Starting a farm from scratch without any farming experience takes real courage. Shooting a documentary about the process at the same time takes audacity.
In The Biggest Little Farm, filmmaker-entrepreneur John Chester captures the improbable story of how he and his wife Molly built a 200-acre farm with a singular goal: achieving the highest level of biodiversity possible. A fascinating case study in regenerative agriculture--a type of organic farming that continuously enriches soil and can help reduce climate change by sequestering carbon--the story of Apricot Lane Farms is also an inside look at the highs and extreme lows of putting everything on the line to chase after an ambitious entrepreneurial dream. The movie screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January and hits theaters on Friday.
For a business that ultimately would struggle with countless setbacks, Apricot Lane had a very serendipitous start. In 2010, shortly after drawing up their business plan, the Chesters attracted an investor that had not only invested in farms before but was so interested in regenerative farming that the individual agreed to finance the entire operation. John quit his job as a cameraman and wildlife filmmaker, Molly gave up her position as a chef, and the couple moved out of their tiny Los Angeles apartment to live on a giant plot of mostly infertile land just north of L.A. "It sounded like a meaningful life," John says in the film. "Everyone told us we were crazy."
It didn't take long for the couple to learn that building a farm literally from the ground up--and on dead soil--was even harder than they had anticipated. After six months, the Chesters had spent their first year's budget without planting a single crop. Their long term objective of emulating a natural ecosystem where plants and animals work together in harmony began to seem less and less plausible.
"Just reawakening the soil and building a soil system that actually regenerates itself is a feat unto itself," John Chester tells Inc. "To try to make the crops and the livestock interact in a way that is healthy for all is a level of complexity that, had I known in the beginning, I probably would have steered clear of."
When the Chesters finally introduce animals and crops to their farm is when the documentary hits its stride, capturing everything from the tiny movements of insects in stunning detail to the unlikely friendship between a chicken named Greasy and the farm's 320-pound pig, Emma. Many of the film's most endearing moments depict different species interacting in unexpected ways. While the vivid natural imagery resembles the TV programs John previously shot for cable network Animal Planet, the film amounts to much more than a wildlife movie by chronicling the Chesters's multi-year struggle to keep their business alive.
By the end of its second year, Apricot Lane Farms was home to 10,000 orchard trees, more than 200 different crops and a wide variety of animals. One of the farm's first products, eggs, eventually became so popular that 50 dozen packages would sell out at farmer's markets in less than an hour. John attributes the quality of the product to Apricot Lane's increasingly rich soil.
"The pastures that [the chickens] are eating off are fortified with a more complex, higher density nutrient that now is being transferred to that egg," he tells Inc.
Though unleashing nature was necessary for Apricot Lane to thrive, it also opened something of a Pandora's Box, introducing a variety of pests, bacteria, and fungal diseases. At one point, birds ate 70 percent of the farm's ripest fruit while snails ravaged plant crops and coyotes preyed on chickens. Natural solutions, such as ducks that ate 90,000 snails, often led to new problems, like feces that would create toxic algae. "Every step we take to improve our land is creating the perfect habitat for the next pest," John says in the film.
Five years after founding Apricot Lane, however, wildlife and insects that served as predators helped rebalance the pest infestations that had been plaguing the Chesters. Owls killed 15,000 gofers that were ravaging fruit trees. Plants that were classified as weeds began cycling nutrients back into the soil. Their orchard reached protifability, and in 2017, Apricot Lane sold more than 500,000 pounds of food.
While The Biggest Little Farm is certainly a compelling story of two determined entrepreneurs harnessing nature in inspiring ways, it's difficult to gauge the success of the Chesters's venture. If you're looking for a nitty-gritty, transparent look at exactly what it costs to finance this entrepreneurial dream, you're not going to find it here, as the film never discloses the amount of their unnamed benefactor's investment, or how much revenue Apricot Lane generated during any of the eight years that the documentary covers. Chester declined to share financial data, but did state that he expects to sell 650,000 pounds of food in 2019.
By at least one measure, however, the Chesters have succeeded in realizing an ambitious dream.
"The way that we and our investor saw it was, this was long-term thinking--that in 10 years, people are going to start looking for farms that are growing stuff in a regenerative way," John says. "Honestly, I think we were right."