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April 29, 2019

Watching nature

Opinion

April 29, 2019

Opening at The Landmark at 57 West on May 10th, documentary ‘The Biggest Little Farm’ is a stunningly dramatic portrait of a husband and wife trying to create an ecotopian Garden of Eden forty miles north of Los Angeles.

Idealist to a fault but utterly inexperienced as farmers, they encounter one obstacle after another in the hope of doing well by doing good. Essentially, they discover that by creating a bounteous yield of edibles destined for the organic foods market, they also attract a plague of gophers, coyotes, starlings and snails that see their farm as a dinner plate. Trying to balance their ecotopian values with the appetites of the animal kingdom becomes an ordeal they never anticipated.

‘The Biggest Little Farm’ begins by introducing John and Molly Chester, a handsome thirty-something couple living in a modest apartment in Santa Monica. He is a cameraman specializing in wildlife who has made a career working for cable networks like Animal Planet. As the director of the film, he has a keen eye for the vast array of living creatures that both inspire and bedevil him once he becomes a farmer. Molly Chester is a cookbook author and private chef who believes passionately in organic food.

While they might have had fantasies about going back to the land, it was totally by accident that they took the huge leap to start Apricot Lane in 2011. John had learned about an unlicensed dog shelter in Los Angeles that kept 200 dogs in meager conditions. Kindhearted to all animals, including the snails that would eventually begin making a meal out of the fruit trees at Apricot Lane, he decided to adopt a black mutt he named Todd. He and Molly loved the dog but had no idea how to keep him from barking every minute they were away at work. When the landlord served them an eviction notice, the couple decided to become farmers based on their ecological vision.

Raising funds from a network of friends, they purchase land surrounded by factory farms. One is a former poultry farm that kept hens caged up in vast warehouses that thankfully went out of business. The other is a raspberry farm in which the plants are grown by the tens of thousands in carefully controlled greenhouses. Their intention is to build a farm that breaks with such industrial farming techniques.

To start with, they discover that their soil is totally infertile, a legacy of the monoculture that existed before they became owners. To redeem the land, the first step is to create an ecosystem that could replenish the soil naturally. This meant using organic fertilizer, fostering the growth of earthworms, and – most importantly – introducing a diverse array of crops that could mutually reinforce each other.

They rely on the advice of Alan York, a guru of organic farming. Not long into the film, when the Chesters begin to confront the difficulties of implementing his visionary ecological beliefs, John Chester – who narrates throughout – begins to seem a bit skeptical about whether York’s plans are feasible. When he notes that York is perpetually wearing linen, you get the impression that Chester is worried that Apricot Lane is relying on the wisdom of a Green prophet who might be as unyielding as those found in the Old Testament. York insists that it is not enough to grow one or two different kinds of trees. To consummate his over-arching vision, they must plant the seeds of seventy-five varieties of plums, apples, lemons, nectarines, etc.

Three years into Alan York’s master plan, everything appears to be coming together. The soil is fertile; the trees are bounteous, and the cows, pigs, ducks and hens are reproducing like crazy. Ironically, that’s when their real troubles begin. Coyotes feast on the hens. Snails infest their orchards. Gophers eat the groundcover plants that help the trees grow. If they were trying to create a new Garden of Eden, you begin to wonder if an angry God was punishing them with the kind of plagues that were visited on the Egyptians.

Excerpted from: ‘Can Humanity and Nature Co-Exist Under Capitalism?’

Courtesy: Counterpunch.org