MovieMonday: The Biggest Little Farm

This is a charming film about a new kind of farm, one that more closely resembles the family farms of past centuries than the common corporate farms of today.

The story begins when when John Chester, a wildlife film photographer, and Molly, his food blogger wife, are evicted from their Santa Monica apartment, apparently because their rescue dog barks too much when he is lonely, i.e., whenever the Chesters are not home.

The only thing for it is to take the dog and buy a 200-acre farm an hour north of Los Angeles in an area surrounded by rolling hills that are dirt-brown most of the year.  The farm has failed and been foreclosed on twice by banks, but Molly and John have a new plan — a biodiverse and harmonious collection of plants and animals, plus cover crops and culverts and a well to collect and hold scarce rainwater and refill the farm pond.  The transformation they achieve over time is lovely and gratifying to see.

The introduction of animals — sheep, dogs, chickens, ducks, bees and pigs — and the layout of various orchards and gardens (with the assistance of Alan York, an expert who shares the vision) is a project of ups and downs.  Uninvited snails show up to eat the orchards’ leaves and fruit, but the farm’s ducks eat the snails with gusto; the resulting duck poop nourishes the soil under the trees.  When the  inevitable gophers start nibbling and gnawing on farm plants’ roots, they are kept in check by barn owls that have taken up residence in various box nests that the Chesters have thoughtfully placed in the eaves of farm buildings.

Over years and through ups and downs, the farm grows more beautiful.  There are concerns about water during the long drought and wildfires that have grown more common in recent years in California, but Molly and John endure.

Transforming Apricot Lane Farm is presented as an exhilarating challenge, but it must have been, and must continue to be, very hard work.  In a time when most farms are much larger and devoted to single crops, the Chesters are among a hardy few who are trying something different.  There is no overt promotion of organic farming (or even a mention of the more controversial biodynamic farm movement), but only the suggestion that such a project is rewarding and fun.

This is a film that children will love, not least for the farm animals’ antics.  Definitely take your young friends to have a look.  It appears that the farm now offers guided tours to interested outsiders, and it may inspire others to take up similar projects.

Still, as a non-farmer who has encountered various pesky garden critters, I wonder how the Chesters can possibly keep thousands of starlings (birds that do not belong in the US) out of their orchards.  Or how they will deal with the packs of coyotes who kill chickens and ducks and seem undeterred by wire fences but only by gunshots.  If the neighbors of Apricot Lane Farm set up similar operations, I can almost guarantee the lush landscapes will attract large numbers of deer, omnivorous herbivores who only will be dissuaded by 10-foot fences around every field and entry, including the driveways.  In short, farming is not for sissies.

The film does not go into financial detail about how Molly and John found the unnamed investors who helped them to buy the farm, the livestock, the fruit trees and other plants and farm machinery and to pay the laborers necessary to make basic improvements needed to turn their vision into reality.  Whether the farm’s products can generate enough income to feed the family and repay those investors — whether the farm can work as a going concern — is a question not discussed.

Said shorter, the film is less a documentary than an enthusiastic fantasy, but enjoyable nonetheless.

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