A lot of people spoil their dogs. Very few purchase farms for them.
But when John and Molly Chester faced either eviction from their cozy Santa Monica apartment or giving up their boisterous rescue dog, Todd, they chose the dog.
So begins the premise for the film, The Biggest Little Farm, out in theaters this week.
“This all started with a promise we made to a dog," said John, a cinematographer, who doubles as the movie's narrator and director.
The film follows the couple, plus Todd, as they work to revive an abandoned farm in Ventura County, California, using regenerative and biodynamic farming principles. The farm they find, Apricot Lane Farms, is far from the Eden that they envisioned. The soil is dead, and so are many of the fruit trees that once grew here.
“The first thing we had to do was rebuild the soil,” said John. They found a mentor in the agricultural guru, Alan York, who helped them “diversify, diversify, diversify.”
Under Alan’s instruction, the Chesters planted over 75 different varieties of fruit trees and hauled in hundreds of chickens, as well as cows, sheep, ducks, and a pregnant pig named Emma.
But when you import swells of life, you must also be prepared to confront death.
The film bends towards the philosophical when the couple is forced to deal with death on a colossal scale; pests and predators swarm the farm, enticed by the biodiversity the Chesters have cultivated here. Coyotes flock to their chickens, killing indiscriminately, snails adhere to the trees while gophers gnaw at the roots below and birds descend from above, pecking at the fruits of the Chesters’ hard-won labor.
“From a spiritual perspective,” said Chester, “I’ve begun to appreciate the impermanence of life.”
Perhaps nothing brings the temporality of life into focus like farming, which is predicated on harvesting life for profit. The film doesn’t shirk away from this notion, dutifully documenting Chester as he is forced to put down sick animals, send healthy animals to slaughter, or even shoot and kill a covetous coyote.
You feel incredible loss when things die,” said Chester. “Beyond the economic impact, this loss of life requires a tremendous amount of grief. Acceptance of that grief is part of the job.” In the process of becoming a farmer, Chester realized that “death is not nothing.”
To Chester, soil is death reborn. And soil becomes the main focus of Apricot Lane Farms. “Soil is not only the alchemizer of all death back into life, but it is also the central supporting element of our entire planet’s immune system,” he said.
Although the film never defines it, the Chesters’ farm Apricot Lane regeneratively and biodynamically, which is to say, everything they do is in service of the soil. The film makes it clear that it isn’t easy to farm this way, especially in California’s protracted drought. It also presents a pathway for how to move away from a monocultural agricultural model.
But convincing others that farming in a way that helps sustain the earth rather than extract from it wasn’t as easy as they initially thought. It wasn’t until they starting selling their eggs that they saw interest in their products skyrocket.
“Our eggs were like this gateway drug into the world of what regenerative farming could produce,” said Chester. “Once you’ve had an egg that has that deep mineral-rich flavor and buttery taste you become a convert. You want to know how much further this can go.”
Over the span of eight years, the Chesters have transformed this barren land into a thriving Shangri-la. “We reversed 45 years of extractive farming methods in seven,” said Chester, “but that was with consciousness.” This film too, sparks a new consciousness about what farming should look like, and at the very least, what our food should taste like.
Now when you John ‘who saved who’, he will always tell you that it was Todd who rescued him and Molly.
The film is currently screening at Landmark E Street Cinemas and ArcLight in Potomac, MD.
Jessica Wolfrom is a contributor to Edible DC and a graduate student in journalism at Georgetown University.