The Biggest Little Farm: Evicted from Santa Monica

The Biggest Little Farm (2019)
Directed by John Chester
Neon Films, 92 minutes, PG.

I think Emily and I may have been the last two people in the Connecticut River Valley to have seen this film. If you live outside of the region, it’s a feel-good documentary about one couple’s decision to leave the L.A. rat race and dive head first into organic farming.

It could have been subtitled “Evicted from Santa Monica.” John Chester is an accomplished figure in the greater Hollywood film industry. In 2011, he and his wife Molly, a private chef, adopted a rescue dog named Todd. Todd was a “barker,” a talent unpopular with neighbors. The Chesters were eventually evicted from their apartment and decided to tap into their savings to pursue Molly’s dream of living on an organic farm. The Biggest Little Farm documents their 7-year struggle to bring Molly’s dream to realization on Apricot Lane Farms, a 230-acre mixed-use holding in Moorpark, California, about 40 miles from Los Angeles.

Before I interject skeptical notes, let me say that I liked this film and I understand why it is so beloved. I admire what the Chesters did and they are right that among the things we must do to save the planet is discover ways to live in harmony with Mother Nature. Bolivian president Evo Morales put it best, “What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans.” A lot of young folks here in Western Massachusetts are deeply interested in sustainable farming and distrust the industrial agriculture complex that rapes the land, relies upon toxic chemicals, and is more concerned with shelf life, scale, and profit than resource management, product taste, or consumer safety. I find those youthful values admirable and their efforts heroic.

If you want to make a film like Biggest Little Farm, it helps to have a filmmaker, cameraman, and cinematographer on board, which is what John Chester was before he also became a farmer. He knows how to build drama, wring emotion from an audience, and cut and sequence raw footage. What we see on the screen took 16 months to edit and assemble. If you think you can’t get nervous about a pig giving birth, shed tears over a scraggly rooster, or get excited by a hand full of worms, see this film and get back to me.

What the film does best is drive home the message that living in harmony with nature is both an act of surrender and one of balance. Life and death are integral to farming; when a coyote kills sheep, you slice away the pelts and move on. Do not get overly attached to that ever-so-cute calf that you will one day butcher and consume. Sustainability also requires a rewiring of standard operating procedure. What’s the first thing most farmers do when coyotes kill livestock? Easy: Load the guns and set out poison bait traps. Problem: Kill all the coyotes and you have a rabbit problem. Solution: Accept that a balanced number of mutton- and poultry- eating coyotes are necessary. Love fruit? So do snails if the trees aren’t sprayed. But there’s an answer; snails are like crack cocaine for free-waddling ducks. Are gophers undermining root structures? Build owl houses.

Once we get past the drama, herculean labor, and ingenuity, different sorts of balance conundra emerge that highlight the gap between what we wish to see and what is left unexplained. First, there are a few internal personnel issues. The Chesters’ role model was the late Alan York, who may have been wise and prescient about all things biodiversity, but comes across as beloved but also like a blissed-out cross between a hippie and a guru. Maybe you have to be from California to get him, but to this Easterner he seemed more flake than prophet. Second, the farm was Molly’s dream, but the movie quickly places John at its center and reduces Molly to the often-peripheral role of worrier and Earth Mother. Finally, there is only an oblique reference to the fact that Apricot Lane Farms has a staff of 60. This makes it a small big farm, not a big small one.

One should also acknowledge that John Chester so skillfully assembled the film that it takes a sharp eye to recognize its Edenic qualities. There really isn’t any drama as to whether the farm will succeed. It is telegraphed in part by the drone shots of the lush concentric circle orchards. It is even more overtly presaged with an early establishing shot of a green pasture in which sheep and other farm animals lie contently in the grass as a venomous snake slithers among them. Check out Edward Hicks’ famed painting “Peaceable Kingdom” and you can infer divine sanction of the experiment.

Here’s the biggest little lie of the film. What you really need to replicate what the Chesters did are deep-pocketed investors. The land wasn’t really as barren as the documentary implies. Yes, the soil needed revitalization, but most of the property was run-down, not dead. Conspicuously absent from the film are specifics about money. Those who’ve looked into this say that the farm’s purchase price was a cool $10.5 million. I would imagine it also cost quite a sum to build the state of the art composting facility that led to soil replenishment. How much more to buy animals, farm machinery, seedlings, feed, fencing, and miscellaneous supplies? There is a reference to crowd sourcing, but that could not have paid the bills. Who are the mysterious “investors” who are merely mentioned? I’d like to know, because we need thousands more of their like before Apricot Lane Farms can be replicated on a significant scale*.

Let me reiterate that I admired John and Molly. I also admired the film. It is an inspiration, but let no one blindly see it as a blueprint. It is where we should go, but not where most can go at this moment in time**.

Rob Weir

*The investors must be in for a really long haul. The farm’s classification is that it makes less than $250,000 revenue per year.

**Here’s something that’s more immediately attainable. As we strolled through the fields of our CSA farm share in late August, every step among the cherry tomatoes raised dozens of birds. Clouds of butterflies and bees were busy amidst the flowers in the adjacent field. Hawks soared above the mountain ridge on the other side of the road. If you build habitats, Mother Nature’s creatures will come.


Anonymous said...

They lost me 10 minutes into the film when they admitted disguising their problem dog as a service animal. That was disgustingly Californian. Then the clearly obvious crazy money they had to play with. No a fan.

Unknown said...

sorry Anonymous but I absolutely loved the movie. i'm a frustrated city farmer from Ohio who moved to The Superior Forest in Mn. 30 years ago as my way of leaving the "rat race" I love my woods style of life but almost impossible to grow anything thanks to such a short growing season and no soil. Only rocks. Thank heavens for our Co-Op,

Adal said...

Beautiful story. But clearly not attainable for most.

Hildie said...

I loved the story and the goals of sustainability. It is clearly inspiring, ideal and feeds pursuing one's dreams as possible. Seeing something on the horizon each day you awaken keeps hope alive. One doesn't inspire if you lead with the unattainability for most. That's a different story of how to live cooperatively, with equanimity and the ability to vote to preserve life, flora and fauna(including humans).

Farmer Girl said...

Beautiful inspiring story. It doesn't have to be for everyone to be inspiring. It's their story and it's a good one.

EthicsOne said...

Reminiscent of Isabella Tree’s story in her book, Rewilding. Perhaps not attainable for all but if you have deep pockets, how about this instead of billionaires taking joyrides into space?

Unknown said...

Amen to your comment, "...how about this instead of billionaires taking joyrides into space?"

Dvic said...

That's it. Hope it inspires the richest ones... 🙏

Anonymous said...

How about”live and let live”

Anonymous said...

Growing food costs money and this is at least as profitable as corporate nitrogen field and factory farming.

One must recognize that he U.S. government directly subsidizes corporate farming with cash funding. Externalized financial costs include billions in health care from people eating the unhealthy, disease causing food and the eutrophication of the U.S. water ways and oceans merging with water at river deltas.

Anonymous said...

I get it. I judiciously clean and fill hummingbird feeders to the delight of a beautiful swarm of birds...but the more work I have put into properly cultivating and nurturing the collection of hanging baskets around my house, I have observed the birds have all but abandoned the synthetic simple syrup made with table sugar for the natural nectar in the flowers. Nature can truly work in harmony with itself if we let it, or help it heal the wounds that our interventions have caused. I am old enough to know better and a card-carrying conservative, but this movie had me in tears and ready to sign up at the local recruitning office.

Anonymous said...

I met Alan York 1981 where he and Hilmar Moore worked to create a beautiful biodynamic garden in South field, Michigan
He knew what he was doing then and never stopped learning. Wealthy people can invest in all sorts of foolish things, so whoever they were who put their funds behind this project, bless them.

Anonymous said...

Spot on observations about this farm. I would love to see the business plan that has this family as caretakers of an (easily) $20M operation, I have little doubt that the business proposal included not only the millions in upgrades but this documentary, the ongoing and increasing agrotourism opportunities and the lavishly constructed website for the farm.

They have cultivated the additional revenue external to the farm to an extent that makes all of the branded youtubers in Christendom jealous. Each yearns for the revenue from promoting the permaculture/silvopasture/sustainability fields, who keep the churn up by going on each other's podcasts and by being featured in each other's blog posts. This is an admirable Disney-level application of verisimilitude. No contest, the most fecund fertilizer applied to this farmland is Investor Millions. Sadly, in permaculture at anything more than a sustaining level, there will never be any substitute for it.

Anonymous said...

You have to have people who can afford joy rides in space in order for those who spend millions, at a loss to do the research, can continue to do research and development that benefits society in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Anonymous said...

Via the internet...

In 2004, Chester created and starred in a 10-episode, one-season reality TV series called "Random 1" that chronicled the efforts of him and a personal trainer driving around in a beat-up pickup truck doing random favors for strangers in need. They were supported by a team of researchers/producers in an RV (including his wife-to-be Molly Schrecengost).

This led to a follow-up feature doc in 2007 called "Lost in Woonsocket" that continued following the contrasting stories of two men with substance abuse problems that they helped get into rehab in an early episode of Random 1.

One of the "Lost in Woonsocket" characters was then featured by Oprah in her media properties, including a bit for "Super Soul Sunday."

Around late 2009 or early 2010, Chester excitedly posted on one of his social media accounts about a meeting in Chicago with an "angel investor" who agreed to fund a dream film project that he and his new wife Molly had been developing during the intervening years they were living in Santa Monica, while he was working on various unrelated documentary projects.

Sometime between 2010 and 2011, Chester deleted/deactivated all of his existing personal social media accounts, directing followers instead to his professional website. (He now has verified accounts.)

In 2010 Oprah's HARPO Productions was headquartered in Chicago (it relocated to LA in 2015).

A couple years later, Chester's shorts about the farm started showing up on Oprah's "Super Soul Sunday" interstitials, which won several Emmys.

Oprah is on the record about having an interest biodynamic farming, and has owned one in Maui, Hawaii since at least 2013.

Linda said...

We're viewing the movie from a capitalist perspective. The 'realistic' way of seeing the world. The one we’re all trained in.

For me the money issue was irrelevant.The return of life to a lifeless farm, the owls, coyotes, bird, the lush biodiversity and food production. I could almost smell the increased carbon content of the soil. It's not about how much it cost to achieve, but that it could be achieved. It’s going to take a long time to undo the way we make decisions. It’s why it’s necessary to change the economic system to incentivize a flourishing, eudaimonious planet. And when the priority changes from economic growth to ecological the whole ballgame changes. We’re not fighting against an opposing paradigm; trying to save a planet with an economic system that eats it, we’re working in tandem. If we did this the Biggest Little Farm will have one hell of a lot of neighbours. The failure here, is capitalism and eternal growth.

Anonymous said...

“benefits society in ways we can’t imagine”. This is a religious belief, not a historical analysis, and it’s a stupid religious belief at that. Those wealthy joy riders are damaging the planet in a million horrifying ways that we can see with our eyes and don’t need to imagine. Your belief in their unimaginable future contributions is as ridiculous as a belief in the Rapture or the FSM.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for all of the insight from the comments. I am passionate about a planet that returns to the ways of the naturalists and the demise of the corporation in our food chain.

Anonymous said...

I think it's funny that y'all actually think...
1. This planet needs saving
2. And that you actually think we can do it.
Capitalism rocks
Free market society, that's what makes us, well better than other countries.
Billionaires don't owe you or I a damn thing. They worked for it, let them spend how they want.
If you make a billion, then go give it all away. Stop telling other people what they should do with their money.
Oh, and yes.... The rapture is real. You will find out one day. This is a guarantee!

David across the pond said...

This could be achieved everywhere on farms all over the globe. Farmers could slowly adapt and change their ways of farming in a well coordinated and thought out way of their own land.
Neighbouring farms changing too would all speed up the process of nature energising each area of land as biodiversity gains it rightful place healing what we have created with mono farming. The cost for farming this way would decrease. Money and fuel transporting mono culture distribution would decrease because of local diversity. Carbon would be captured in the soil reducing global warming massively with less ploughing of soil.
Billionaire's is a disease and they will never be as happy chasing money as the humble soul is surrounded by what we are born into. That's what we need to leave for the future.
Technology and the natural world can be a married and stay together forever 💚

Anonymous said...

We enjoyed watching it... whoever made it monetarily possible - it still is beautiful. Hard work is hard work.
I would much rather eat from their yard than whatever I can buy from a supermarket!

Anonymous said...

I am in the process of great life transition. Three beloved people died in dec including my very best fried. Plus I now need to move bcuz I can no longer afford my apt. A lot to consider and process. This film helped me realize the ebb and flow of life, where there is a will there is a way, stay tune to the process and much more. I realize my comment isn’t abt the film’s story as to how much it resonated with my life story now. Great film. Loved it. Thank you ❤️