Envirobytes 1: Review of The Biggest Little Farm

Hello and welcome to Envirobytes! My name is Arian Tomar, and I am a documentary filmmaker interested in using film to bring communities together across intersectional divides to find innovative solutions to today’s biggest problems. Envirobytes is a blog that will similarly look at innovative solutions across the intersections of climate change, food, technology, and storytelling. Through this blog I hope to raise awareness of new environmental challenges around how we consume and produce food while paying close attention to how technology is hurting and helping those processes, and how we tell the story of our collective successes and failures. As a climate storyteller, tech enthusiast, and budding vegetarian, I hope to share some insight into complexities around eating and producing food in the 21st century. I hope you will join me at the table to enjoy the fruits of my labor as I explore the world of food, storytelling, technology, and the climate crisis.

For my first post, a review of the film that inspired me to pursue blogging: The Biggest Little Farm. Within my circles, there are many misconceptions about what it takes to be a successful farmer. Often farming is treated almost degradingly and is apprehensively considered as an important job carried out by uneducated, simple laborers. This film obliterates that notion with pride. This 2018 documentary, directed by wildlife filmmaker and farmer John Chester, follows John and his wife Molly as they navigate the complexities of running a fully functional, biodiverse, and profitable farm. In 2011, the couple left their mostly comfortable lives in Santa Monica, California behind to start a farm in Moorpark, about 30 miles north, from nothing. The documentary follows their seven-year journey to turn their 214 acres of arid, nutrient deprived land into a prime example of what farming ought to be like. With the help of traditional farming expert Alan York, the support of their community, and plenty of blood, sweat, and tears, the Chester’s created a living system of regulation and nutrient production.

Through careful attention to supporting the health of soil, the foundation of agricultural productivity, Apricot Lanes Farms transformed. The soil rehabilitation was made possible by “200 varieties of fruits and vegetables … sheep, cows, pigs, chicken and ducks” (Apricot Lanes Farms) With every small success came bigger setbacks that in modern, hyper-industrialized agriculture would be met with convenient solutions that yield tremendous harm for both land and wildlife. For example, the Chester’s chickens were under significant threat from local coyotes with the largest estimated number of chickens killed at 230. Where most farmers would shoot coyotes on sight, the Chester’s employ a guard dog to protect the chickens which results in the coyotes directing their efforts to the invasive gophers who made a home in the farm’s orchard. “Observation followed by creativity is becoming our greatest allies” reflects John towards the end of the documentary. After seven years of turning problems into solutions, the Chester’s have finally succeeded in their endeavor to farm in harmony with nature.

I never thought of a farm as particularly cinematic, but John Chester’s experience as a career wildlife filmmaker shines through in the cinematography and direction of the film. Though the image quality is ranges quite significantly as the documentary transitions from cellphone and action camera footage to the rich, beautifully lit and composed shots filmed by a cinema camera, the at times poor visuals are held up by a deeply emotional story. The amount of heart and care that is conveyed in this documentary frequently brought tears to my eyes. The story and cinematography are further enriched by a phenomenal score composed by Jeff Beal. Drawing inspiration from musical conventions of wildlife documentaries and folksy, small-scale stories, Beal perfectly complements every moment with an impassioned score. The editing is tight, engaging, and competently communicates the story through voiceover, 2-D illustrated animation, and a mix of verité and staged footage. From a technical perspective the film is beautiful and nearly every creative choice serves the film. Some minor annoyances I had with the film were that the focus of the narrative can drift as multiple environmental conflicts unfold on the farm and that I simply wanted more than an hour and a half of otherwise tight, heartfelt storytelling.

The Biggest Little Farm is a triumphant story about what it takes to farm in harmony with nature and the endless value that the experience brought the Chester’s and their community. I rate the movie 8/10 and highly recommend that everyone watch this film. I believe it is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime and Hulu. Even if you are not interested in farming, the story of The Biggest Little Farm is full of love and heart and is a breath of fresh air. I would not recommend the Disney+ recut of the film titled “The Biggest Little Farm: The Return” even if you are in a huge rush but still want to engage with this content. It is an immense simplification of the Chester’s story and does not do justice to the hardships they endure and overcome. If 90 minutes was shorter than I would have liked, the Disney+ recut’s 30-minute runtime is severely lacking in depth.

This week, The Biggest Little Farm taught me that there is hope for the future of farming. The film briefly touches on how industrial agriculture around Apricot Lanes Farms has been destroyed after decades of monoculture. In comparison, it only took seven years for Apricot Lanes to renew their soil composition and create a diverse, functional farm that will yield produce, in theory, way longer than any industrial farmland ever could. Thanks for reading and stay hungry for more Envirobytes!

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