The filmmaker explores what it takes to have a diversified farm with fruit trees, sheep, pigs, ducks, and chickens, in an area of California just north of Los Angeles which is undergoing a drought. This documentary follows John and Molly Chester who were living in a crowded apartment in the city and then decided to strike off, buy a farm, and because they are ignorant of farming, hire a consultant who becomes their guru. The tone is at turns reverent, resentful, sad, and wistful about the consultant. The open questioning and admitting of ignorance about their undertaking made me question John and Holly’s intelligence. What else it took to establish the farm besides the idealism of creating a truly diverse farm using the old methods of natural fertilizer, pests control, and soil development are left unexplored.
The Chesters aim to have their farm reclaim land lost to monoculture. Farming is hard, and full of natural enemies (coyotes, starlings, gophers, aphids) As the couple learn and observe over several years, they put their enemies to use. The coyotes kill the gophers which are destroying their ground cover which is keeping the soil fertile for the fruit trees. Their ducks eat the snails that are damaging the trees.
Photography is always beautiful, perhaps too beautiful: how did they get those shots of the hummingbird at her nest? The filmmaker’s original career as a nature photographer helps.
But I had so many questions: How did they get the money to start the farm? Why wasn’t there more discussion of the business of farming? Did the ladybugs just arrive to feast on the aphids or did they buy hordes of them? At first the story begins with the couple not having any money to buy the farm, then there were investors. Is investors a euphemism for a rich uncle? Who really owned the farm? Why did they call it Biggest Little Farm? Is 200 acres a little farm? Were their employees really that happy? I was dying to hear from someone besides the filmmaker. It was way too one sided. A farm takes lots of people to make it work, and though a few people were singled out as helping, I don’t think enough credit was given to the many people who worked there.
Another problem I had was the cloying tone, beginning with the music, extending to the dog Todd who was inserted with his weepy blue eyes often and did not come across for me I think the way it was intended. I hated it when they said we had a baby, referring to the dog.
The movie is hopeful in that it demonstrates how the earth can be reclaimed with the right strategy and tons of work, but at times it was preachy with its endless voiceover. Chester is the narrator and it is his story, so it is warranted, but I grew tired of the wordiness.
As someone who works a little piece of land with rather thin soil, I loved watching the transformation of the dirt from sandy dust to rich loamy earth that could grow anything. But never mentioning money in a movie about what looks like an expensive risky enterprise seems disingenuous. My favorite character: Emma, the big fat sow. She had real presence, and when she took sick, that was the one time I worried. Emma just did her job of being a sow, and did not take on any other pretentious meaning.