What a feel-good story! Where do I begin? It’s an autobiographical documentary by a creative couple (he’s a cinematographer, and she’s a pastry chef with a food blog) who up and decide they wanna be farmers. How hard could farming be? Especially farming on land north of Los Angeles that’s long been drained of nutrients?
You forgive the front-loading of its cutesy treacle because it’s immediately apparent that this will be a fabulous teaching piece for children. And then you forgive it some more, because you realize it’ll teach everyone, especially the gloom-doomers who say planet Earth is toast. This little doc will effectively paradigm-shift your current planetary eco-depression. It will answer a myriad questions you didn’t even know you had about the earth’s ability to bounce back from barrenness with alacrity.
The Chesters have a grizzled, human “spirit-guide” elder named Alan, who teaches the neophyte farmers about biodiversity, farming, and how to live your bliss, even if it involves back-breaking work.
They’ve also got a blue-eyed, black dog named Todd—a “spirit animal” if I ever saw one. It’s actually Todd’s nonstop barking that gets the Chesters booted out of their Santa Monica apartment. That’s the kind of thing that kicks off a Hero’s Journey to find one’s bliss. John and Molly heed the call. According to the six-fold path of Buddhism, I’d say Todd is probably one of John’s ancestors, back in dog form, to guide him. Todd’s definitely got some otherworldly mojo.
We first get to know the 30-something (maybe 40-something?) John and Molly Chester when they’re living in Santa Monica. They’re about to get the heck out of Dodge and go try and live in perfect harmony with nature, as they put it. Which is all a bit too hippie-dippy, crunchy, and precious (the animation exacerbates this problem), but then they go rescue Todd from a shelter, and in turn (according to Molly), Todd rescues them back, and things start to get more interesting.
John and Molly are in constant contact with the perennially sunglassed agricultural Yoda, Alan York, who, while less crunchy and more blue collar, is a veritable fount of fabulous, functional, farmer facts.
The Chesters run into hardship right off the bat with the major drought that’s plagued California for a good while now. That’s year one. The year after, Alan tells them they need to go full-on, whole-hog, “complicated.” As he says, “Diversity, diversity, diversity!” Alan’s also apparently into some serious farm feng shui. The aerial view of the farm will eventually reveal that Alan is the most artistic of them all. Molly likes the diversity concept because it means a lot of fun cooking projects.
But what does diversity mean in terms of farming? Well, they start with a gigundous sow named “Ugly Betty.” They feel this name is politically incorrect and rename her “Emma.” That’s so nice. But apparently Ugly Betty’s boyfriend thought she was pretty dang good-lookin’, because after an extended birthing scene (like something out of a James Herriot novel), she drops 17 piglets.
Seventeen wee oinkers is already getting pretty complicated. Then add a ton of chickens, black-faced sheep, 75 types of fruit trees, many ducks, and loads of bees. All that, and revive the depleted soil with cover crops.
So what does this plethora of flora and fauna beget? An immediate plethora of vermin. Root-gnawing gophers, fruit-tree-leaf-obliterating snails, poo-invading maggots, peach-marauding birds, and chicken-mangling coyotes. What can be done about this munching, masticating mayhem?
Biodiversity means bringing the full-on Garden of Eden. Because there are ironclad laws at work in all of that giant sprawling, crawling, growing, and expanding leafy mess that establish balance. Bring on the raptors (daytime and nighttime versions: hawks and owls), and—boom! The peach-pecking bird herd is immediately culled.
They set up night-vision cameras to see who’s out there sneaking around nocturnally and setting up shop, and in addition to the coyotes, we see bobcats, badgers, weasels, stoats, and gopher snakes moving in. This is why gophers procreate so explosively—they feed a lot of the predator population.
The other awesome service a gopher provides, with its incessant burrowing, is that it is a rodent version of a soil-aerating machine. The trick is to keep them below the gopher tipping point: before they start gnawing your tree roots.
And guess who thinks the fruit-leaf-obliterating snails are a very fine delicacy to gobble? Ducks! Put the ducks in the orchard! But what about all those flies, delighting in duck poop and having many, many babies therein? Chickens! Chickens are masters of maggot population control. Mother Nature has an answer for everything, and it’s kind of amazing to see the perfection of it all.
But It’s Never Perfect for Humans
There is ebb and flow and chaos and order and highs and lows. And throughout, it’s a ton of work. We don’t actually see John and Molly at work all that much, but as problems compound, it becomes apparent how many things can go wrong, at any time. The weight of the sheer workload tonnage hangs around in your subconscious, and you think: That’s so awesome that they do that. I’m so glad that’s not my vision. I need a nap.
And in addition to all this, they’re shooting a movie.
Alan, at some point, enlightens us to the concept that “a comfortable level of disharmony” is what’s realistic. He also says, “It’s a simple way of farming. It’s just not easy.” My theory is that if everything ran smoothly all the time, humans wouldn’t have the opportunity to work hard to pay off their karmic debts. But that’s maybe getting a bit too esoteric for a movie about Ugly Betty and the quacking snail-patrol.
The takeaway here is to see how the land can go from basically uninhabitable to a Garden of Eden in seven short years. To the dreamy-dilettante, starry-eyed, well-meaning Chesters, they must have been seven excruciatingly long years. But then, they really were living their bliss and weren’t afraid of the hard work. And there’s spiritual growth.
It’s an extended meditation. As John observes, “Observation followed by creativity has become our greatest ally.” Nothing will put you in the zone like creativity, and the zone is the bliss of life.
The film also functions, due to the rude awakening the Chesters allow us to have vicariously, as an instruction manual and mild warning for, say, the dreamy, blond-dreadlocked, weed-smoking, Birkenstock-wearing, 20-somethings who populate Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School. They might be contemplating a utopian, back-to-the-land, off-the-grid existence. It gives notice that elbow grease is the key ingredient.
“The Biggest Little Farm” might also function as a sort of inconvenient truth to former Vice President Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.” As opposed to the dire tone of most eco-docs, the Chesters offer the refreshing concept that it really might not be as dire a situation as we think. Sure, those fracking movies will, and should, stand our collective hair on end, but “The Biggest Little Farm” will restore your hope in Father Sky and Mother Earth.
One question it definitely doesn’t answer, and it’s kind of a doozy that gathers weight as the film progresses, is—where did the money come from? Where’d these two artist types get the wherewithal to buy Apricot Lane Farms with all that land (200 acres in Moorpark, California, with an awesome house on the property), miles of irrigation equipment, heavy-farming machinery, fields of fruit trees, seeds, lots of field staff, and endless chicken replacements due to extensive chicken-slaughter by Wile E. Coyote and his sneaky, bloodthirsty brethren?
No matter. John’s cinematography training is key here. The movie is visually gorgeous. High-frame-rate cameras capture the cuteness of honeybees with full pollen baskets coming home to the hive. The colors of orange-red-purple peaches are vibrant. Drone cameras reveal Alan York’s artist feng shui of the land. It’s inviting.
“The Biggest Little Farm” introduces us to, and lets us get to know, all the animal players. And in so doing, it allows us to root for them. It’s a story about giving the natural habitats that we took away from them—back to them. Heartwarming.
‘The Biggest Little Farm’
Director: John Chester
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Release Date: May 10
Rated 4 stars out of 5