December 13, 2019 – This is a movie about a family with a dream of farming, who makes that dream come true, sort of, with a lot of outside help. They develop a thriving farm, converting bad soil into good soil, with a thriving ecosystem, while encountering many problems.
This is not the kind of movie that will inspire a lot of people to become farmers, however, because farming is a lot of hard, dirty, gooey, bloody work. Farmers are at the mercy of the weather, including wildfires in this case. This documentary film, to its credit, doesn't glamorize farming. Farming is shown, down and dirty, warts, snails, gophers, coyotes and all. This is a good primer film for anyone interested in becoming a farmer.
Director John Chester's film, “The Biggest Little Farm,” about his own experiences developing a sustainable farm about an hour from Los Angeles with his wife, Molly was seen at film festivals in 2018. It was released in theaters, and on video, this year.
According to the film, the farm was inspired by Molly and the family dog, Todd, who barked so much he got them evicted from their apartment. The couple did not have enough money to buy the land or the equipment, or hire the labor to operate the kind of biologically sustainable, ecologically diverse farm they wanted, so they organized a campaign to attract investors and volunteers. This eventually resulted in Apricot Lane Farms, established in 2011.
Once the Chesters get the land and the money to run it, they consulted an expert in traditional farming practices, Alan York, who sets them on a path of maximum biological diversity, starting with worms to revive the worthless soil and to invigorate a massive composting operation. York's idea is something like “biomimicry ,” that is, mimicking the biological balance found in natural ecosystems, using a wide variety of plants and animals.
The Chesters, following York's advice, tear down most of the orchards that had sustained the farm they bought. In place of the “monoculture” orchards, cover crops are planted, along with a diverse selection of trees and row crops, planted in swirling patterns over the hilly landscape. A dry pond is revived. Fish and ducks go into the pond. Cattle, sheep, chickens, pigs and many other animals come to the farm.
The farm starts to look like an eden, glowing green in the midst of the brown California land that surrounds it. But there is trouble in paradise. Birds swarm in and ruin the fruit on the trees. Snails swarm over the farm, eating the leaves of the plants. Coyotes invade the farm, killing the chickens (the eggs were the best cash crop at the time). At about the same time as the troubles were piling up, Alan York died, so the Chesters were on their own.
Trying to fight the birds, snails and coyotes is not a battle that mere human beings can win. Chester had to step back and try to find more natural, biological solutions, a dog trained to protect the chickens, owls and hawks to keep the fruit-eating birds at bay, and ducks turned loose in the fields and orchards to eat the snails. It is a long hard grind, with a lot of trial and error to find natural solutions to complex problems.
The characters in this movie, and not just the people, but the animals as well, are captivating. There is some great cinematography showing nature at work on the farm. The story of the farm is well, and fairly told. This is a good documentary film about the trials and rewards of farming. It rates a B.
One thing that is not really talked about much is the economics of running this particular kind of farming operation. I suspect that it is not really economically viable to run as a family farm, unless the family is big, hard working, well educated, and has a sizable fortune to invest in it. This reminds me of the old Wyoming ranch joke, “How do you make a small fortune in the ranching business? Answer: Start with a large fortune.” This farm is more like a pilot project. It runs on visitors, volunteers, outside investors and a well-organized online organic food sales operation, as well as farmers markets and probably on-site sales as well, all powered by pervasive California left-wing biological mythology.
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