The Biggest Little Farm (review)

This film was a nice surprise.  I saw the preview and it went on my list of films to consider.  It is a documentary and many people won’t even consider one when looking for a good film.  Documentaries have a stigma that they are serious, lack dramatic engagement and are usually dry experiences.  Not everyone believes that, but the feeling is you won’t get the same cinematic experience as a feature film.  It really depends on the subject and the filmmaker.  Maybe I’ll come up with my list of 10 favorite documentaries.

DCIM100GOPROThe Biggest Little Farm (2018) takes place over eight years and you get to see the story from the very beginning.  This film has highs, lows, light moments and some that will make your eyes moist.  If you want to tell a successful story, make people care about your story and the people in it.  If they care, they will be emotionally involved and people will want to hear your story.

John and Molly Chester aren’t farmers but they adopted a rescue dog and couldn’t live in an apartment with him.  So they looked for a life change so they could be home with him, and that got them to the farming idea.  Not just traditional farming, but taking over a barren former horse farm and transforming it into a biodynamic 213-acre farm that produces chemical-free fruits and vegetables.  These city-folk had no idea about farming and didn’t have a lot of money, so they had to find investors to buy the property and fund their start-up.  They were fortunate to find a farming consultant named Alan Long to help advise them.

Emma the big and Greasy the rooster

It took years, but they transformed dry, rock-hard soil into fertile, moisture-retaining, organic dirt to support life. These city-folk had a lot of learnin’ to do, how to build a worm compost facility, reclaiming an irrigation pond and planting a diverse fruit orchard.  One of their discoveries involved plant cover, which conserved the soil, introduced nutrients and give their animals food.  Bringing the soil back to life and getting the orchard to mature took several years.

This film had a lot of dramatic tension.  Just as they seemed to move a step forward they would be hit by a major problem.  Birds eating their fruit, or aphids, or gophers, coyotes, a very sick pig, snails, the worst drought in 1200 years, and so forth.  Alan Long told them from the first was to diversify their crops and animals, to seek harmony and find balance.  The ecosystem they created, while rich in plant and animal life, brought other challenges.  When something was out of balance, they found a solution like creating a habitat for owls to get rid of a new varmint. When thousands of snail were eating fruit from the orchard, they brought in their ducks to eat the snails.

On the farm they learned that everything has a purpose, and life and death are part of the same life-cycle.  Farm life can be very harsh and the film does not skip those aspects.  The Chesters lose many chickens and ducks to predators, and with reluctance of killing the coyotes, selectively, they must do so.  Coyotes are part of the ecosystem and while they hunt the livestock, they also get rid of gophers.  They discover one of their dogs, who protects the livestock, killed Greasy, a beloved rooster.

During the film’s eight years, you don’t see much of the impact on the Chesters or their relationship.  The problems they work through on the farm, set-backs, and obvious financial drain, are not represented in the film.  One assumes the experience made their relationship stronger and by the end of the film they have a young son.  My one complaint is that you don’t really know the Chesters much better at the end than at the beginning.  While the story is the farm, their lives and the farm are obviously blended together.  Since the Chesters made the film, they chose what to show and what not to show.

The farm’s journey is an amazing one.  If you think this documentary will cheat from an enjoyable emotional film experience; you’d be wrong.

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