishment has been to reduce farm labor while simultaneously increasing productivity.
However, the generous nutrient bank that was once our top soil, has been depleted, and productivity is no longer increasing, despite more and more chemical use.
Somehow, along the way, most of us have become blind to the overwhelming bounty nature produces without any help from humans.
Is it possible to turn the tide back around, unleash nature’s wisdom, and experience boundless productivity again? This was John and Molly’s project. They set out to farm in a way that imitates nature.
“Traditional farming” is what they call it in the award-winning film directed and written (with Mark Monroe) by John Chester. The film’s won 11 film awards since its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in 2018.
For John and Molly, and their sage mentor Alan York, traditional farming meant nurturing as much diversity as they could manage, and hoping that nature’s wisdom would kick in at some point and make everything beautiful and abundant.
The many challenges they face, and the suspense of what will happen next, is the basis of the narrative that drives the plot forward.
The Biggest Little Farm packs into a generous 91 minutes, almost eight years of painstakingly captured documentary footage at the farm.
A notable amount of stunning nature footage—like a window into an oft’ hidden world—is punctuated by a masterfully written script that perfectly highlights the sorts of lessons one can get from living mindfully.
One problem leads to the next solution as we watch nature's tides interact within the farm's ecosystem. Which leads to the next problem. With a few lightbulb moments thrown in for good measure.
For example, when John notices how his dog Todd watches minute details in the landscape, he decides to do the same.
If you are someone who practices paying attention to what the universe might be telling you, then you will love this film. This film is Mindfulness 101.
The Dog Made Them Do It
Take the genesis of the whole crazy idea, for example. It was the dog that made them do it.
John and Molly were still living in their apartment when, one day as part of his work, John was filming the rescue of 200 dogs from the home of a hoarder.
Naturally, John was attracted to a big black mutt with crossed eyes, and decided to take him home.
The newly married couple fell in love with Todd, and promised the abused dog that they would never give him up.
But there was a problem. Todd was a barker. He barked all day long when they weren’t home.
Despite valiant efforts, they could not get the dog to stop, and it earned them an eviction notice.
It was this event that kicked Molly and John into high gear looking for investors to fund their vision. John says in the film that they “wanted to build a life of purpose together.”
The Mysterious Mentor
Speaking in his own voice as the film’s narrator, John presents the couple as complete novices to farming. As in they didn’t know the first thing about it.
So they hired a mentor and followed his advice without asking questions, even when it sounded a little crazy, even to them.
They spent the first year of farming removing 55 acres of trees and weeds. They focused on getting their irrigation pond working and stocking it with ducks.
They built a ginormous worm composting facility on site.
In year two they planted a whopping 75 varieties of stone fruit trees.
“Diversify. Diversify. Diversify,” advised Alan. “That is the link to the whole thing.”
Eventually, he added, “all this diversity leads to simplicity.”
Alan sets the stage for the farm, and then passes away from cancer around year three, leaving the couple bereft of a friend, and on their own to figure things out.
Everything Is Interconnected
They couple tried to do everything right, but there would be years of troubling setbacks to come, and moments of serious self reflection.
Just imagine. In year three they had a bumper crop of fruit, which attracted a bumper flock of birds, that ate 70 percent of the fruit.
John observes that “every step to improve the land creates the perfect habitat for the next pest.”
Another example. Snails that were attracted by the beautiful cover crops the couple planted in between the trees to nurture the soil also loved the trees' beautiful leaves.
Just as the trees were dying, a drought cut off the life support to the pond, leading to a toxic algae bloom that was killing the ducks.
Then, a lightbulb turns on. Ducks love to eat snails. So the ducks were moved to the orchards to snap up an estimated 90 thousand snails.
And then there are the coyotes, killers who feasted on hapless ducks and chickens in the cloak of night.
We watch as John, Molly, and their crew, collect dead birds as if they are going out of style.
We feel the trauma of the coyote, and John doesn’t know what to do.
He tries out his two Great Pyrenees guard dogs, who typically mind the sheep, but the dogs fixate on chasing and terrorizing the birds further. It’s not working.
But killing one coyote is far from enough, and the situation is unresolved for quite some time.
Emma The Pig, Greasy, And The Great Pyrenees
Enter one of the film’s most memorable characters: Emma the pig.
After birthing 17 piglets near the beginning of the film, she falls sick and almost dies.
We watch, and empathize with the 600 pound fatty, and when she takes her turn for the mend, ostensibly out of a responsibility to care for her babies, we fall in love with her.
But then Greasy the rooster comes to live with Emma in her tranquil quarters so he can be protected from the more aggressive creatures of his own kind.
The juxtaposition of the two farm animals is priceless and a bit belabored.
Until suddenly Greasy is seen one morning splayed on the dirt, having been mauled to death by one of the Great Pyrenees.
As John reprimands the dogs, he notices one of them is snow white clean, while the other is covered in blood.
It is yet another example of a problem (the beloved dead rooster), leading to a solution.
The snow white dog is now dispatched to protect the flock of birds. The coyote problem is solved.
Animals On The Farm
I greatly appreciate this film for educating the public in such an entertaining way about life on a farm.
Apricot Lane Farms is notable for its zoo-like atmosphere. Alan had told the couple you need to have animals for a farm to be healthy, and the cinematographer’s lens finds great joy in the animals.
In fact, the importance of animals to farming is an idea that is gaining in popularity in farming circles.
Cow and chicken poop is an important source of nutrition for compost and soil. Cows mow grass, and chickens aerate the dirt and eat insect pests.
I am a vegetarian, and I still believe this to be true about the vital role of animals on a farm for fostering soil health.
In my own backyard garden I am not able to keep animals, but I do cherish the many birds and squirrels who scratch and dig at the dirt. It helps the rainwater to penetrate. Their poop is also cycling life into my garden.
It is true that sometimes the squirrels dig holes, or take bites out of tomatoes, but I understand that I am operating in their home, so I let them have part of the harvest.
Bees, ladybugs, and more, are also to be cherished.
Farming Our Soils
Animals are important on a farm because they circulate life into the soils.
The soils are the single most important thing, because soils are host to billions of microbes, which are the true workhorses of this earth.
Microbes transform waste into usable substances that support all life. You can’t have effective microbes if you have dead soils. You can’t have tasty food either.
Allan, John, and Molly understood all of this, which is why they set off on their so-called crazy adventure.
However, despite the fact that the film makes no mention of it, the couple’s approach is actually a documented farming system.
It is called biodynamic farming, or regenerative farming, traditional farming, ecological farming, and/or permaculture.
These techniques all place emphasis on soil health.
In fact, Apricot Lane Farms is now certified as a Biodynamic farm.
Biodynamic farming surpasses certified organic farming in its approach, as it is much more labor intensive and complicated to pull off.
In past research I have done, farming that focuses on soil health is markedly more productive than conventional farming, but it takes more planning and labor.
It introduces a complexity into farming that most people don’t want to deal with.
Diversity Invites Mindfulness
I see this complexity in my own diverse garden, where I grow around 60 different vegetables, berries, and herbs.
I am on year four of learning from nature, and like Apricot Lane Farms’ journey, it hasn’t been easy.
Every one of my plant varieties has individual needs for water, sunlight, physical supports, soil, and so on. Each plant also brings something unique to the soil, and to the palate.
It would be so much easier to understand what one plant needs and replicate that.
But if I only grew one thing, there would be no diversity in the soil, or on my table.
I have learned so much about life from gardening. It is all about mindfulness, and dedication to principles that are ultimately out of our control.
That principle is nature, or the divine order if you will.
While the Biggest Little Farm makes no mention of spirituality, the call to action I take from it is to continue to cultivate mindfulness, which is something I do a lot with my cooking.
Paying attention to what nature was telling them is how John and Molly found their way forward past every challenge.
As I said, the film is a class in mindfulness. And you never know what beauties such a journey will present to your life.
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