How does one even start a farm? That’s the question John and Molly Chester ask themselves from within their small Santa Monica apartment. John makes a living filming and photographing wildlife for various outlets, while Molly acts as a food blogger and private chef. She always dreams of living on a farm where she can grow all the ingredients she needs for her recipes. One day, the couple adopts a dog named Todd who, unfortunately, can’t stop barking from within their apartment. This spurs them to turn their farm dreams into a reality. The documentary “The Biggest Little Farm,” directed by John, chronicles their seven-year journey to make this farm a reality. While cutesy and idyllic, especially at the start, “The Biggest Little Farm” becomes a fascinating and involving story of creating a fully sustainable microcosm.
The initial set up may seem simple and folksy at the beginning, complete with animations of the happy couple and dog starting a farm, “The Biggest Little Farm” knows how to lay on the schmaltz. More time goes to Todd’s behavioral problems than their financing of their new farm in Moorpark, California. However, the documentary’s optimism carries through all the more real challenges that come once the Chesters begin to build their farm. The lesson of “The Biggest Little Farm” is not about how easy and rewarding it is to start a farm. On the contrary, the film becomes a great lesson in how much work and frustration goes in to making a farm profitable, livable and successful.
Once the Chesters are on the farm, they are greeted by less than ideal circumstances. The soil is dead and Southern California is in the middle of an epic drought. All of the farms in the land are depressing expanses where one type of food is grown within controlled plastic chambers. This isn’t what John and Molly want their farm to be. They want to grow all types of food, with the animals and the land working together to create a sustainable ecosystem. The Chesters bring in a variety of experts, all of whom tell them they’re crazy for wanting to farm diverse crops and animals. Enter Alan York, a farming guru who maps out their dream farm, complete with “the highest level of biodiversity possible.” This is when the film takes off. Alan’s investment in the farm transforms the Chesters from idealistic yuppies to true problem-solving farmers.
As they set-up their farms, the couple makes their first significant success in selling their chicken eggs. Thus begins the first in a series of many animals that are brought into the farm. The movie highlights the farm’s new pig, Emma, most of all. Emma comes to the farm pregnant and eventually births over a dozen piglets. The film definitely loves Emma and showers her with attention. At first, she’s seen as a disruptive force, as she breaks out of her enclosure, ruins some of the nearby plants and wastes water. However, the Chesters soon realize she is creating her own home and pigpen. There’s something calming and warm about this pregnant pig with digestive troubles rolling around in a pigpen of her own creation. One couldn’t help but to yearn for the same guilelessness she displays.
What the structure of the documentary captures perfectly is the cause and effect that every new animal or crop brings to the farm. Once the couple finds a better way to grow fruit on their trees, snails descend on the orchard and strip away the leaves. At the same time, the drought prevents rain water from filling the pond for the ducks. It turns out the solution for both problems is to let the ducks run wild in the orchard and eat all the snails. Just as John and Molly triumph over one obstacle, Mother Nature throws another one their way.
John also serves as the director and cinematographer on the project. This seems fitting, considering his background as a nature photographer, prior to becoming a farmer. The project blends his keen visual eye with his passion for farming, and the result looks absolutely incredible, particularly in the latter half once the Chesters have finally planted all their crops. It’s not just the farm that looks stunning. John manages to make all of the different animals on the farm look incredibly colorful and vivid. Once problems come up on the farm, John visually demonstrates to us the details and magnitude of the problems. He even blends in night vision shots to capture a coyote attack.
What starts as a twee dream of earning a farm becomes more of a meditation on hard work. At no time is the farm “settled” or “done.” Creating a biodiverse ecosystem means constantly solving problems in a creative fashion. Our world is a puzzle. All pests, crops and insects exist in a harmonious balance that constantly needs fine-tuning. “The Biggest Little Farm” works best when it explores the way animals and plants work together to thrive. All in all, it makes for an affecting, enjoyable and (yes) inspirational documentary.