Persevering Humility Brings Hope, Joy in ‘The Biggest Little Farm’
Reminding us of the beauty of nature, the blessings from God’s creation and creatures, as well as the rewards of working with nature, the award-winning documentary film, The Biggest Little Farm, is a must-see.
The movie is a suspenseful and emotional true story of John and Molly Chester, who because they are evicted from their Los Angeles apartment due to their barking dog, decide to build a dream farm outside of L.A. However, the 200-acre land they choose is depleted and suffering from drought.
Audiences follow their daunting but fascinating eight-year journey of planting 10,000 orchard trees and over 200 different crops, as well as caring for animals of every kind which include an unforgettable pig, Emma, and her best friend, Greasy, the rooster. Viewers experience the heartaches and joys of John and Molly Chester, as they encounter and endure torrential weather, damaging insects, and coyotes who are killing their livestock.
When their Apricot Lane Farms’ ecosystem finally begins to reawaken, so does the Chesters’ hope. As their plan to create perfect harmony with nature takes surprising wild turns, they realize that to survive they will have to reach a far greater understanding of the intricacies and wisdom of nature and even of life itself. They embrace the challenges of conflicts with nature to unlock and uncover a biodiverse design for living that exists far beyond their farm, its seasons, and wildest imaginations.
This film features breathtaking cinematography, captivating animals, and an urgent message to heed Mother Nature’s call, providing a vital blueprint for better living and a healthier planet. John Chester, who owns Apricot Lane Farms with his wife Molly, is also the director for this charming film about the reawakening and reimagining of the farm. John has been an award-winning filmmaker and television director for the last 25 years. Alongside his feature documentary work, it was the time he spent traveling the world as a wildlife filmmaker with Animal Planet and ITV Wildlife shows that inspired his interest in the complex interworking of ecosystems. This curiosity has served him well on Apricot Lane Farms, the biodynamic and regenerative farm he and his wife started in 2010.
An exclusive interview with
documentarian John Chester
SCH: How did you approach documenting your experiences from city to farm with its challenges and final rewards?
JC: I filmed for the whole eight years, but I did not know if a story was there until the fifth year. Then the last three years I was more involved in planning, although I saw God as the Director.
SCH: What surprised you most with his eight-year adventure?
JC: Personally, I did not know how humbling it would be; but I came to understand and experience a freedom in humility. I was surprised that it was okay to mess up, to be embarrassed, and that I needed to understand the enemy. I was surprised by how fully I could express creative impulses in farming.
SCH: Did you sense as time went on that you were uncovering a Master Plan in nature?
JC: I experienced a profound reverence for what I discovered. I came to accept laws of consequences.
SCH: What kind of a sense of purpose did you develop?
JC: I saw that I need to concentrate, focus on my own patch of land. This is enough. What is in front of us is enough. I need to listen, stay vulnerable, and keep open on my own patch of land. I have found that women tend to have these virtues more naturally. Men tend to want to fix others. My own patch of land is complex enough.
SCH: What did you experience with making a nature documentary?
JC: I was fortunate in those eight years to see patterns and rhythms repeating themselves. It took eight years to see and film the rituals, such as Greasy, the Roster’s dance ritual with Emma the pig.
SCH: What were some special sources of support in developing the farm and the film?
JC: We had two full-time workers and nine volunteers who rotated in and out. These young interns were innovators who were learning ways around challenges and learning that failure is to be embraced.
SCH: What are some life lessons you have learned from this experience?
JC: I have learned that humans do not have to be a cancer on our planet. Human forces of nature when conscious are more powerful than our human transgressions. We were able to reverse the health of our farm in seven years.
SCH: Have you been pleased with how well your film has been received?
JC: Yes, it is rolling out more and more throughout this country and into the world, as it is well received.
SCH: What can each of us do to improve the planet?
JC: Each of us need to work at improving our own patch of land. All can support their local farms and compost on their own patch of ground. Each of us can find out what works in our own place.
John further elaborates on the challenge and turning point in both developing a farm and making at the same time a feature-length documentary about the experience. He says, “ …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 …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.”
He adds: “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.”
John also discusses the challenge of filming and farming at the same time. He says, “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.”
Further, John addresses the most surprising and unexpected things he witnessed during this eight-year journey. He states that it was “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.”
John shares how he learned that it is imperative for a farmer to pay close attention and to see and understand the interconnectedness of everything. He tells that “… 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.”
Finally, John tells how farming was the culmination of a dream for his wife Molly and himself.
He states, “…One of the really inspiring things about farming in this way…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.”
Molly Chester adds, “… what we’re doing on the farm is different, out-of-the-box from what is commonly seen and known. We’re allowing the voice of another way to exist, allowing regenerative agriculture to have a place in the more general conversation on agriculture…I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what I wanted to see at the farm. It’s been fascinating to see how that has evolved and deepened within me. You get intimately intertwined with nature and your surroundings. You have to go deep, and it gets hard. But the hardness doesn’t necessarily come from, ‘Oh, it’s hard work to farm.’ That is one thing, but it’s also that when you are coexisting with nature, nature throws you curveballs constantly. It’s a very gritty and raw experience to work with biology. I think that experience has awakened my spirit to a connection with nature I didn’t even know I was missing. That’s been really beautiful. And it’s been wonderful to see dreams become reality and to see how working with a team forms something bigger than you ever could’ve imagined. To be honest, the farm has exceeded my wildest dreams and that’s been humbling and awe-inspiring.”
She says that the greatest lesson she has discovered from the land has been “…That conquering doesn’t work, that the focus isn’t eradication or winning – it’s collaboration and understanding. You’re always trying to figure out what purpose something serves and how you can channel it into that purpose so that it takes the pressure off of everything else and things can fall into alignment. You have to watch and be observant. Something is always going to be causing ‘problems’ but they’re not really problems, they’re just teaching you what the land needs. They’re your next place to find greater harmony.”
Finally, Molly says that “…The most delightful part of farming for me is that there is an innate freedom within it and a daily experience of beauty, especially at this farm because it’s so beautiful. Everywhere you turn there’s a flower that blows your mind or butterflies in the air or the grass looks extra green because of the way that the sun is hitting it. Nature is your boss and you’re doing what needs to be done to make it all work. Freedom is something I’ve always valued a lot. Having a sense of freedom within such magnificent beauty is a thing that I really love…”
As this lovely film rolls out in more and more theaters, find a cinema near you to see it!