The new documentary The Biggest Little Farm follows ambitious back-to-the-landers John and Molly Chester as they attempt to resurrect a dead farm and reject monoculture in favour of traditional, sustainable farming practices.
John, a cinematographer, and Molly, a private chef, are living in a cosy apartment in Los Angeles when a catalyst arrives in their lives: a rescue dog named Todd. Todd’s incessant barking leads to an eviction notice, which galvanizes the couple to reach for a long-nurtured dream: to farm in harmony with nature, using traditional methods to grow sustainable, diverse crops and livestock. This film chronicles their years-long journey to find, restore, and create their oasis.
This film is full of gorgeous imagery, courtesy of the co-subject John, who also directed. You can easily sense his photographer’s eye at work even in the shot-on-mobile, nighttime scenes. The documentary balances the mundane (such as shovelling manure) with the grandiose (including sweeping drone shots of the property), the dramatic (such as a nocturnal conflict between dog and rooster) with the quiet beauty of nature in closeup.
As someone who was born and grew up on a farming commune founded by back-to-the-land hippies in the 1970s, I was immediately interested in this documentary and in the Chesters’ experience. I can personally attest to the truth this film speaks about the balance between the beauty, cruelty, and banality of farming, and the urge to hold tight to the dream of living off the land in a way that enriches not just your own life, but the life that surrounds you.
Unlike my own extended commune family, John and Molly have help: investors who believes in their dream, the support of friends and family, a biodiversity expert who helps them design their farm and plan not only crops but state-of-the-agricultural-art composting methods, and a team of field hands willing to (literally) get their hands dirty.
Even with all this backup, the documentary drives home how fragile the balance of life is, how easily it can be upset, and, once lost, how much manual, human labour is involved in restoring even the most basic biodiversity of plant and animal life. Although the subject of climate change isn’t addressed directly, the toll that human manipulation of the land in the pursuit of profit over sustainability is deeply felt here.
It’s also a helluva lot of work, and even then, the factors the Chesters can’t control are abundant. Drought, wildfires, a coyote preying on chickens and ducks, a plague of snails damaging the fruit crops… Even one single pig becoming gravely ill threatens to upend the entire endeavour.
The film drives home the beauty, and fragility, of life. It shouldn’t be taken for granted. And neither should the movie.