Fledgling farmers turn their life, lessons into a documentary

Lindsey Bahr
Associated Press
Farmer John tries to comfort his pig, Emma, in a scene from the documentary "The Biggest Little Farm."

MOORPARK, Calif. — John and Molly Chester, a filmmaker and a chef, had made a decision that many urbanites only fantasize about: They decided to leave their life in Los Angeles and start a farm that would function in harmony with nature.

Their family and friends thought they were crazy, but they were determined. They’d bought 200 acres of land 50 miles away from downtown L.A., in Moorpark, Calif., and they’d found an investor to fund the adventure.

The only problem? The land was dead and they knew nothing about farming.

Eight years later, visiting Apricot Lane Farms — where they grow more than 100 types of vegetables, 75 types of fruit, from avocado to citrus, and raise animals including cows, sheep, chickens, ducks, guinea hens and a pig named Emma — you’d hardly know either of those things.

But the Chesters have pulled the curtain back on what it took to get there in the documentary “The Biggest Little Farm,” which opens in theaters Friday.

The movie, which John Chester directed, does not gloss over the hardships, the doubt and the occasional death that came with their dream of not using chemicals on the crops or drugs on the animals in this intimate look at how they made a biodynamic farm out of nothing.

John Chester said it’s “life-affirming” to go back and watch how far they’ve come.

“It was about continuing to move forward in the presence of great failure and great embarrassment,” he said.

They didn’t set out to make a movie. John Chester had left the business behind, and, besides, he figured, they weren’t even experts. Still, being a documentarian at heart, he had the itch to film nonetheless and starting amassing footage of everything (mostly failures). But then five years in, things started to change: The farm was actually working.

“We saw the return of so much wildlife and we saw pest and predator relationships start to balance things out and I was able to capture those things,” John Chester said. “I knew at that moment that we had a very unique opportunity to tell a story.” The technique employed at Apricot Lane Farms is something known as biomimicry, which basically relies on the idea that any problem can be solved through nature. The secret to everything, they say, is in the soil and the cover crops that rebuilt the land and preserved the water.

“The food we grow truly is special,” said Molly Chester. “It’s very nutrientdense and flavorful because we focus on soil development.”

The produce, meat and eggs from the farm are sold at local groceries and at farmers markets in California.

The Chesters have already seen a raised profile for themselves and the farm through film festivals like Telluride, Toronto and Sundance, and are readying themselves for even more recognition and interest as audiences meet the film’s stars like Emma the pig, the guardian dogs, Maggie the cow and others.

In fact, they often hear the same question after screenings of the film: “Is it real?”

“We’re not the first to do this,” John Chester said. “We’re mimicking many mentors who have done this far longer than we have. We’re just maybe the first in this neighborhood.”