When my husband and I moved to Des Moines, Iowa after a lifetime of Chicago living, it was a joy to drive out into farmland with my friend Cathy, to hear cows mooing, to find a garden center connected to a farm where you could buy the hardiest of cultivars for your own garden. I have always enjoyed “digging in the dirt” but my gardening prowess is limited. In Chicago I grew better vegetables in my backyard than I ever did in Iowa. Why? The deer ate my attempts.
Animals, pests, soil, weather–those of are just some of the challenges that John and Molly Chester encountered when they decided to leave their current jobs and small apartment in Santa Monica, California, to purchase acres of land not too far from where my husband and I now live. Their goal: to dive into organic farming, to live the green life and provide a home for their dog and the children they were anxious to have.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM: Apricot Lane Farms, Moorpark, California
“It’s so good for surrender, for (people with) control personalities,” Molly told LA TIMES reporter Bonnie McCarthey. “It’s a bit of a zen practice.”
And watching the film, THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM, you know that Molly and John Chester had to decide from the beginning that this was “game on” and no matter what nature threw at them, they would not give up. Nature was ready for the fight. And they would have to stay as calm as possible, keep working, and yes, throw in a little zen practice along the way.
THE ROOTS OF THE DREAM
When John and Molly rescued the dog they fell in love with, he missed them, barked all day while they were at work. Eventually, they were evicted. Then ah, an idea…the dog would do well on a farm…
“I had worked on a couple of family farms,” John said, “but they were…industrial, sort of commercial mono-crop operations, growing corn, soy for…chickens, but no understanding of soil or the importance of biodiversity or how the whole ecosystem went together. It was all about suppressing…the ecosystem and controlling it and fighting it.”
The film relates the beauty and tenacity of the Chesters’ endeavors. They wanted to honor farming of the past, farming before it was driven by the dollar and had abandoned past practices for chemicals and machinery. They called their land Apricot Lane Farms and it grew and eventually thrived–because of their vision and because of the guidance of a man, Alan York, who knew that with knowledge and patience, nature would help and not hinder.
Alan became their advisor. As John says: “His goal for us was to maximize the biological diversity of our farm, you know, through the use of plants, animals, wildlife and the restoration of wildlife habitat. So he was encouraging us to start a 10-ring circus.”
NATURE AND FARMING: Who will win?
The Chesters became accustomed to the struggle. If the irrigation system wasn’t providing enough moisture, then dig a pond. If snails begin to kill your fruit tress, then introduce a creature who eats snails. Because nature has its balance, but you need someone like Alan York to help you know what that balance is. Coyotes were a huge problem. Enter a family dog. And when your prize female pig is ill and could die, call the vet and do some praying. (You could even create some children’s books about that particular event).
ONE PEST AFTER ANOTHER
When NPR’s Fresh Air heard about the farm, they sent Dave Davies to interview the Chesters. Much of the discussion was fueled by the struggle, the balance of nature. You introduce one thing to the farm, like fruit trees, and a pest almost immediately appears.
John Chester: The snails, you know, eat the leaves of our citrus trees. And that created the worst gopher problem in probably Ventura County. If someone could tell me what I could do with gophers, we would be in the black a lot sooner. Gophers in small quantities can be good. They’re tilling your soil. They’re actually helping transfer and inoculate various funguses that are important to soil health and bacteria. But …they start eating the roots. So we tried to fight the gopher problem with manpower…trapping gophers.
It wasn’t until Year 5 that we realized that there are things in the ecosystem that manage gophers, like barn owls.
And then: Well, the coyotes ate about 350 of our chickens. That required finding a family dog that could deal with the coyotes. Nature is – they’re simple opportunists, and you just need to make it slightly harder on one side so that they go the other direction. It sometimes doesn’t require as much effort as you think.
THE FUTURE OF FARMING from John Chester’s Point of View
“If we don’t start working with our land in a more regenerative way, can the planet feed us? …just in the last 260 years, we’ve destroyed more than a third of the topsoil. We’ve deforested 46% of the trees. We’ve doubled CO2 from 260 to 400 parts per million. We are an incredible force of nature, humans. And we’ve done all of that unconsciously. And just imagine with consciousness for the infinite possibilities of collaboration with nature. Imagine what we could do with that.”
HARD WORK THAT CREATED A PARADISE
Now my husband John and I plan to visit. After all, it’s just “up the road” from us.
As Bonnie McCarthy writes: After driving through gridlocked Los Angeles traffic, however, and arriving at the farm on a soft spring afternoon as new lambs played in an orchard laced with wildflowers and the scent of sage and citrus blossoms mingled on a gentle breeze, it was hard to imagine the harsher realities.
Apricot Lane is one of only 66 farms in California to be certified biodynamic by Demeter U.S., representing the oldest agricultural certification program in the world. Biodynamic farms are intended to establish uniquely different microclimates and native habitats, which means there is no handbook for how to do it. It’s a holistic approach in which every animal, plant, pest and poop on the farm serves a purpose — everything contributes to a self-sustaining life cycle. There are also no added hormones, synthetic pesticides or fertilizers or GMOs allowed.
Photo Credit: The Biggest Little Farm can be seen on Netflix
Since its debut at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival, The Biggest Little Farm has charmed audiences and critics alike with its chronicle of one couple’s trial-and-error attempts to build a farm in harmony with nature.