John and Molly Chester are a young married couple, happily living their lives in Los Angeles. One day they bring home a dog, whom they name Todd. But Todd’s barking irritates their neighbors; eventually, the Chesters are evicted. And instead of moving to another, more dog-friendly apartment, they make a big decision: to leave LA altogether and move to a 200-acre farm in Ventura County.
That sounds like the plot of a quirky indie comedy, but it’s actually a true story, one that’s now told in a documentary called The Biggest Little Farm, which chronicles the first eight years of the Chesters’ new life. Farming is very hard work, especially when you’ve committed to a form of it that aims to capitalize on all the ways earth’s organisms interact — from the ones the Chesters are nurturing on purpose, like sheep and chickens and fruit trees, to the ones they’re much less excited to see, like pests and coyotes and weeds.
Directed by John Chester, The Biggest Little Farm shows how he and Molly slowly and painstakingly spend those eight years transforming their fallow acreage into a thriving example of the power of regenerative farming, with help from friends and colleagues and, yes, even coyotes. Every creature, they discover, has a purpose — even the ones that seem to be pests. Learning to live in harmony with the cycles of the land and the relationships between creatures brings about thriving, lasting growth.
I spoke with John — who is also an Emmy-winning TV director — by phone about the film, the farm, and the surprising things he learned about himself from making the movie. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
This is a very earthy film — we’re experiencing the sunshine and the rain, our hands in the dirt. But, of course, we’re not actually doing that; you are. You’re the filmmaker and the farmer. So when you’re filming your own life, how do you make your experience feel really concrete to the audience?
Well, at year five, when I knew the film was actually going to be something — that I had something to say and something to show — I wanted a raw, unflinchingly honest look at the range of emotions and events that go along with this life on the farm.
In one day, you can experience something heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and discouraging. Then a few minutes later, you can see something miraculous happen within the farm’s ecosystem that inspires you and makes you feel like you could never do anything but this. Like, this is utter perfection.
I wanted the audience to go on that journey. It is real. It’s what happens on the farm. I could wake up to something that I felt would end the day, then turn around and be incredibly inspired.
That’s one thing you really get a sense of while watching: Farming life is so uncertain. You don’t know what the end result will be. And that was true for you as you were making Big Little Farm. Sometimes when we’re watching a finished documentary, we forget that the filmmaker didn’t really know what the end would be when they started shooting. As you were revisiting all of your years of footage, did you find yourself seeing your own story through new eyes?
Yeah. Farming has been an immensely humbling process. Finding that humility set me free, in a lot of ways, to embrace and accept my own shortcomings as a person and a farmer.
I did the first pass with an editor in a barn, while still farming. What I realized was that I hadn’t really been honest about the role I was playing [in the farming venture as a whole]. I thought I was super into this whole thing with my wife, that I wanted it to work more than anything.
But I realized I had been playing a bit of an antagonistic role, where I would question things in a way that Molly wouldn’t. Molly would just move forward. I played the role of the skeptic. And I realized I hadn’t been honest with myself about that as we did the first pass on the film. I realized I wasn’t as brave and courageous and optimistic as I wanted to present myself — I was the one who was the skeptic.
It was kind of hard for my ego. But it was the truth, and I realized that while doing the edit.
I also realized how incredible my wife is! She reminds me now of a hummingbird, constantly being supplied with some form of nectar that I can’t quite get ahold of. [chuckles]
I bet metaphors like that occur to you a lot more readily when you’re living in the middle of nature!
Yes! It’s poetic justice, watching nature reflect human experience.
Obviously, most of the audience isn’t ultimately going to go and do what you did, though I imagine some people will be inspired. But what sorts of lessons are people taking away from the film?
Actually, that’s what I’m most excited about. I’ve heard from people who are CEOs, or managers, and they’ve started to look at the complexities of the “ecosystem” of their workplace — that each individual’s talents and challenges are something to be embraced, to try to work with when we can. We all have coyotes in our life that are trying to eat our chickens. But the coyote has a role. That’s one of the things the film really explores.
The movie might make you question our decision-making at times; we let the coyote run rogue for a while! But I think that [after seeing the film], some people are looking at problems in their own lives a little more optimistically. There’s a comfortable level of disharmony, and that may be good enough. Each of us has a role within the ecosystem that we live in.
I think the movie could also make people look differently at whatever they’re growing, even if it’s just on their stoop or in their backyard. It could encourage people to think about living more in harmony with the natural world around us, whatever it is.
Yes, and the direct connection we have. People think, Oh, farms like this exist. If we really believe that regenerative farming is the future, then I can vote for it with my dollar. Ultimately, politicians and industrialized agriculture and [the agribusiness giant] Monsanto will not be stopped with any greater force than a consumer who votes with their dollar, who supports the kind of farms that they want to see.
I think that’s the immediate takeaway for a lot of people: They now have at least a way to ask questions of the farms that they buy from, and the encouragement to go to the farmers market, to grow your own food. Those are powerful choices.
Which makes me wonder: Do you see links between filmmaking and farming?
Oh, my gosh. Films don’t want to be made. And farms don’t want to interact with nature.
When I started farming, I thought I’d be giving up noodling away on creative things like story structure. But farming is constant observation, followed by creativity, followed by humility — as it is in storytelling. You write an article, you’re super happy with it, you go to bed, you wake up and it’s the worst thing you’ve ever written. And you throw it away. That’s part of the process.
Hold on loosely but don’t let go — all those things apply to farming and storytelling. I think it’s a really amazing opportunity for a creative brain. People who think more visually and creatively make much better farmers, because they can create a four-dimensional map in their brain about how all these things fit together.
In industrialized agriculture, it’s way more simple. You add fertilizer, then you spray this chemical; it’s all about a war, trying to control nature and put it in a straitjacket. You don’t even want to see it exist in any form other than the one you’re trying to grow. But the integrated philosophy of regenerative farming is endlessly fascinating and deeply complex.
One more question: What’s happening on the farm right now?
Let’s see. It’s lambing season, so we’ve just had about 30 new baby lambs. Calving season is starting, so we’ve got about five baby calves. Emma the pig is now 650 pounds and in full retirement. She’s a retired pet now. Her pasture is just outside of my office at the barn, so I see her every day.
And it’s spring, and we’ve had 24 inches of rain, which is a record in the 13 years that I’ve lived in California, and in the eight years I’ve been farming, by far. Twenty-some inches of rain is huge for us. The flowers and the fruit this year — it’s going to be incredible.
The Biggest Little Farm opens in theaters on May 10.