‘The Biggest Little Farm’ Documents One Couple’s Journey to Farm in Harmony With Nature
All it took was their beloved pet dog to inspire documentarian John Chester and wife Molly to leave the concrete jungle of Los Angeles for its surrounding farmlands. The couple’s journey to build a life in harmony with nature are chronicled in “The Biggest Little Farm.” What begins as a picturesque documentary about leaving the big city for beautiful pastures quickly turns into a fascinating, at times intense, testimonial of reconnect with the land, cultivate it and face nature’s brutal little realities.
It all began when the Chesters’ dog, Todd, drove their Santa Monica neighbors crazy with his barking. Facing eviction, the couple decides to take a chance and finally live the dream of having their own farm. They purchase Apricot Lane Farms, a 200-acre spot in Ventura County. Advising them is a utopian expert named Alan York, who devises a plan to make the farm into a kind of modern-day Eden free of the kind of pesticides and intrusively industrial techniques traditional, mass-production farms use. York is a firm believer in the use of “cover crops” which will revive the soil along with a large array of flora and fauna. Lemon, avocados and other delicacies are part of the big plan. But of course nature has its own rules as well, and soon the Chesters are facing prowling coyotes that attack their sheep and chickens at night, pests and plagues that latch on to the crops, and the worst California drought in 1,000 years.
“The Biggest Little Farm” may seem at first like an odd tale of city-dwellers deciding to become country folk, but it becomes a fascinating, absorbing ecological parable. The Chesters may initially be amateurs, but they are also sincere and take their chosen task seriously. Thankfully John, an accomplished TV director, chronicled the entire process, capturing with astounding detail the wildlife and crop development on the farm. Visually it is an almost sensuous documentary to behold, as Apricot Lane Farms becomes an arena for all that is beautiful and challenging about nature. Microscopic and wide frame photography gives us intimate and breathtaking vistas. John and Molly Chester both shared about the experience of chronicling this life-altering story with Entertainment Voice. “We always fantasized about farming one day, that got intensified when Molly learned about how nutrient density in food comes from how a farmer treats the soil,” said John. “We started seeing that as an opportunity to really do something unique, but we didn’t really see the need to jump off the cliff until our commitment to our dog showed us what jumping off the cliff meant.”
The Chesters become symbols for the ability to learn an entirely new way of life through trial and error. Their adventure consists of learning the ways of biodynamic farming, a technique that is also a form of biomimicry in which the actual biological balance of the ecosystem itself is mimicked in the structure of the farming. By crafting what amounts to a kind of micro-ecosystem, the Chesters hope to prove that farming can be both productive and un-destructive to natural surroundings. But rarely are such ventures easy. Just when the crops appear to be flourishing, pests appear, just when the chicken farm is producing a decent egg output, coyotes strike. Along the way we get to know specific denizens of the farm that stick in the memory, like a loveably trashy rooster named Greasy, and a glorious 650-pound pig named Emma who gives birth to about 13 piglets one night (with John acting as midwife). “Because we dove in fully and wanted it so bad, we were like sponges,” said Molly. “We learned from books, mentors, other farmers. There are other farmers out there trying to do other versions of what we’re doing. And it’s a lot of trial and error.”
“There’s something kind of beautiful about being naïve,” said John. “I think if you have the motivation and the curiosity to go through something, because of your naiveness you might stumble across solutions that otherwise people would miss. I think there’s something beautiful in that. There’s not one way to solve one problem.” In the documentary the challenges surmount because the Chesters refuse to simply adhere to typical solutions. They would like to handle the coyote problem without having to shoot down the animals, although at one point John does get a rifle and comes close to taking action when the situation gets unbearable. And yet there is later a poignant moment where he comes across a coyote that has broken its neck trying to cross an electric fence. It’s almost an epiphany. The Chesters eventually do find an impressive way of using nature’s cycles. Let the ducks from the pond eat the slugs swarming over the crops, let the fly’s larva break down dung that can be turned into manure, let the coyotes take care of the gofers eating crop roots, while big sheep dogs can keep the coyotes at bay from the livestock. This is also how the documentary brings across an ecological message without seeming too preachy. “I hope that it encourages people to stay a little more open to the possibilities that exist in a biologically diverse ecosystem,” said John. “There’s ways to collaborate with it. Controlling it is not the only method.”
Preserver the Chesters do and by the end, Apricot Lane Farms is flourishing, producing organic food for the markets and expanding. “The Biggest Little Farm” hints at becoming an example of what could be if we work more attuned to the natural world. The idea seems to be that the Chesters are just one couple, now imagine if this could outgrow into something bigger in terms of society. “For me the most fulfilling part about this is the healingness of it. In this seemingly ever-connected world that we’re living in, we’re more and more separated from each other, and definitely separated from the greater eco-system that gives us life,” said John. “When you see the way this thing works together to keep us alive, there’s something that just cannot be explained about the serenity that washes over you.”
“The Biggest Little Farm” opens May 10 in select theaters.