The Biggest Little Farm
Directed by John Chester
Produced by John Chester & Sandra Keats
John and Molly manage a farm north of Los Angeles that had suffered years of neglect. The soil was dead, and the ground was as hard as a rock. If they were looking for an easy, cushy life, that was a really bad move. Fortunately, they weren’t. With the help of their mentor, Alan York, they began to rebuild the farm literally from the ground up.
Vermiculture, compost tea and an irrigation pond were some of the first steps. Diversity was the theme of Alan’s approach. They planted dozens of different kinds of fruit trees. There were cover crops. There were cows, sheep, ducks, chickens and Ugly Betty. Ugly Betty was a pig. Her name was quickly changed to Emma.
Pulling all that together was the easy part. Then came the hard part—keeping it from falling apart again. In addition to the farm animals, there were numerous uninvited guests, varmints and predators. Coyotes liked the chickens and ducks. Gophers dug everywhere and tore up crops. Starlings and other birds rendered the fruit useless for anything but chicken feed. Cow pies promoted an insufferable fly population. Snails swarmed fruit tree leaves and other crops. Aphids joined the party.
This is where the film gets interesting. How do you coexist peacefully with nature and produce anything on the farm? Sadly, their mentor Alan died before all these problems were solved, and they had to figure it out for themselves. They discovered a few helpful things. Ducks love snails. Chickens also like snails and insects in general, including flies, maggots and aphids.
They got guard dogs for the chickens, but the slaughter continued. They were on the verge of concluding that the only way to peacefully coexist with coyotes was to shoot them. Then they discovered that one of their guard dogs was part of the problem and not part of the solution. After correcting that problem, the remaining guard dogs did their job, and the coyotes turned their attention to the gophers, which was actually helpful. But there were more gophers than the coyotes could keep up with, and those starlings were still making a mess of the fruit. What was the answer to that problem? The answer was to wait. Wait for help from above. Eagles, hawks and owls picked up the slack with the gophers and scared away the starlings.
There were other challenges. The worst drought in twelve hundred years is a little hard to coexist with, but their cover crops and soil quality were very good, which made it easier. When the rain did come, it did not run off but soaked in, and the farm recovered quickly.
If you are a starry-eyed wannabe farmer, this is a great film to watch. The production quality is excellent, comparable to Food, Inc. or Farmageddon. You get a realistic look at the challenges you will deal with. This film doesn’t go into great detail on the cost but does say that John and Molly did not have the money to do it. The old cliché is true—if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it. They were fortunate enough to find investors with deep pockets. Losses for the first several years are almost unavoidable, so if you think you are smart and you are expecting quick success, you will find you are not as smart as you imagined. There is also no way for two people to run a farm like that by themselves. They needed a lot of help with the labor involved.
The difficulty makes it all the more rewarding when things do start coming together. Without the diversity, things would not come together. None of it would come together without one other key component: the wise farmer. Films in this category can often be too slow-paced and, frankly, boring. This film, however, is fascinating, and the thumb is very much UP.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2019