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.


Small Towns: Chester, Vermont

Have you ever spent time in a big city where absolutely nothing makes you wish to linger? Chester, Vermont is its opposite–a wee place where you drive in, begin to wander, and before you know it you've wiled away most of the day. That's fancy sleight of hand for a place with just a tick over 3,100 people that are pretty well dispersed.

It helps that this Windsor County village lies in a valley in the shadow of Okemo and Mount Snow, to which skiers flock when the white stuff is on the ground. In the winter Chester is a popular après-ski destination, which helps explain why it has an outsized number of inns and motels. The village's small shop row spreads like wings from the Fullerton Inn, which dates to 1885 and replaced an even older building. The nearby Inn Victoria serves high tea for those who want elegance with their crumpets. It's easy to imagine after hours thick-sweatered mogul hoppers stretched out before a fire and recapping adventures. But this doesn’t explain how Chester manages to be both quiet and vibrant during the Dog Days of August when we visited.

Architecture lovers tend to drive toward Chester Depot to see the Stone Village Historic District. As advertised, it's a collection of homes constructed of local granite. This was something of an "ooookay" ho-hum experience for me. (Would anyone break out the camera if they were made of brick?) I much preferred the old railway station. During what Vermonters call Leaf-Peeping Season, the ironically named Green Mountain Flyer crawls between Chester and Rockingham, but in the summer only the odd freight train rolls past. There's a time machine feel to standing by the station and looking across to a well-worn 1849 market. That's about all the commercial activity there is in Chester Depot, but it's more authentic than the Vermont Country Store in nearby Rockingham.

We made our way back to the village proper and admired the graceful historic homes along Route 103, many of which have been lovingly restored. There are several stunning Victorians with fancy woodwork and frills and there's even what some claim to be Vermont's oldest Georgian home. The vest pocket downtown has galleries, gift shops, eateries, and one-of-a-kind specialty stores that make you understand why locals fought so hard to keep the Dollar General Store out of the village limits. Don't forget to cross the street and saunter among the old stones in the cemetery. You'll be amazed by the longevity of Colonial and Early American residents. I always like to search for unusual gravestone carvings.  

Chester enjoys a reputation for being a pretty good food town. We gather that The Free Range is superb for dinner, but we weren't there in the evening. Instead, we treated ourselves to a hearty lunch at MacLaomainn's Scottish Pub. How often do you get a chance to quench your thirst with Scottish beers on tap? The pub grub is good and, yes, I did order haggis, neeps, and tatties. I enjoyed every bite. The owner is indeed Scottish and there's a modest Clan Hall for functions in the rear of the pub.   

If you wish to take an excursion to nearby Ludlow, a very easy stroll to Buttermilk Falls takes you to a popular summer swimming hole and a photogenic cascade. We then made our way back to Chester and headed for I-91 via the village of Rockingham. Its biggest draw is the aforementioned Vermont Country Store, where we had decent-but-not-transcendent soft serve ice cream. In the store you'll find all manner of candy, foodstuff, clothing, and toys–much of it things you've not seen in decades. That's deservedly so in some cases, but it's nonetheless a hoot. There's also an old mill on the property with a working waterwheel. Do detour to the 18th century Rockingham Meetinghouse, a former Congregational Church and town hall that's a National Historic Landmark. It's a tranquil and picturesque spot.

We were amazed by how much we absorbed in such a small area. Back in Northampton we learned that two friends whom we assumed married in California where they used to live actually tied the knot at the Fullerton Inn. Small town. Small world.

Rob Weir


Gems from the Strong: Click image for bigger size

Note the 'wholesome' imagery
Strange fish in tank.
Mr. Trump in the White House with a stilleto
When I was a kid, we used real potatoes!

Steady hand needed. Abandoned MD dreams!
Wish I had this one!

Love me tender, love me true...
This one looks like the goal is to emasculate the cop
Note the connection between play and propaganda

Here's why St. Louis Univ. teams are the Billikens

Early board game

Just love the name!

As a matter of fact, there WAS a Google before Google!

If you didn't know, "yellow journalism" derives from this. Thought to be the first cartoon. NOT an Asian, rather a barefooted Irish kid, Mickey Dugan.https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=6304832159039712637#editor/target=post;postID=8182208674137985645;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=0;src=postname

Strong Museum is a Great Excuse to Visit Rochester

The Strong Museum of Play
Rochester, New York

Rochester seldom appears on lists of great tourist destinations. In the eyes of many, it’s just another small played-out postindustrial city with oversized urban problems. In truth, it’s well worth a visit. In late August I posted a piece on the delightful George Eastman House and Museum. Rochester also has tranquil walks along the water-filled Erie Canal, beaches along Lake Ontario, a sweet minor league baseball stadium, a Frederick Douglass monument, and the Susan B. Anthony House. But if that doesn’t convince you, try this: the Strong Museum of Play.

I haven’t had this much youthful fun since I actually was a youth. The museum began life as a monetary and collection donation from philanthropist Margaret Woodbury Strong in 1969. It has grown since then, an understatement if ever there was one. These days we are talking mega big–as in 13.5 acres and over 285,000 square feet of buildings. It’s been so successful that new parking garages and exhibition spaces are in the works that will double the existing size.

It is as advertised, a museum devoted to how Americans, especially children, have played. You name it and it’s there. First of all, it houses both the National Toy Hall of Fame and the National Video Game Hall of Fame. They work like any other Hall of Fame, which is to say there are committees whose members mull over nominations and vote on which toys are worthy of inclusion. You can find the complete list online and you’ll notice it includes everything from Barbie to Mr. Potato Head, the Teddy Bear, Checkers, Big Wheels, Silly Putty, and the cardboard box. All of the winners are displayed in cases within the Hall of Fame area. There’s a separate hall for video games, plus the International Center for the History of Electronic Games.

As the saying goes, but wait, there’s more. There’s also a butterfly garden, an exhibit devoted to D.C. Superheroes, and archives should you tire of fun and decide you positively must do academic research! Okay, I’m being snarky on the last one. Actually, this place takes play seriously and even publishes the Journal of Play. And why not? Why on earth should work be treated more seriously than play and recreation–especially in a postindustrial city? If you want to get philosophical, in a saner society the very point of work would be to secure time and resources to play.

If my previous comment strikes you as trite or naïve, reserve judgment until you’ve strolled among the cases of America at Play. It is the heart of the museum. It is a time capsule of how Americans have entertained themselves from time immemorial. You cannot help overhearing remarks such as, “I had that toy!” and “Oh my, I haven’t thought about that game for years.” Chances are good you will be among those making such exclamations. It’s all there: board games, improvised toys, dolls, sporting goods, model airplanes, novelty banks, sleds, bicycles, and so on. I instantly time warped upon seeing Lionel trains, Operation, and Rock 'em Sock 'em robots. There are more than half a million items overall, including fads that soared like the Hula Hoop and those that bombed such as the oh-so-lame attempt at making an electric football game. The goal of the last, insofar I could ever determine, was to waste time lining up 11 players on each side, flipping a switch that made the board vibrate, and watching the figures fall over. On the other hand, I saw a medieval knights and castle set that I had when I was in first grade that sparked my earliest love of history.

The Strong is also loaded with interactive kiosks and oversized sites where you can do activities such as engage a Rube Goldberg machine, play Twister, send Hot Wheels down a chute and maze, or allow a large Etch-a-Sketch to draw your profile. It’s not just children who squeal with delight at these attractions. If anything, adults need to be self-disciplined enough not to bogart the play stations.

Some might be bothered by the overt commercialism on display at the Strong. The most distressing of these is a Wegman’s where youngsters push carts through aisles and place plastic groceries in a cart before “checking out” and getting their “bill.” This one raised my hackles, but I lowered them while perambulating the America at Play section. The truth is that play has long been commercialized, as you can see in board games that were gendered and class-based. “The Dating Game” should have made Phyllis Schlafly into a feminist, but there have long been games that subtly indoctrinated some children to become tycoons and others to pursue a career as an office boy.

But enough of that. As I remarked to my wife and my friend Tim several times while smiling and laughing my way through the Strong: “It’s impossible to be cynical about this place.” If I’m wrong about that, I shall insist that I don’t know you!

If you want to see more images from this museum, go to the photo file marked "Gems from the Strong Museum"

Rob Weir