'Biggest Little Farm' Chronicles One Couple's Effort To 'Jump-Start The Soil'

May 6, 2019
Originally published on May 7, 2019 12:32 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Many people have dreamed of leaving the city for the country, to live in a way that would reflect their concerns about the environment. Our next guests, John and Molly Chester, are a couple who did just that; they left their home in Los Angeles and started an organic farm. But they soon learned about the many ways nature can turn against you, no matter how noble your intentions. The Chesters tried to turn a dry and soil-depleted 200-acre parcel into a lush, organic farm. They were determined to tend fruit orchards and raise cows, pigs and chickens in harmony with nature.

Drought, pests, windstorms and fire threatened to end the venture, but after eight years, their farm, Apricot Lane Farms, is thriving. John Chester, who was a filmmaker before he tried farming, directed a new documentary called "The Biggest Little Farm," about the obstacles he and Molly, a former private chef, faced and overcame and what their experiences can tell us about the relationship between humans and our environment. "The Biggest Little Farm" has won several awards at film festivals and will be in theaters this Friday. Molly and John Chester spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: John Chester, Molly Chester, welcome to FRESH AIR. Did either of you have any experience farming?

JOHN CHESTER: I grew up - in my 20s, I worked on a couple of family farms, but they were, you know, industrial, sort of commercial monocrop operations, growing corn and soy for, essentially, Perdue chickens, but no understanding of soil or the importance of biodiversity or how the whole ecosystem went together; in fact, it was all about suppressing, you know, the ecosystem and controlling it and fighting it. So there wasn't really an understanding beyond just driving a tractor, building fences and weed-whacking.

DAVIES: So somehow you managed to find investors and put this thing together and buy a couple hundred acres north of Los Angeles. What was the land like when you saw it?

J CHESTER: It was a conventionally run (ph) lemon farm, monocrop more or less. There were some avocados as well. But it had been extractive-ly (ph) farmed for 45 years; meaning that in order to grow the food cheaply, they were taking out the nutrients from the soil and not generating them. And that - you know, that's kind of the basis for conventional AG. It's not looking at the whole system. It's not regenerating soil, necessarily. So we essentially had just convinced our partners to purchase a bankrupt piece of land. And we had to figure out a way to jumpstart that flywheel system of the soil through these regenerative practices.

DAVIES: It looks pretty dry and ugly in the film (laughter).

J CHESTER: We thought it was beautiful at the time. That's how naive we were.

MOLLY CHESTER: Yeah, I thought it was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. And it felt so magical at that time. And looking back, it totally was a desert. But it's amazing what happens when you start to think your happiness is in front of you with something. It just shields all of the realities.

DAVIES: Right. And there's a guy who's sort of at the heart of this story. I mean, the muse, the Merlin, the - you know, the - this guy Alan York, who's - was an adviser to the project. Give us an idea of some of the early advice he gave you, some of the first things he said you should do.

M CHESTER: Alan was - he was big-picture. And so he was looking at - what do we need to take out, to put in what should more naturally grow in this region?

J CHESTER: And then to add to that, I mean, his goal for us was to maximize the biological diversity of our farm, you know, through the use of plants, animals, wildlife and the restoration of wildlife habitat. So he wanted to basically - he was encouraging us to start a 10-ring circus.

DAVIES: (Laughter) We - you know, we should note that this wasn't just the two of you on the farm with some advice from Alan. You managed to recruit volunteers from all around the world to come and help, which was, of course, critical 'cause there was a lot of work. You brought animals.

And I should just say, for the audience - I mean, this is just a beautifully photographed film. And it is just absorbing to watch. But you bring animals. I mean, you bring ducks. And you bring chickens. And you buy a bull at auction. And then that kind of changes the mix of what's happening. So stuff grows. The trees grow. And then you discover various pests like to eat the fruit on your trees.

J CHESTER: Everything we did to improve the land caused another problem.

DAVIES: Right.

J CHESTER: You know, we grew cover crops. The snails love cover crop. And the snails, you know, eat the leaves of our citrus trees. And we grew cover crop, and we created the worst gopher problem in probably Ventura County. If someone could tell me what I could do with gophers, we would be in the black a lot sooner.

So we were really creating new problems with every solution. And so it really required a commitment to go a lot deeper than we thought we were going to have to go.

DAVIES: You had all kinds of problems with pests helping themselves to the crops that you were raising, including these delicious, you know, fruit trees that you had - among them gophers, which were attracted by the cover soil that you'd put there, which holds nutrients and holds water. And you got a lot of gophers. And they eat the roots of the tree and kill them, right?

J CHESTER: Yeah. I mean, gophers in small quantities can be good. They're tilling your soil. They're actually helping transfer and inoculate various funguses that are important to soil health and bacteria. But you know, too many and they start eating the roots. So we tried to fight the gopher problem with manpower, you know, and spent, you know, thousands and thousands of dollars trapping gophers.

But it wasn't until Year 5 that we realized that there are things in the ecosystem that manage gophers, like barn owls. So we started to put - we spent probably 600 bucks, 700 bucks on barn owl boxes. And by Year 7, we had about 87 barn owls come through the farm, having multiple clutches in each box, you know. And they ate an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 gophers, which was way more than three men full-time could do in a year.

And so knowing those kinds of things is what makes this way of farming more affordable. But what we've lost are - we've lost the connection to the lore. And we've stopped innovating, you know. And this innovation and this type of experimentation is something that, you know, ultimately will make this type of farming, you know, not only ecologically sustainable, but financially sustainable.

DAVIES: Let me just reintroduce you, then we'll take a break and talk some more.

We're speaking with Molly and John Chester, whose seven-year effort to clear land and create a 200-acre organic farm is the subject of the new documentary "The Biggest Little Farm." We will talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENJI MERRISON AND WILL SLATER'S "BETWEEN FEEDS/AMOROUS PEACOCK")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with John and Molly Chester, whose remarkable effort to create a 200-acre biodynamic farm battling droughts, pests and fire is the subject of the new documentary directed by John called "The Biggest Little Farm."

While you were still struggling to get the fruit crops going, you were - you had a lot of chickens. And they laid a lot of eggs, and you were able to sell those. So that was really working. But there was a problem with coyotes eating the chickens. How did you try and address that?

J CHESTER: Well, the coyotes ate about 350 of our chickens.

DAVIES: Wow.

J CHESTER: And, you know, we refused to shoot the coyote because we wanted to find a way to collaborate. But, you know, ultimately, I succumb to it, and I kill a coyote. And I think it's a really important moment in the film because there's something that happens after that that has a profound effect on the way I look at the coyote's role.

The coyote also happens to eat gophers and rabbits, another pest on the farm. If we kill all the coyotes, we're going to make that problem worse. And that forced us to find a solution.

DAVIES: It is quite a moment in the film when you shoot the coyotes. He's trapped trying to get through a fence, and we can see you level the - looks like a shotgun. What were you thinking then? What were you feeling emotionally?

J CHESTER: In shooting the one coyote, the thing that was weighing on me the most was that I knew this wasn't the only coyote. I was going to have to obliterate every coyote that crossed our path. And we were the farm that had animals, like, that they were eating. You know, we were creating a food system for coyotes. So it was going to be an endless battle of constantly killing coyotes, and I think that's the thing that scared me the most - was that it felt like an incredibly slippery slope.

M CHESTER: That is a really good point, John, I think, too, because any time we slip into a space where eradication is the answer, we are almost always in a losing battle.

DAVIES: And then you found a way that the coyotes became helpful. How did that happen?

J CHESTER: Well, after we had shot the one coyote, there was a coyote that ran into the fence of the garden, and it had paralyzed itself. And I had to actually now, you know, euthanize this coyote. It was still alive, but it couldn't move. But when I asked, why is this coyote in the garden? I looked around and it had been digging holes in the garden. It was eating gophers. It was chasing rabbits. It was actually helping to balance another problem. And so I thought, there's got to be another way. And we finally found one of our guardian dogs didn't eat chickens.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

J CHESTER: The only one. Her name was Rosie, and Rosie became the guardian dog of our flock. And, knock on wood, we've not lost any chickens since then. So, you know, the coyotes are busy eating, you know, gophers and rabbits.

DAVIES: So the gophers were eating the roots of the fruit trees. That was the problem. And now...

J CHESTER: Right.

DAVIES: ...That the coyotes can't get the chickens, it goes for the gophers, which is a big help to you.

J CHESTER: Yeah. Nature is - they're simple opportunists, and you just need to make it slightly harder on one side so that they go the other direction. It sometimes doesn't require as much effort as you think. But yeah, I look at it as, like, you're kind of - to use kind of modern vernacular, it's like you're hacking into, you know, the engine of your ecosystem. You're hacking into methods of biomimicry, you know, and trying not to influence it in a way that, you know, causes collateral damage but just enough that you can live alongside of it.

DAVIES: You know, to kind of see the process unfold in the movie is really beautiful. You know, we've had a couple of interviews on the show lately about climate change. And while, you know, its advocates for change do see some signs of hope, it can be pretty dispiriting. And I think this film is as inspirational as that can be discouraging, in a way. And it almost makes it hard for me to ask kind of the hard questions, which I do wonder about. Like, can this scale - I mean, can farming this way feed a planet? You know, because we had the Green Revolution in the '60s with all the hybrid seeds and then the monoculture agriculture that does a lot of harm but produces an awful lot of cheap food. I mean, I don't know if you think about it on these terms, but it this a way to feed the planet and change the way we grow food and eat it?

J CHESTER: I think the other way to ask that question is, if we don't start working with our land in a more regenerative way, can the planet feed us? You know, just in the last 260 years, we've destroyed more than a third of the topsoil. We've deforested 46% of the trees. We've doubled CO2 from 260 to 400 parts per million. We are an incredible force of nature, humans. And we've done all of that unconsciously. And just imagine with consciousness for the infinite possibilities of collaboration with nature. Imagine what we could do with that.

I think that charge of a farm to feed the world, you know, comes, like, from post-World War II. It's not the job of a farm to feed the world. It's the job of a farm to feed its community, and the loss of just that understanding is how we got here. Our goal is to feed, you know, the area around us. And yes, is it economically possible? Sure. I mean, not - our way specifically is not the way for every farm, but there's farms that are working in a regenerative way that are economically sustainable - absolutely. And it's just a decision, you know, an act and an understanding of the kinds of farms you're going to support, you know? That's probably going to give us the best chance at a change.

DAVIES: Molly Chester, John Chester, thank you so much for spending some time with us. Good luck with the farm, and congratulations on the film.

J CHESTER: Thank you so much.

M CHESTER: Thank you very much.

GROSS: John and Molly Chester spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. The new documentary about their farm, which John directed, is called "The Biggest Little Farm." It begins opening in theaters Friday. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be journalist Rachel Louise Snyder, author of a new book about domestic violence, and Suzanne Dubus, who runs a crisis center for victims of domestic violence, including a program designed to identify when a woman is at risk of being murdered and help prevent that from happening. Dubus was a victim of abuse in her first marriage. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN ALLISON'S "GREEN AI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.