“For a new generation to be able to simultaneously make a decent living and pursue a profession that they feel is synonymous with how they want to live on this planet is an exceptional opportunity.” – Alan York

By Kristy Jansen

In 2007, a group of my friends and I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle.  This inspired us to plant a massive garden on a quarter acre of a residential ranch that belonged to one couple, and spend several years growing much of the fruit and vegetables we ate ourselves.  We added chickens and a couple of goats to the mix and became weekend and evening horticulturalists. Our shared garden ended after a few years of drought, combined with the rupture of two couple relationships and the death of one of our core friends, but the magic that comes from planting a seed and watching it sprout, grow and fruit over time, and be able to harvest, process and enjoy the produce with friends changed my relationship to food forever.

The ranch where the garden grew is still home to a multitude of chickens and one goat, and we all still enjoy the fresh eggs. This multi-year experience jointly shared by a large group of friends was inspired by a single book. This is the power of art.

The Biggest Little Farm, a fresh documentary directed by John Chester is another such work.  The film tells the story of how novice farmers John and his wife Molly, took a leap of faith, worked their tails off, and created something amazing.  In the end, the film is about taking action to change one’s life, and in the process learning how to heal oneself and the land around you. From the center of one’s heart to the edge of the forest, the land and the spirit rebounds.

 

Todd the Barker
Todd the Barker

After adopting a black mutt who barked too much in 2010, the couple got evicted from their Santa Monica apartment.  Other people would have just moved, or found a new home for Todd the barker. But dreamer and personal chef Molly imagined living a different sort of life closer to the land on a magical farm full of all kinds of life.  John, a nature documentary filmmaker was more skeptical but was ready to give it a try. They wrote a business plan, found some investors and bought a 200-acre citrus farm in Ventura County. Thus began their eight-year journey to create Apricot Lane Farms, and transform it from a mostly dead, arid orchard and grazing patch into one of the lushest, most biodiverse centers of growth in the US.  

As a film, The Biggest Little Farm is a true winner.  It is cinematically gorgeous, with extreme close-ups of tiny critters, and wide vistas of rolling green hillsides.  The storytelling is also fantastic. And while the Chesters went into the project as farming entrepreneurs, with no intention of making a film, eventually they realized they might have a story to tell.  John says that in about year 5, once they started seeing the transformation, he thought, “This is definitely a unique story, and I need to share what I’m seeing.”

The farm they bought had been growing lemons and avocados and grazing horses and after more than 40 years of conventional extractive farming techniques, it had dead soil, dead bees, drying aquifers a few weeds and scraggly citrus trees.  It looked like a typical arid California citrus plantation.

Challenging conventional wisdom on how to be a successful farmer in the 21st century, the Chesters decided to focus on biodynamic principles, or biomimicry, where every aspect of the farm works in sync, feeding off of one another using nature as its guide on what to do, and not to do.  They call in a traditional farming expert – the biodynamic guru Alan York – and he teaches them about rebuilding the soil from the worms up. He teaches them about the magic of biodiversity, of the balance of nature, of the joys of complexity, and that death is part of the cycle of life.  

And with his help, and the help of the financial backers and many volunteers, interns & staff, they build a state of the art worm farm, plant 10,000 trees, grasses and ground cover, get baby chickens, some ducks, sheep, cows, pigs, and guardian dogs to round out the diversity on Apricot Lane Farms.  In the first couple years, the focus is on rebuilding the soil, reclaiming the land from desertification, bringing vital, complex life back to the soil, the land and the plants, animals, and people who live there.

Egret, Apricot Lane Farms
The Egret, photo by Molly on Apricot Lane Farms website

But their journey is not one for the faint of heart.  The work is physical, constant and often the rewards are not immediately evident.  Every time they solve one issue or get a success – like reinvigorated soil and a bumper crop of fruit – the next level of critter shows up to eat it.  But sticking to the principles of regenerative farming, sitting back and observing the whole situation the solution available in nature will present itself.  It takes some time, but nature has ways of balancing out.

Molly is a true believer from the start, but John takes convincing, and the story of the film is also his journey.  This personal evolution is part of what makes the film most compelling. We all can grow and change.

I got the opportunity to hear directly from John after a preview showing with the filmmaker last week at the Riviera Theatre in Santa Barbara.  Roger Durling, Executive Director of the Santa Barbara Film Festival was the primary interviewer, with one or two questions added by me. Here’s a bit of that conversation:


There’s a moment in the story where we start understanding that the weeds that we think are damaging things are actually beneficial. That the problems you’re encountering are actually the solutions. Can you tell us about those discoveries?

John Chester: Weeds are indicators. They’re trying to repair terrestrial landscapes from the decimation of pulling all cover crop off of it, whether we consider it a weed because it’s an unfavorable plant that we just don’t like for some reason, or it’s invasive and takes over. But they’re indicators of what the soil needs. And if we let the system do its own thing, it may take hundreds or thousands of years to rebuild. But we can advance that with our human force of nature, understanding what that soil needs and plant cover crops that actually speed that process along of rebuilding soil, and restoring diverse microorganism ecology back into the land.

It’s funny because at first, I was like, “Oh my gosh. This place has tons of weeds!” And then I realized, “Oh wow. An acre of purslane has 400 pounds of potassium. And also I can sell it at Erewhon. Because people will buy it. And eat it.” Other farmers are spraying it. And killing it. So you start to look completely differently at all those things.

Watching the film, you’ve taught me about embracing conflicts. Specifically embracing nature’s conflicts and addressing them head-on. I find that so inspiring. When in your journey as a filmmaker and as a farmer did you understand that?

JC: Well, that was the stuff that Alan [York] always talked about. It was definitely the mission of what Moll and I hoped we could do: to live in coexistence with nature. But the moment I shot the coyote, I realized I had just completely given up on that. And there were so many other problems where I would look at Molly and we would have these great arguments at night, where neither of us knew the right answer.  Which resulted in a fantastic couple’s therapist around year three. In case you’re wondering how my wife and I survived? That’s how!

What’s important to remember is that throughout the whole entire period of the film, most of what we were feeling was embarrassment and failure. And in that, when we over-corrected, to get out of the feeling of embarrassment, and then because embarrassment then leads to fear, and anger, and resentment amongst your team, or your spouse. The embarrassment moment was the thing where there was a real opportunity to sit in and try to break down the anatomy of the “crime”. And try to understand what was the purpose of the thing that you were seeing as an adversary, or the enemy.  And then ask what are the predators that exist within the laws of biomimicry that can balance those things out?

The problem is is that we’ve all been taught that if you have a problem, there’s a quick solution. And that’s not really how the ecosystem works. And there’s also no such thing as a right and wrong. It’s all based on consequences. You can justify right and wrong all day long, but the consequences are the only real thing to judge by.

You learn very quickly that there is a whole other language of complexity. And I think that is very humbling because you also realize that there is not a simple solution to this stuff. But that realization actually takes away all this responsibility, and this anger, and this resentment that comes from that failure, and the embarrassment.

You’re working as a farmer, which is a challenge enough. And then, at the same time, you’re making this film. And all along it’s an eight-year process. How difficult, or challenging, or was it fun to be making a film and building the farm at the same time?

JC:   Like I said, around year three and four, I really did think, I didn’t know if we were going to make it. Molly will say differently. She’s like a hummingbird high on nectar that I can’t possibly keep up with at times. Her answer’s like, “Well? I think we should just go big, er. Go bigger! I think that’s the answer!”  And I’m like…wait. Like, I wanted to believe Santa was real, but I also didn’t want to find out one day he wasn’t. I think that’s a more masculine role. We’re like, “Yes. I don’t believe in fairy tales, but I’m not going to be fooled when they’re not real!” And I sort of played that role.

We had amassed 90 terabytes of footage. That’s a lot of footage. But we did it incrementally over a period of eight years. There were interns on the farm through the first five years that just naturally were documenting the experience.  It’s amazing that they even know how to work Final Cut Pro because they’re like business majors! And so I had these interns that were really interested. Two of them…actually, a couple more than that. And they were shooting stuff on iPhones, on C300s, and geek alley stuff. Eventually, we got the Amira. We got epic 4K cameras eventually. But they were just amassing this footage, so we didn’t feel a lot of stress at that point.

But around year five when I made the serious commitment to do it. I did think it was really difficult because I would be in the editing room and there would be a veterinary emergency. I’d have to go out and deal with that. I’d come back covered in fluids, a fire was breaking out and then we’d have to upload our drives and evacuate the drives while I’m also moving animals. And that’s when I was like… what am I doing?

Well, my childhood set me up for this. Because I lived in a really chaotic household, and the way I dealt with it was denial and complete numbness. I was okay. But I was watching people around me fall apart. And I realized that’s an unhealthy thing. So I’ll never put my crew or my family through it again. It was very difficult in those last three years.

So you weren’t filming and editing at the same time? And you’re basically telling me that there was no room for processing what was actually happening?

JC: That’s what our couple’s therapist was for.  (Laughing) But one thing that’s strange, and it’s a really good point. Molly and I talk about this a lot. We spend a lot of time really not knowing how to deal with a problem. And the first thing we try to do is say, “All right. I’m really scared.” And I think what that actually does, is it actually does the same thing that a flower does to a bee. It actually draws support to you. And so the more honest we’ve been able to make ourselves and our crew with those moments, the more we’ve actually come together as a team to solve problems. That’s what helped most in the middle of what was really a very chaotic eight years. And especially those last three.

You start the movie with fires. And now fires have become the new normal in our environment, especially here in California. How are you dealing as a farmer with the fires?

JC: We’ve been really fortunate. There are probably people reading this that have lost homes. We’ve been very fortunate. But when there are those big fires, you don’t hear about all the small fires that are breaking out, as some of you know. It’s like a war zone, right?  Here are three fires on the perimeter of our property.  No one heard about those, while the Thomas fire was going on. We’ve been lucky, so far, because the wind, just hasn’t come from north-northeast. Once that fire comes from north-northeast, where the Santa Anas come from, then we’re going to be in danger like everyone else.

I understand them a little bit better now. We all do. We irrigate stuff, so we’re a little insulated. But a blowtorch can burn through anything, with enough time. So I wouldn’t say that we’re foolproof on it, but we know where to evac the animals now. We have a drill because we’ve been through it so many times. I don’t know. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t know if this is the new normal. I think things are cyclical.

I’m not saying that they’re not man-made, but these aren’t man-made issues that have forced the rebalance of the planetary ecosystem, which is the immune system, right? We’re watching [the Earth’s] immunological responses. That’s what an ecosystem is. It’s doing everything as a consequence to many other things that happened before. Maybe even before our time. But we have the power to maybe even have a hand in reversing it.

What is it like working under an ecosystem that is constantly under assault of climate change?

JC: I heard that true north is changing. That magnetic north is changing. If we live long enough, biology is constantly changing. I think that it’s funny that we talk about what is the economic sustainability of regenerative farming.

Are you saying that asking about the economic sustainability of regenerative farming is the wrong question?  In a 1997 interview, Alan York predicted that “when we have the advantage to look back on this with the perspective of time, this era of “modern agriculture” will be seen as the shortest-lived system that has ever been pursued.”  Is that the point you’re making?

JC: I’ve got to say, that’s kind of the ideology of cancer. It figures out how to live forever without ever acknowledging that it’s draining the host that ultimately if it’s not stopped, it will kill. And with it, cancer dies too. I think that we’ve gotten here… There’s this really cool analogy, if I could for a second.

Have you ever heard of taking the 4.5 billion years that the earth’s been around, and you compress it to a calendar year? Homo sapiens didn’t show up in the history of the earth, until like the last twenty or so minutes. On December 31st. And then, agriculture I guess, from what I’ve read, was started say, over ripping into the land, actually that we could grow stuff if we forced something to grow here… The last minute or so. But the Industrial Revolution, where we mechanized things… Didn’t happen until the last two seconds. On December 31st. And in that time, we’ve destroyed one-third of our topsoils. We’ve deforested 46% of our trees. For the sake of argument, something happened where the CO2 levels in our atmosphere doubled from 260 to over 400 parts per million, in two seconds. And we did that unconsciously. Just like cancer.

But we’re not cancer. We’re conscious. And I think that when we’re conscious, our force of nature has a far more superior outcome, and can expedite the return and the rebuilding of something.

Because let me give you another example. If two people from the city who knew nothing about this stuff… And we came to a farm that had been farmed 45 years through extractive methods, to grow cheap food, and destroy the soils. Then we came in with consciousness, and the help of some investors, but we returned it to better than what it was, in seven years. I think there’s incredible hope in the human force of nature when it’s conscious.

One of the things I greatly admire about the film, and about you and Molly, is that you seem to find inspiration and energy despite challenges and struggles. Where do you think that inspiration and energy were coming from?

JC:  I don’t know. My son’s four. I don’t know. I’ve always been, the same with Molly, there is a degree of tenaciousness in us, and, I think reverence. In documentary filmmaking, you get to go under these different worlds. And you realize that my job as a storyteller was always to humanize these people that were bigger than life. And in that process of humanizing them, I realized that they were human. And that they didn’t always know perfectly all the answers.

And in some way, I think that’s shown me that there’s a lot of room for just courage. And being audacious enough to think that you might actually be able to do something that you have no right thinking you can do.

One of the reasons I made the film and this is I think a hopeful thing, is that it wasn’t a polarizing story. It was intentional not to make it about climate change. One of the executive producers of the film, Laurie David, had produced Inconvenient Truth. I don’t think that stuff works. I don’t think to scare the hell out of people changes anything. It narrows our perspective. It doesn’t allow us to be more open and see more. We get really angry at one side. The other side gets more closed off. The polarization destroys the innovation, that communication pathways are dependent upon.

The Biggest Little Farm, this film that you made with Molly, is now a blueprint for better living and for us, taking care of our planet. Was that something all along you were hoping for?

JC: Let me just say that there are farmers that are far more experienced than Molly and I at doing this, and have been doing it for longer. And there are farmers that started in the late ’60s, even ’70s, with this idea of what organic now has become. And we have borrowed from all of those visionaries.  I know I’m a better storyteller than most farmers because that’s what I did for 25 years, 30 years. But there are so many other people that are greater teachers than us.

What I think we showed was a version of the way. I think it’s unique to our farm, on our piece of land, with our circumstances, and our partnership with our investor. And that changes. But what it is a model for, is that the more beautifully complex and diverse an ecosystem is, the more possibilities there are to collaborate with it.

What was the most surprising thing that happened while you were filming?

JC:  Well first of all, when we put those wildlife cameras out there, I didn’t look at that footage for six months. We just kept amassing it. And then we watched and were like, “Oh, my God! These things are out there. We have bobcats?” I had never seen a badger before. Badgers are that little thing with a limp. They’re the meanest sons of… I’m more scared of badgers than rattlesnakes and mountain lions combined. But they tunnel under the ground and eat gophers from the bottom. They are vicious. And we have a lot of badgers. When I see those holes, I’m always like, “Okay. Make sure my son stays away from those things.” But I think that and also I didn’t know I have, we estimate there are probably like 15 coyotes on the property. And I didn’t know that and there was a time where I was like, do I have to still kill coyotes because I killed that one. And I’m like, “I can’t just kill 15 coyotes. That just doesn’t make sense.”

But then on the flip side, this is the interesting thing… We watched 350 chickens die. We had to face our intern, our team, being like, “Well how can you let 350 chickens die? You want to coexist with nature!?!” It’s all about lesser of two evils. This stuff is very complicated. I don’t know if I made the right choice always. I feel good about where it landed, but I couldn’t have told you then and there that was the decision that was going to make sense.

And what about the farm itself? What was the most surprising thing that you have learned?

And that’s why I said I don’t want to come from on high with this. We don’t have it all figured out. There’s still a lot of problems. I just think I’m more comfortable with the fact that this is just what it is. And you have to be accepting of this comfortable level of disharmony. There are coyotes in all of our lives, and we have to find their role or get rid of them. But there is potentially something incredibly valuable about that.

And I think, getting to the point, all right? The most surprising thing to me was how much Molly and I both learned about life. And the permanence of life teaching us so much about what life really is. It was so profound for me. I think that was the most surprising thing to come out of all of this. I didn’t expect to have this. To have this opportunity to talk in front of people about it, and to be talking about it, from the perspective of the human condition. I didn’t think I had anything to say. But that’s what I think has been gifted to me by this experience.

To learn more about the film, The Biggest Little Farm, including to find where it is showing near you please check out the film website:  Biggest Little Farm Movie (NEON)

to learn more about Apricot Lane Farms, including finding out how you can get involved, please check out their website here: Apricot Lane Farms

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