Review: The Biggest Little Farm

by Andrew Phillips

The Biggest Little Farm. Director: John Chester. 92 minutes.

When John and Molly Chester give up their urban life in Los Angeles to run a farm on 200 acres of barren and neglected land, you can’t help but think they might have made a terrible mistake. The soil is dry and dusty, the trees appear to be almost dead, and the whole landscape seems lifeless. This looks far from the ideal place to fulfil the Chesters’ vision of the good life on an organic and ecologically sensitive farm.

So the charm of this documentary is really in the Chesters’ commitment and perseverance in turning their vision into reality. Before becoming farmers, John was a filmmaker and wildlife photographer, while Molly was a chef and food blogger. Their combined interests come together perfectly in this film, which charts their lives from 2010-2018 as they establish and run the aptly named Apricot Lane Farms.

But this isn’t just a tale of urban residents discovering the attractions of rural life. The Chesters are committed to organic principles and promoting on-farm biodiversity. This is in stark contrast to what surrounds them: on one side, an enormous abandoned egg factory which once housed 3.5 million chickens; on another, a vast raspberry monoculture. So, as John, who is both the director and the narrator of the documentary, puts it: ‘It’s pretty clear that our plan for a farm is way outside of the norm.’

With advice from farming expert Alan York, the Chesters set to work transforming their land using an ecosystem- and biodiversity-oriented approach. Animals are purchased to provide manure for the soil; cover crops are sown; a large variety of fruit trees are planted.

And as the years go by, the land begins to come back to life. The farm not only starts to produce crops, but also becomes a haven for wildlife. John’s skills in wildlife photography are put to good use in capturing beautiful shots of hummingbirds and insects. The farm animals are lovingly portrayed on camera, and the Chesters’ care for the land and their animals shines through. Some of the wildlife is more destructive however, as snails and coyotes pose serious problems. But these challenges are overcome with natural solutions: it turns out the farm ducks have a taste for snails, for example. Although the film always remains upbeat and optimistic, it honestly depicts the challenges the Chesters’ agrarian methods face: the scenes in which the farmworkers collect the corpses of chickens killed by coyotes are poignant. Despite the important message about ecologically sensitive farming, the film always remains deeply personal, and avoids becoming censorious or political.

The cinematography is beautiful throughout, and the film’s few missteps are minor. At times it feels slightly sentimental, not always helped by the score. There are one or two scenes which seem poorly edited, and the animated sequences near the beginning don’t quite cohere with the rest of the film’s style. Perhaps more problematic is the way in which the film eschews detail in favour of lavish visuals: although ‘investors’ are vaguely referred to, viewers are left in the dark as to how exactly the Chesters funded the initial purchase of the land and their first few unprofitable years while establishing the farm.  

But the passion of the film’s characters, and the beauty of the film, mean that these slight quibbles don’t ultimately matter much. It is easy to be swept away by the incredible transformation of the land under the Chesters’ stewardship. What stays with you are the breathtaking before-and-after images of their farm, comparing the landscape when they bought it to a scene from the seventh year of their project. The film is a testament to the Chesters’ care and love, which has utterly transformed a small part of the world.

While watching the film, I thought several times of the work of American famer and poet Wendell Berry, who has written eloquently about the kind of agrarian principles depicted in this film. (Berry’s name does appear in the credits under the heading ‘With inspiration from’.) His description of a farmer who learns to live in a farm puts into words what this film beautifully depicts:

‘When one buys the farm and moves there to live, something different begins. Thoughts begin to be translated into acts. Truth begins to intrude with its matter-of-fact. One’s work may be defined by one’s visions, but it is defined in part too by its problems, which the work leads to and reveals. And daily life, work and problems gradually alter the visions. It invariably turns out, I think, that one’s first vision of one’s place was to some extent an imposition on it. But if one’s sight is clear and if one stays on and works well, one’s love gradually responds to the place as it really is, and one’s visions gradually image possibilities that are really in it. Vision, possibility, work and life – all have changed by mutual correction… One works to better purpose then and makes fewer mistakes, because at last one sees where one is. Two human possibilities of the highest order thus come within reach: what one wants can become the same as what one has, and one’s knowledge can cause respect for what one knows.’ (from ‘People, Land, and Community’, in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry [2002])

Genesis 2:15 reads: ‘Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.’ (NASB) Genesis presents this as a fundamental part of humanity’s vocation – to cultivate the earth, and to keep it or care for it. This documentary presents a picture of people committed to doing exactly that: farming in a way that expresses care not only for the people who eat their produce and work on their farm, but also for the soil, plants and animals upon which we are all ultimately reliant for food and life.

What does all this mean for those of us who aren’t farmers? For urban residents, like me, it is all too easy to forget that all our food comes through the hands of farmers, who rely on the soil, plants and animals of God’s creation. As argued in Thoughtful Eating, paying more attention to where and how our food is produced is something we can all do.  If we want more farmers to be able to choose agricultural production methods that respect Creation, we need to be prepared to change our preferences and habits. We may need to buy food produced locally and seasonally; crops grown in organic systems; meat from animals which have been treated with respect for their life. Only by slowing down and being more thoughtful about our food can we hope to recognise how eating connects us in relationship to soil, plants, animals and farmers. Just like The Biggest Little Farm, thoughtful eating ‘reminds us that we participate in a grace-saturated world, a blessed creation worthy of attention, care, and celebration.’ (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith [2019])

Andrew Phillips is the co-author of our latest publication Thoughtful Eating: a biblical perspective on food, relationships and the environment.

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Category: News and Reviews

January, 2020

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  1. Ann R Parker says:

    A brilliant and hopeful story – and one that recurs throughout history despite what the bully boys do to us. Have you read ‘wilding’ about a farm in Sussex that is going back to nature but attracting an amazing amount of wikdlife

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