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'The Biggest Little Farm' Teaches Us About Living Off the Land



When documentarian John Chester and his wife, the food blogger Molly Chester, are evicted from their modest apartment in Los Angeles due to their incessantly barking dog, they make a radical life change. With the support of investors, they attempt to create a sustainable farm on 200 acres of land in Moorpark, California, an hour north of L.A. Their eight-year journey transforming the land from an arid patch of rock-hard soil and tumbleweed into a verdant, harmonious paradise of biodiversity is captured in The Biggest Little Farm. It opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.

For farmer's market enthusiasts and casual environmentalists, the film should be a pleasant chronicle of the pathways of local food, how crops make their way from orchards and pastures to vendor's tables. And for those seeking (or at least imagining) lifestyle changes of their own, the film can function as a partial how-to guide, offering insight on the annual challenges that come with managing an operation as unwieldy as an old-school farm.

In California, as in most of the United States, agriculture these days is dominated by "monocrop" farms, huge businesses that occupy enormous tracts of land devoted to single products: corn, eggs, raspberries, etc. What the Chesters attempt is more traditional, a farm with more than 200 individual crops and animals of all sorts, but one that they hope can still be a successful business venture.

To aid them in their pursuit, they hire an organic farm consultant named Alan York, who helps them design the land and bring the soil back to health. For York, the farm's primary purpose is creating the conditions by which the soil can thrive. Among other things, he advises using sheep to cut the grass: The sheep's waste then fertilizes the soil. But each year, new disasters must be troubleshot. One year, a persistent coyote decimates the chicken coop. Another year, slugs decimate the apricot trees. Still another year, a lack of rain means the pond becomes full of scuzz and the fish and ducks die off. Every solution to a problem creates additional problems ... until it doesn't, and the farm achieves its own balance and cyclical momentum.

At its best, the film is a joyous and simple depiction of life on a farm: the miracle of new litters, the glory of sunsets and stars, the satisfaction of fresh produce. But lurking in the background is the threat of wildfires and other calamities born of climate change. Also, questions of commerce are rarely considered with any specificity, and I found myself curious about them. Once you do things like "bring investors on board," it seems to me, the meaning of "sustainability" becomes something new.

The transformation of this land is wonderful to behold, but it's extremely expensive. Included among the farm's new additions is a complex which manufacture bespoke manure ­— "a poop tea." Young farmers from around the world are hired (or enlisted) to help work the land. Livestock and crops are acquired, to say nothing of farm vehicles and equipment. By the end of the film, the Chesters are giving tours. While a return to nature of this sort is a courageous life choice, it'd be a mistake to assume that any one of us could make it without significant outside investment.

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