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Filmstills from "The biggest little farm"

John Chester

„The Biggest Little Farm“ inspires us to surf on nature

Instead of fighting nature like a foe to be vanquished, what if we harnessed its power to help farming? A stunning new documentary shows how.

By Chris Cummins

Here’s an against-the-odds film about a stretch of desert-like land been turned into a garden teaming with life. If that sounds a little biblical, don’t worry: this is California. The only prophet wears linen and a straw-hats and the only miracles are performed here by defecating ducks and swooping owls.

„The Biggest Little Farm“ is a documentary directed by John Cooper, who made his name as a wildlife camera man, about his new career as a biodynamic farmer. That means treating nature as a friend and ally rather than a foe to be vanquished. Worm-poo, snakes, the aforementioned ducks and even the much-maligned coyote replace pesticides and animal traps.

A cow on the farm

John Chester

It’s a beautiful idea, an age-old idea that is being rediscovered after 70 years of industrial madness, and, given the state of our soil globally, it is a very important idea.

We first meet John, through cosy home-video footage, living with his idealistic food blogger wife Molly in a cramped flat in urban Santa Barbara. Molly’s mantra is that the tastiness and nutritional value of food is directly-related to quality of soil it is grown in. But for the moment, she is tied to the plant pots on a tiny balcony.

Giving Todd Room To Bark

Jobbing as a cameraman to make ends meet, John is sent to cover a story about a mentally-disturbed woman who is keeping dozens of dogs in appalling conditions in her Californian home. One of those dogs, Todd, who has soulful white eyes, captures John’s heart.

To rescue him being euthanized, he brings him home. The problem is Todd is traumatized and won’t stop barking whenever the couple leave the house. The neighbours take umbrage and the landlord serves them with an eviction notice.
This overture, which is shot on camcorders with the gaps filled in with animation, feels at times overlong and a bit twee, but it sets up the film-proper.

The idealistic city-slickers use this threat of impending homelessness as a trigger to finally dare follow their BIG dream – persuading some open-minded (and clearly generous) investors to buy them a plot of land an hour from Los Angeles. Instead of just idly talking about it, they are going attempt to farm in the sort of pure way they’ve always wanted with “plants, wildlife and livestock all working together.”

Some pigs

John Chester

From the outset it is clear that this won’t be easy. The farm is derelict and the soil has been utterly degraded by decades of intensive farming and monoculture; it’s almost white and crumbles at the touch. And they are in the middle of the worst drought in California in 1.200 years.

The Surf Teacher

Enter stage left the Obi Wan Kenobi figure. Desperate for help, Molly tracks down a linen-suit and straw-hat wearing guru called Alan York, a renowned expert on traditional farming who, in a mystical southern drawl, urges them to learn to use nature like an ocean wave. They should surf on it rather trying to obsessively control it; they should simply stay buoyant and harnessing its inherent power.

Alan’s mantra is diversity. “The objective is to emulate how natural ecosystems work,” he says. “They regulate themselves through diversity so you don’t get pests and disease."

With his dreamy rheumatic eyes, his ambition for this adopted farm seems boundless. Dozens of different fruit trees in a multi-layered orchard, a worm-poo factory and every animal you’ve ever seen in a children’s farm picture book. Dogs guard the sheep and the hens run free on the fields.

The chicken coop

John Chester

Anyone has tried it knows that learning to surf is not easy; and nature surfing seems doubly difficult. John Chester, looking back, admits that is was unnerved and often sceptical about this incredibly intricate and complex farm, and in the honest voice-over narration, says he fears he and Molly, the true believer in the relationship, are becoming overly dependent on their charismatic sage.

Then, just when most of the money has been spent and the farm is at peak complexity, Alan reveals he is seriously ill and can no longer accompany the project. The two agricultural novices will have to work things out for themselves.

Unexpected Complications

What follows is roller coaster of a ride through the first 7-years of this ambitious experiment. It’s not a propaganda piece about biodynamic farming. The conditions that are helping restore the farmland are also welcoming hungry visitors. Cover crops, which are plants grown primarily for the benefit of the soil rather than the crop yield, provide a perfect home to a range of ‘pests”.

Year after year, biblical swarms devour the new crops and test their dream. Firstly, birds steal the fruit, then snails devour the life-giving leaves and gophers gobbled up the roots of the trees. Some assistants push for John and Molly to give up on their principles and lay down poison.

Dare To Succeed

At these crossroads moments, you see the strain creeping into the happy narrative. John, looking back with the refreshing openness that seems instinctive to Californians, told me about marriage therapy sessions and moments of provide despair. But as he reminded me when he visited Vienna this summer:

“You can quit and know the pain of letting all of this die, because that is a certain pain you will feel. Or you can go just one more step and just see if there is just a possibility that there is a way.”

Filmstills from "The biggest little farm"

John Chester

(Not Todd)

I don’t want to give too much away but I will tell you this: jobs that farmers spend tens of thousands of dollars on through chemicals and trappers can be done, voluntarily and very willingly, by our feathered-friends for the price of a few owl-boxes.

John, narrates and directs his own story, with additional footage partly filmed by his film-school interns. And what footage that is. John’s background as a nature filmmaker comes to the fore – the importance of biodiversity is celebrated by the voice-over, its beauty celebrated by incredible close-ups. A snail eating valuable crops looks magnificent rather than ominous and the ducks stepping into a pond that is steaming with condensation in the freshness of a new morning is a tableau worthy of the Dutch masters.

Unflinching But Full Of Hope

There’s an honesty too in the dirty-looks and tensions that pass over John’s face in the bad times. To his immense credit, he re-edited the film out of the many thousand hours of footage to make sure the more sombre moments were unflinchingly kept in the final cut.

“I kept telling the interns to stop filming and then once I told them to always ignore me when I said that,” he laughs. “I’m glad they listened to that second piece of advice.”

The secret heroes of this documentary are those film-school interns and then energetic, positive team of farm-hands, recruited through one of my favourite mechanisms – the WWOOF project – who give this beautifully shot film an overriding sense of youthful optimism.

Filmstills from "The biggest little farm"

John Chester

Yet, for me, the most memorable star is a pig, renamed from Ugly Betty to Emma. She gives the film its most joyous, dramatic, moving and philosophical moments as she reacts to child-birth, sickness, loss and to the surprise of new neighbours. If there are porcine Oscars, I would like nominate this serene sow for the highest honour.

„The Biggest Little Farm“ läuft am 12. Juli in österreichischen Kinos an.

„The Biggest Little Farm“ was a word-of-mouth hit in the USA and you can see why. So many environmental stories can leave you angry or with a stomach-souring sense of despair.

This film engages you immediately with its cinematography and lightness of touch, but it also stays with you long after you have left the cinema. A better form of farming, which means better, healthier food, doesn’t just seem possible, it seems logical.

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