The Biggest Little Farm hits the big screen this week following two dreamers and a dog on an odyssey to bring harmony to both their lives and the land.
When the barking of their beloved dog Todd leads to an eviction notice from their tiny LA apartment, John and Molly Chester make a choice that takes them out of the city and onto 200 acres in the foothills of Ventura County, naively endeavouring to build one of the most diverse farms of its kind in complete coexistence with nature.
The land they’ve chosen, however, is utterly depleted of nutrients and suffering from a brutal drought.
The film chronicles eight years of daunting work and outsize idealism as they attempt to create the utopia they seek, planting 10,000 orchard trees and over 200 different crops, and bringing in animals of every kind– including an unforgettable pig named Emma and her best friend, Greasy the rooster.
When the farm’s ecosystem finally begins to reawaken, so does the Chesters’ hope – but as their plan to create perfect harmony takes a series of wild turns, they realise that to survive they will have to reach a far greater understanding of the intricacies and wisdom of nature, and of life itself.
We talk to director John Chester about the upcoming release.
Q: It’s one thing to start farming and it’s another thing to start farming and make a feature-length documentary about the experience. What inspired you to want to make The Biggest Little Farm?
JC: For the first several years that we were running the farm, I was not convinced that our plan to farm the land, rebuild the soil and coexist with nature would even work… So I didn’t want to encourage others to drink the Kool-Aid, and be misled to think this level of collaboration with an ecosystem was possible. But around year five something changed. I saw the return of critical wildlife as well as a variety of insect species that were now serving as predators helping to rebalance the pest infestations that we had been fighting. The real inspiration came when I started to notice how the things that we thought were problems, like certain plants classified as weeds, were actually cycling critical nutrients back into our soil and feeding our fruit trees. The farm was taking what we had started and rebuilding its own complex immune system. We were capturing this story the whole time but I never really committed to the idea of making the film until that year. I remember the day I decided to do it. I was walking in the orchard by a tree that only days before had been completely covered in aphids, a pest that kills plants when it sucks the nectar from certain plants. But now they were all gone. Instead the tree was covered in hundreds of ladybugs, one of its main predators. The ladybugs had returned because we had created a habitat throughout the farm for them to thrive in. It just snowballed from there to one example of return after another and I knew I was ready to tell this story.
Q: How challenging was it to be filming when you were also so deeply immersed in the farming itself?
JC: Doing both was probably the most insane thing I’ve ever done. It’s hard enough to deal with the complexities of a farm let alone shoot what is basically a nature documentary within the ecosystem of a farm. It was also quite challenging on both our farm team and my family especially in the final year of editing. I am so grateful to them for supporting me through this. That final year of post production I had officially taken on too much. I’d be in the barn editing with Amy Overbeck the editor and have to rush out because of a fire, windstorm emergency or troubled livestock birth. Then walk back into the edit covered in various fluids and smells and keep cracking away on the story. The most difficult times were when the emergency would involve the death of a sick animal and I’d find myself returning to the edit room with very little time to process the loss. I’ve got a lot of favorite animals here so none of that is easy.
We were shooting 365 days a year for almost eight years. There was constant tension for me personally between the needs of the farm and the needs of the film. The cool thing about nature and the farm, though, is that they have their own rhythms, so you can anticipate when something is about to happen. It’s all about watching for the routines in nature and being there waiting for it to happen. That’s obviously the secret formula for directing nature docs but funny enough it’s also the most important trick to farming in this way. Observe and anticipate. And both require an extreme level of humility.
It was really challenging to allow myself to film the problems and the mistakes that we were making. I had to shut off the ego and not worry about exposing mistakes. Lots of times we would have interns with us on the farm who became really confident shooters, and they would encourage me to allow them to film things that I was uncomfortable with. I knew that they were right but that was a constant battle that went on in my head. In the end that’s what I’m most proud of, we kept it real.
Q: The Biggest Little Farm was obviously unfolding in real time as you shot it. Given that, what was the most surprising and unexpected thing that you witnessed over the course of that time?
JC: The return of so much wildlife. And then watching that wildlife become integrated into the needs of the farm. It’s just absolutely mind blowing.
Q: It’s clear from the film that one of the largest lessons you learned is that if one is going to be a farmer, it is essential to pay close attention and to see and understand the interconnectedness of everything. I wonder how that lesson has expanded to your wider life?
JC: Albert Einstein said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” It was something he wrote to a friend whose wife had died. The mystery behind the human condition, the infinite possibilities that we see in nature’s complexity, are metaphors not only for how we live but for how we face all obstacles. You need not go any further than understanding the hierarchy of natural systems. They’re not based on right or wrong but on a higher law of consequences. I feel like that’s constantly reflected back to us. We put ourselves in a situation where we are required to understand how we fit in and what level of control we may or may not have.
Q: Farming was clearly the culmination of a dream for you and your wife Molly. So having lived as farmers now for almost a decade, what would you say is the most delightful thing about life as a farmer?
JC: One of the really inspiring things about farming in this way, where we prioritize the cultivation of beauty, is the amount of inspiration and energy we get even in the throes of some of the most difficult challenges and struggles. If you wake up every day and you’re inspired in some visual way—by the type of cow that you farm with or the crops that you intermingle in the fields—if you’re constantly reminded of the remarkable beauty and complexity of nature, then it’s a place you want to be, it’s a place you want to solve problems. Wendell Berry said it best. He said, “It all turns on affection.” We’re never going to see the potential in a troubled person that we do not already first love. And I think for us the cultivation of beauty has allowed us to fall in love with the land in a way that is very different and much more complex and much more unconditional. That has made us willing to stay with it through the hard times. And it’s brought about the opportunity for us to maybe see solutions that we might not have otherwise seen if we didn’t just first and foremost feel intoxicated by the beauty with which we farm.
Q: And what is the hardest thing about life as a farmer?
JC: It never stops.You’re always having to make tough decisions, needing to look out and ask yourself, “Is this going to be mentally and physically sustainable? Financially sustainable? Ecologically sustainable?” You constantly have to make decisions about what is and isn’t working.
Q: The Biggest Little Farm opens with a dramatic wildfire nearby and fires are now being called “the new normal” in California. How is the farm dealing with the threat of fire?
JC: The only thing that we can do as a farm is to make sensible decisions about where we’re going to move animals if and when a fire breaks out. We’ve experienced an intensity in fires around the farm over the last three years, and the fire season is now starting several months earlier than it has in the past. In the last month alone, we’ve had three fires within about ten miles of the farm. The only thing we didn’t have was the seventy-mile-an-hour winds and they’re coming because we get them every October. All we need is the right combo of events—which is what happened with the Thomas Fire and the Carr Fire—and we’re done, regardless of our intent and how honorable we are with nature and the earnestness of our stewardship. We’re not immune to the times that we’re all living in and these massive fires.
Q: All over the world, farmers are dealing with climate change. How do you personally deal on a day-to-day basis with the very real changes that everyone is now seeing from climate change?
JC: We are trying to be an example with our patch of the quilt. If our methods of regeneration have a positive impact and other farms do similar things, the patches on that quilt will spread. Obviously I don’t think that we alone or any one farm alone can change the climate crisis. But I think that if we each do our part for the ecosystem then that will be how we solve the problem—or at least a part of the problem, because I don’t believe it’s all agriculture’s responsibility. But agriculture is pretty significant, especially when it comes to the degradation of soil and the use of glycophosphate to kill “weeds” and grasses out of fear they’re interfering with crops. Those plants are the way that soil is able to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and regenerate and feed the microorganisms that essentially turn death into life.
Q: What are your hopes for The Biggest Little Farm once it’s released?
JC: I hope it also finds its way to younger viewers. While the film might contain some intense scenes, the story is very much for them too. And then I hope that all the viewers will see that a collaboration with nature offers infinite possibilities. Those possibilities that have evolved to perfection over billions of years of evolution. They’ve never stopped working for us, maybe we’ve just been too distracted from seeing them. I don’t want anyone to feel like this film is trying to promote a way, or the only way, to farm. I do hope that it inspires the viewer to trust that nature has the answers for us. And those answers won’t all come at once. It’s taken us a long time to get where we are when it comes to soil degradation and desertification and it’s going to take us time to back out of it. It won’t be any one generation to solve it all. But we have to leave our children the building blocks, the healthy functioning soil system, to continue in a direction that no longer threatens the planet’s natural immune system. The planet itself will be fine, it just might not be a nice place for humans to call home, especially if she sees us as part of the problem. So we just need to decide “what side of her immune system are we on?” I would imagine that our response to that question has consequences.