Is “The Biggest Little Farm” For Real?

This new documentary is so wholesome and uplifting that it immediately raised suspicions in my skeptical heart.  It describes the odyssey of a young couple in Los Angeles who started their own organic farm, Apricot Lane, on 200 acres of desolate land about 50 miles west of LA.  After eight years it has become an oasis of greenery and wildlife among the barren hills, but while watching it you really have to wonder – who paid for all this?

The couple, John and Molly Chester, had been living in Santa Monica doing very LA-ish jobs.  He had been a cameraman and director on various TV shows, and she was a private chef for one-percenters.  She had come out with a cookbook, Back to Butter,  and really believed that the quality of food depended directly on how it was raised.  While filming a bit about a woman who had 200 dogs in her house, John rescued one of them, a soulful black Lab named Todd.  Unfortunately, Todd barked incessantly when they weren’t there, causing them to be evicted from their apartment.

But it was time for a change anyway.  He had grown up in farm country and she wanted better food.  They found this property up in the barren hills west of the city.  It had been a horse farm, and then raised lemons and avocados, but the killer drought of the late 2000s had done it in.  Everything on it was dead except for a few eucalyptus trees, and the soil had turned to clods and dust.

The first step was raising money, but I’ll talk about that in a bit.   They bought it in 2011 and hired a consultant, Alan York, to get the property laid out.   He constantly stressed the value of biodiversity.  They wanted to have three kinds of fruit trees, but he insisted on 75.  They added a pond for ducks and wild birds, pastures for chickens, sheep and cows, and a “vermi-composting” shed, which means processing manure with worms.  They landscaped the hills into contour lines for the orchards, and planted ground cover everywhere to aerate the soil and hold rain.   An artesian well supplied irrigation water.

Everything then went wrong.  The drought continued.  Duck poop turned their pond into green slime.  The trees were attacked by snails and aphids, and their roots were damaged by gophers.  Starlings took little bites out of each piece of fruit, ruining them.  Coyotes ate their free-range chickens.  The cattle were overwhelmed by flies.   Yet the Chesters were dead set against using pesticides or herbicides, and didn’t even want to shoot the coyotes.

But the inspiring part about the story is that they solved all these problems through ecological means instead of mechanical ones.  Too many snails?  The ducks love them.  Keep the ducks penned into one part of the orchard until they clean out the snails, then move them to the next.  That spreads their droppings around too.  Too many aphids?  Add ladybugs.   Coyote problems?   Guard the chickens with dogs and let the coyotes eat the gophers.  Chickens also love to peck at fly larvae, so have them keep the fields clean for the cattle.  Add birdhouses to attract barn owls to keep down rodents and starlings.

When the drought finally broke in the mid-2010s, their ground cover saved them.  Everyone else’s soil got washed downhill in the torrential rains, but theirs absorbed it, and just helped to deepen the grass’s roots.   That helps maintain the underground water table as well.  The roots are also good for carbon sequestration, but even they couldn’t avoid the oncoming climate catastrophe and had to evacuate during one wildfire season.

These days the farm is thriving.   It appears to employ about 15 people, and has a crowd of volunteers through WWOOF, World-Wide Opportunites for Organic Farming, who get room and board in return for labor.  They sell through farmstands (people stand in line to get their eggs) and LA restaurants.   They tried to open their own restaurant and market in the nearby town of Moorpark, but gave it up after too many delays and costly requirements.  They also have tours of the property, and since this is the 21st century, have an online gift shop.  John Chester has been drawing on his film skills for the entire process, releasing short films along the way, and now this major documentary.

So how did all this get funded?   They’re cagey about that in the movie, saying only that they found venture money.    There’s nothing about their investors on any of their sites, but I found the actual owners with a bit of web sleuthing.   I won’t give their names because they don’t matter, but they were real venture capitalists in the early 2010s.  They don’t seem to be involved in it any more, though, and have shifted their attention to high-frequency trading and bitcoins.

Well, that’s sketchy.  More sketchy, though, is the philosophy behind the Chesters’ farming style – biodynamics.   That word also did not come up in the movie.   It’s based on the theories of the German mystic and philosopher Rudolf Steiner from the 1920s.   It does stress ecological management practices, but also proposes sympathetic magic techniques, like burying ashes in a cow’s horn, and planting according to astrological calendars.   The farm is actually certified by Demeter International, an organization that makes sure that strict biodynamic standards are being obeyed.    There are a few other such farms in California, but the bulk of them appear to be in Germany.

So this farm is California all over: a New Age ideology crossed with Whole Earth Catalog redemptive environmentalism, underpinned by modern finance, and spending a good fraction of its energy on publicity.

And that’s OK!  Publicity is crucial to everything these days.   The money put into this looks to be in the $10M range, but that’s negligible by VC standards.  Better this than yet another phone app.    I don’t mind New Age-ism if it’s used to inform your worldview instead of to control empirical decisions, and I was an avid reader of the Catalog back in its 70s heyday.  The Chesters seem to have hit on something that is economically and more importantly, environmentally sustainable.  They are not Masters of Nature, but gardeners within it.  Their life looks like a lot of work and heartache, but greatly rewarding.

 

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