The documentary The Biggest Little Farm follows John and Molly Chester from their tiny L.A. apartment to a farm spread out over 200 acres in the foothills of Ventura County, as they embark on a journey to build one of the most diverse farms of its kind, in complete co-existence with nature. Over the course of eight years of daunting work, they take the land that was depleted of nutrients and suffering from a brutal drought and plant 10,000 orchard trees and over 200 different crops while also bringing in animals of every kind – including Emma, an unforgettable pig who’s clearly the star of the farm – eventually getting the farm’s ecosystem to a place of perfect harmony in a way that is truly awe-inspiring.
Collider was recently invited out to Apricot Lane Farms (where you can also take a public tour on designated dates during the year) to sit down and chat with John and Molly Chester about their incredible journey. During the interview, they talked about the challenges of making a film that you’re also the subject of, the editing process, shooting a movie while also running a farm, meeting and surpassing the vision that they had for the farm itself, everything they learned along the way, watching their son be born into and grow up in this environment, what they hope audiences take from seeing the documentary, and their future plans for the farm.
How hard was it to actually put the film the together, knowing that there is probably so much more that happened, that we don’t get to see?
JOHN: Yeah. You definitely have to ultimately acknowledge that there is only going to be time for about 90 or so minutes. That’s a process that took us a year and a half, to cut the film. I knew that the audience was only gonna be able handle so much detail, in order to understand something so complex, so we had to be very choosy with the heroes that would play those illustrated points.
Were there times where you just didn’t think you could cut it down any further?
JOHN: It was a process of working with Mark Monroe, who said, “Your first rough cut can’t be any more than 90 minutes.” I was like, “Interesting. What?” And he said, “You’ll never see the forest through the trees, if you have to look through too much.” And so, we made a very, very critical cut, and it really was crazy. You could see, right away, what was missing, and you could also see, very easily, what wasn’t working. We made sure that every edit was always around the 90, and no more than 100, minute mark.
Molly, were there ever things that you wanted to have in the film, and you were like, “No, please don’t cut that out!,” or “Why is that scene gone”?
JOHN: She wasn’t a part of the process, really.
MOLLY: Yeah, I remember when certain things would go away, I’d be like, “I kind of miss that.” He would show me stuff, but it’s not my space to have a whole lot of opinions on that.
JOHN: She did have an opinion. She just wasn’t a part of the daily process.
MOLLY: Yeah, I gave perspective and notes, but I really withheld myself from not getting controlling about it because that wasn’t gonna serve anybody. He’s an amazing storyteller, so why mess with great?
JOHN: But let’s face it, her opinion means a lot more then I ever let on.
Is it hard to do a film when you’re the subject? Does that add its own unique challenges?
JOHN: Of course, it does! It’s a process, in the edit. I was already okay with showing myself struggle, but I was not presenting myself, in the initial edits, as a doubter or antagonist to the story, and that was not the truth. The truth is that I was skeptical and I was a doubter. I wanted to believe that it was true, but I had a hard time being that to Molly. I was questioning it, and I was questioning Alan [York] more. Once I had that realization, the story got better, but it was very humbling for me. I had to grow through that process to allow that truth to be told. That was something that I realized, after an edit or two.
Was it a simultaneous decision to find and run a farm while making a film about it all?
JOHN: No, I was never gonna make another film again, and I was totally happy never making another film again.
Both of those things, individually, seems impossible, but trying to do both of them together seems insane.
JOHN: Oh, yeah, you get a really good marriage counselor, after three years into your farming adventure, and then you try to do both.
MOLLY: Just when you’re feeling stable from your counseling, then you throw a film on top of it
JOHN: There was never a plan to make a film. There was always the idea that, if it did work, maybe there would be a story to be told, but what would that story be? We didn’t know what that story was gonna look like, until it revealed itself. So, as a documentary filmmaker, I had that thing where regret is more painful than time wasted, so I wouldn’t regret capturing it. I may have wasted a little time, but I was amassing footage. And then, it became very clear that footage was purposefully interconnected. Year five we saw the return of all of this wildlife, and the predators were eating the pests, and I knew that there was something really unique here, that could be told and magnified in a way that could be cinematic for people to see how this whole thing worked together, as a single organism
When you guys decided to do this, what was the vision that you were hoping for with the farm, and how close did you get?
MOLLY: We put together a very simple three to five page document that was a five-year plan, at that point, and we hit the marks. We really did. What we were dreaming is what it became. Now, we did that, so we’re getting to go deeper into all of those areas because we have a foundation.
When you hit that point where you realized it was actually working, what was the next thing you were hoping for with the farm?
JOHN: Refining the things that were growing and doing well, and eliminating the things that were not meant to be grown or that weren’t doing well. Really, you start with rebuilding the immune system of your land, and the next level is the immune system of your crew, and the way you’re communicating to each other, and how you’re organizing the daily needs of the farm. That’s the thing that we focus on a lot now, just how to work with a lot of different farmers on a farm that has a lot of different things. There are two layers of immunology that we focus on – communication and ecosystem immunology. The sustainability of this whole project is our ability to continue to face all these things as a team that understands the priorities.
How hard was it to jump into doing all of this, without knowing exactly what you were doing?
JOHN: Thank god for neuroplasticity that apparently can last for as long as you have a brain. It hurts your head. You’re constantly learning.
MOLLY: The key is whether you’re passionate and want to learn what you’re doing because then you just learn so much quicker and more effectively. I definitely, for one, didn’t want anything else, other than what we were doing. And John has a deep interest in regeneration and soil, and things like that. So, we just dove in. Both of us, from our prior careers, are very tactile, so it wouldn’t be uncommon that we’d just dive in and figure it out. Culinary has a huge aspect of that, and that’s all filmmaking is.
JOHN: Films and dishes don’t wanna be made.
MOLLY: We started running the farm like a film set, with everybody getting walkie talkies, and things like that, just from John running crews. It was very natural, for both of our personalities, to dive in and learn, from the inside out.
JOHN: But, you have to love it. You can’t just want to change the world, and you can’t just want healthy food.
MOLLY: It can’t come from the outside
JOHN: It can’t be with an agenda of righteousness. You just truly have to fall in love with the complexities of nature and be in awe of it because that’s gonna be the driving force, in the worst of times. You can’t take that meaningfulness away. You realize that there is a connected solution to everything that you’re facing, and you’ve gotta be so into looking for that. If you don’t love it, nothing will change. As filmmakers, with documentaries, we try to make films that scare people into caring and changing. Lasting change truly comes from something that someone loves. If you can’t fall in love with it, then you’re never gonna see anything change. So, what we’ve done here is really give people the opportunity to have a new lens with which to view it, and that will bring about all of the difference that we could ever hope for.
It seems like there’s no end to the unexpected things that can happen on a farm.
MOLLY: Yeah, for sure
Do you ever get to a point where you stop saying, “What did we get ourselves into?” or is that something that just always happens, with every unexpected thing?
JOHN: It’s dulled, a little bit.
MOLLY: Through the process of working with biology, you start to feel rhythms a lot. What was a crisis, for the first couple of years, becomes like a blip. You get more into a flow with it, and less worked up about it. It’s probably like raising children. The first time something happens, you’re like, “Oh, my gosh!” And then, by child four, it doesn’t even register, so it’s not as painful. But then, you have new levels of pain and new layers of the onion that you’re working through.
JOHN: When things go wrong, you don’t let embarrassment rush you to a conclusion. You spend a lot of energy, rushing to cover embarrassment after failure, but really the way to farm like this is that, in the moment of failure and embarrassment, stop and really pay attention to why the thing happened, and you’ll find a longer, more lasting solution. That takes less energy.
Molly, you also put recipes together and have cookbooks. What are you looking to do, when you’re putting recipes together? What is your process for that?
MOLLY: The greatest thing is that you’re driven by what you have access to. All of a sudden, you’ll have to figure out artichokes because you’ve got nine million artichokes. That’s when you’re in charge of your art, to a certain degree. When it starts to work, you get to that place where you can play. There’s a little bit of play involved. You have to have your skills and technique, and it’s helpful that you have that background and can bring it to another level, but anytime that you’re farming or gardening and you have a lot of something, it’s forced creativity because you’re like, “How do use this?,” and that process teaches you how to learn. You don’t have to be great. You’re forming a co-existence with what you have too much of, but good stuff comes out of that. With good food, you just need salt and pepper, and a really good, quality oil. If you have beautiful beet, then you don’t need much more then a little bit of flaky salt and some sort of good oil, and you’re golden.
Farming is something that you came to later in life. What’s it like to watch your child grow up in it, knowing that this is just what he knows because he was born into it?
MOLLY: We talk about that, all the time. We worked so hard to get here, and he just plops down. He’s totally enjoying it, and it’s a joy to experience it with him. There’s truly not much else in the world that I like better than just experiencing the farm with [our son]. Just bouncing around the farm with our family is the best.
JOHN: To be able to give a young person that’s his age, the perspective that there is a system that he grew up in that is all interconnected with nature and that has solutions within healthy bio-diversity, is really cool. That’s some nerdy stuff that gets people’s brains going, and he gets to experience it. No one can ever take that away from him. Who knows what he’ll do with that experience. He may come up with some innovation that helps the planet or farms, or maybe he’ll be a dancer and be really good at that.
What do you hope people take from seeing this film?
JOHN: I think the biggest misconception would be that this film is just about a farm. It’s really about the story of the angst of our human condition, and the separation that we feel from not only each other, in this seemingly overly connected world where we’re not really connecting, but from the separation that we feel from nature that nobody knows how to put into words. People say that they like to be in nature, but really understanding it brings about a sense of safety and it heals that wound of separation that we feel. I hope it gives people the opportunity to actually be aware that all the solutions to our problems probably do exist within a healthy, biologically diverse system of nature.
Are there things that you still want to do on the farm that you haven’t gotten to yet?
MOLLY: I want to do what we’re doing, forever, and just get to different layers of it. We’re finally to the point where we have product lines, which was a goal. We’re doing an avocado oil because we have a lot of avocados on the farm. And we’re doing a bourbon lemon marmalade. So, it’s fun to have those come out in the world. I’m infinitely inspired, in that space. I also want to just go deeper into every single department on the farm. I want to increase fertility forever on the farm.
Where can people get the products that you have to offer?
MOLLY: They’re online, so they can get them at www.ApricotLaneFarms.com. And then, we sell them locally at farmers markets and at different specialty retailers, like Erewhon and Farmshop in L.A. We will also be starting to expand our avocado oil into New York and San Francisco, and we’ll see where we go from there
JOHN: And we have The Biggest Little Farm series of books about Emma. The first one is called Saving Emma the Pig.
The Biggest Little Farm opens in theaters on May 10th, and you can find out more about the farm and their available products and merchandise at www.ApricotLaneFarms.com.