The Biggest Little Farm reclaims a barren landscape with love, labour, and loss

Movie Review: The Biggest Little Farm

When a California couple traded in their Santa Monica lifestyle for an abandoned apricot and avocado orchard, they thought Mother Nature might lend a helping hand. Yet every success brought a new pest, until they found a way to resurrect what industrialized farming ploughed under.

The Biggest Little Farm

4/5

Directed by: John Chester

Running time: 131 minutes

Rating: PG-13

Opens in select markets May 17, 2019

By Katherine Monk

Humility. That’s the word John Chester uses to describe what he learned over the course of making his almost boastful documentary, The Biggest Little Farm. That feeling of not being sure, yet being open to possibility, is something you need as a farmer. But it’s also something you need in life, because growth can’t really happen without it.

It’s an equation that seems hard to reconcile in this spoiled, ego-driven era of fantasized avatars and swipe-right relationships, but it’s exactly what Chester captures through the lens — and through his own reflections — as he takes us on a journey back to the land.

Like many urban dwellers surrounded by the comforts of technology, Chester had a passing understanding of food production and industrialized farming. His wife, Molly, a cook and graduate of a natural health and culinary institute, knew a lot more. Yet, neither had any concrete thoughts of trading off their Santa Monica lifestyle for a failed and barren apricot orchard north of L.A.

“It all started with a promise we made to a dog,” says Chester in the opening frames. While working as a news videographer, Chester shot a story about a woman with too many dogs. He fell in love with one named Todd, and when he brought him home, he and Molly promised Todd they would be his forever home.

But Todd barked. And barked. And barked. Facing eviction, they decided to sell it all and buy the farm. With significant help from investors, they made a plan to turn the dead and desiccated 200-acre avocado and apricot orchard into an organic oasis. They imagined exotic fruit trees, chickens, ducks, pigs and lush vegetation covering the California hillsides.

Biggest Little Farm Todd

Who’s the human: A dog named Todd found a man named Chester. The two started a new life together in The Biggest Little Farm. Photo by John Chester courtesy of Elevation Pictures.

The only problem was, nature didn’t seem to be cooperating. The soil was dry and dead. They were also novice farmers. But they were humble enough to ask for help, and when they presented their dream to a veteran organic guru, he dug in with them.

Describing nature as a self-sustaining flywheel, he explained all the Chesters had to do was wait for Mother Nature to heal what man had broken through monoculture and systematic herbicide and pesticide programs. Nature would recover, he assured, but it would take at least seven years.

John Chester had been recording the farm from day one, but he didn’t want to make a movie about a well-intentioned failure. And from day one, that’s kind of what it felt like. He and Molly would create a little piece of beauty, only to watch one pest after another devour their labours. Livestock was attacked nightly. Aphids, starlings, snails, gophers and coyotes became their enemies.

John Chester had been recording the farm from day one, but he didn’t want to make a movie about a well-intentioned failure. And from day one, that’s kind of what it felt like.

Wait, said the guru. You need more animals. So they bought more animals, and by year five, something shifted. Chester began to watch a magical system establish itself in his garden. Snails were attracted to the fruit tree foliage, but ducks ate the snails, and in doing so, would leave their droppings in the orchard — which in turn built the soil, which helped the fruit trees. It was happening in every corner of their little oasis. Ladybugs would appear to eat the aphids. Coyotes started eating the gophers. Owls, hummingbirds and humming pollinators were everywhere.

He realized he was just another spoke on the magical wheel, and that instead of taming or conquering nature, we had to learn humility in the face of something far more grand and mysterious. Or, as Albert Einstein said: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything.”

The complexities of an intricate system are easy to take for granted when everything works — whether it’s your car, your body or the planet itself. It’s only in trying to fix something that’s broken do we start to understand just how miraculous and beautiful the system truly is. For that reason alone, The Biggest Little Farm is worth your time.

The complexities of an intricate system are easy to take for granted when everything works — whether it’s your car, your body or the planet itself. It’s only in trying to fix something that’s broken do we start to understand just how miraculous and beautiful the system truly is. For that reason alone, The Biggest Little Farm is worth your time.

Chester’s cameras photograph every little thing, and because he’s a professional behind the lens, we’re not forced to overcome any amateurish aesthetic shortcomings. We get a front row seat to a life and death drama in every scene, and after suffering through so much loss, we’re overcome with joy when nature’s flywheel starts to turn.

Chester finally believed he could make a movie with a happy ending: A story of patience, humility and redemption. But the opening frames in this movie show a wall of grey and orange smoke on the horizon with a soundtrack of crackling radio reports of fast-moving wildfires across California.

So we wonder, all the way through, was this all for nothing? Will this little Eden be incinerated along with our budding hope?

Humility may never seem like a victory, but that’s only because we’ve lost touch with what it means to “win.” The verb is rooted in the act of toiling and labouring. Yet, we focus on the fruit. This movie proves it’s the very act of digging in, rolling up your sleeves, and growing something that makes you feel good in a deep, and humble, way.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, May 17, 2019

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Review: The Biggest Little Farm

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Summary

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The complexities of an intricate system are easy to take for granted when everything works -- whether it’s your car, your body or the planet itself. It’s only in trying to fix something that’s broken do we start to understand just how miraculous and beautiful the-system truly is. For that reason alone, The Biggest Little Farm is worth your time. -- Katherine Monk

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