Nov 28, 2019
Welcome back for another review, this time for a documentary about a farm in our backyard here in Ventura County, CA. This week has been heavy with documentaries, as I get caught up on the potential Oscar nominees for this year. Check out my review earlier this week for ONE CHILD NATION (Episode #651) and come back later this week for Saturday’s review of BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ, in our ongoing series, “Under the Kanopy”.
Before the review, we’ll have a promo from our good friends at the BiCurean podcast. Every episode, Erik and Aicila find new perspectives on a variety of mainstream and obscure topics. Don’t miss their recent guest review for IT FOLLOWS (Episode #608), and their helpful advice as I endure Reign of Terror 2019. You can find them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @bicurean.
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Here we go!
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Today’s movie is THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM, the Neon documentary directed by John Chester and written for the screen in collaboration with Mark Monroe. The documentary follows the eight-year journey of John Chester, Molly Chester, their dog Todd, and their advisor Alan York, as they left Los Angeles metro for Apricot Lane Farms in Moorpark, CA. The film has won multiple awards in the past year and is perhaps one of the most important documentaries for reclaiming our farm systems from the monoculture destroying them.
I know a lot about farming. I grew up in a small corn town in Northern Illinois, surrounded by massive monoculture fields of corn and soybeans, along with a few hog farms. I lived half my childhood in a rental home on someone else’s farm, mostly growing corn, but also raising a few hogs and other animals, and had plenty of friends who lived on farms. I did a few reports on farming, although I could never get a handle on whatever a futures market might be. And my great-grandmother grew an acre of her own crops, canning and freezing like a boss before she was unable to keep it going. I didn’t want to be a farmer, but I knew enough about farming as it was done in the 1980s and 1990s to feel like I understood everything.
It wasn’t until I went to college, and afterwards as I was learning about modern food systems, that I realized what an anomaly the farm I grew up on actually was. Sure, it was anchored with corn as a cash crop, but it still had a modicum of the diversity you expect from traditional depictions of farms. But what I didn’t realize was that they were forced to monoculture to pay off drastically overpriced equipment, and the necessary fertilizer supplements for the soil, and the fewer and fewer subsidies going to small farmers. I didn’t realize giant agribusinesses were slowly scooping up farms and lands, either exploiting farmers, and cornering them into monoculture or nothing. I also learned about farms raising middle fingers to big business, rediscovering integrated agriculture, or permaculture, that works with environments, instead of exploiting them. My good friend in San Diego is involved in urban farming, and we have multiple community gardens. Everything’s changing, and THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM is one example of the larger change happening within our food systems.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM is a documentary that both tells and teaches and does both very effectively. The story of Apricot Lane Farms is also the story of Molly and John Chester, a middle-class couple on autopilot until an eviction notice because of their adopted dog Todd serves as the impetus to develop a farm using permaculture techniques. It’s also the story of Alan York, their permaculture advisor, the volunteers and farmers that join their ranks, and the animals they bring to farm, as well as those attracted to it as it flourishes. Viewers will connect to at least one character, human or otherwise, which helps with the overall narrative for the eight-year journey. However, the most important character within the film is the farm itself, which we get to see develop from a desert wasteland into an integrated ecosystem.
The story isn’t nearly as fascinating as the effective introduction to understanding permaculture, both its implementation and its benefits. When we talk about modern farming, as I learned in my education, it’s often with a belief that older farming ways were somehow ineffective, which I later learned meant unprofitable. It’s a unique form of American hubris, born from the educational videos of our childhood before the Internet, and wholly ignoring the very real problems caused by “modern” farming method. THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM walks us through all the steps needed to transform dead ground into fertile soil, through the use of smart composting, water management, cover crops, and some exciting discoveries about the purpose of animals on a farm along the way. While modern farming method look to eliminate waste in the growing process by standardizing the seed to harvest system, permaculture looks to create diversity that attracts and produces more from the same amount of land. I found myself having multiple epiphanies along with John and Molly Chester, as they turned every problem into an opportunity, and closing every loose end that appears as they turn dead land into something amazing.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM also walks through a number of challenges facing farmers, especially in our particular region of the world. Ventura County is subject to bouts of the Santa Ana winds, very hot winds that blown in from the Mojave Desert with gusts up to 60mph, along with sometimes torrential rains that can cause flash floods. We discover the very real reason for cover crops to keep topsoil in place from both issues. We also see how Apricot Lane Farms managed the wildfire threats of 2017 to 2018, including the massive Thomas Fire in Ventura County, which opens and closes the film. In each case, the farm’s permaculture model actually protects it more from wildfires than their monoculture neighbors, although it by no means makes them immune.
The biggest little criticism I have for the film are the mysterious investors. Apricot Lane Farms is 130 acres large in Moorpark, CA. It would take a small fortune to purchase and develop the land into the farm it is today, and that was only possible through the mysterious investors that supported Molly and John’s dream. So, it would be perfectly acceptable to say that this is an incredibly privileged journey that they are able to make, whereas many other would-be farmers, particular those in urban farming, can’t get the zoning, grants, or subsidies to embark on similar efforts. However, just because it is privileged doesn’t mean that it isn’t a workable model, or a perfect proof-of-concept for future grants to be made available for smaller scale, biodiverse farms for aspirational farmers. Localizing and regionalizing our food systems is part of the transformations needed to make them more accessible and democratic. I can forgive two people’s privilege in lieu of the incredible work they’ve done.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM is a heartwarming, educational documentary about permaculture farming, as implemented on Apricot Lane Farms in Moorpark, CA. While the means to start this farm are extraordinary, the successful implementation of a permaculture farm provides an accessible and necessary documentary for our future. Documentary fans, and farmers of all levels, should definitely see this film, but so should everyone else who cares about where their food might come from.
Rotten Tomatoes: 91% (CERTIFIED FRESH)
One Movie Punch: 9.0/10
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM (2018) is rated PG and is currently playing on Hulu.