The next time I’m in southern California, I’d love to take a tour of Apricot Lane Farms, a traditional farm north of Los Angeles that subscribes to a sustainable model in which the farm exists in harmony with the natural life in and around it.
Until then, the next best thing is the documentary “The Biggest Little Farm,” which details how this 130-acre patch of land when from barren to bountiful.
It started when the film’s director, nature filmmaker John Chester, and his wife Molly, a private chef, decided essentially to go “Green Acres” — leaving Santa Monica city life for their dream farm. Their idea was to grow a lot of different crops, rather than the monoculture of many industrial farms, and do so in a way where the farm could co-exist with nature.
The Chesters started doing their research, and soon found a mentor, Alan York, who stressed the importance of building up the soil. The land the Chesters found for their farm had hard, rocky soil that was devoid of life and nutrients. York preaches the gospel of biodiversity to guide the Chesters as they build a composting center, buy livestock to provide life-giving poop, and design a farm that includes a massive vegetable garden and an orchard with 75 kinds of stone-fruit trees.
The movie chronicles the first seven years of the farm’s development, and they aren’t easy years. Problems big and small make the Chesters’ dream feel like a fool’s errand at first, but York’s encouragement drives them to keep going.
After a while, they discover that nature frequently arranges for two problems to occur at the same time and solve each other. At one point, when a drought makes their pond stagnant with duck poop at the same time the orchard is overrun with snails, the Chesters move the ducks over to the orchard — where they proceed to eat the snails, and provide poop to fertilize the fruit trees.
There are triumphs like this throughout “The Biggest Little Farm,” as well as tragedies, from the threat of California wildfires to York’s cancer diagnosis. Through it all, there is the farm, which begins to thrive by attracting wildlife that helps achieve that balance that York espoused.
There is a hint of the infomercial in Chester’s film, a sales pitch not just for Apricot Lane’s farmers market stall but the biodiversity that is the farm’s reason for existence. That’s OK, though, because it’s a worthy cause and a path to humanity’s survival on this broken planet, captured in a film that’s as beautiful as it is vital.
‘The Biggest Little Farm’
Opened May 10 in select cities; opens Friday, May 24, at the Broadway Centre Theatre (Salt Lake City). Rated PG for mild thematic elements. Running time: 91 minutes.