Balancing Act

Emmy-winning documentarian works the land in 'The Biggest Little Farm'

It’s easy to see why John Chester’s charming documentary The Biggest Little Farm has stuck around. Never underestimate the appeal of watching someone else work. Santa Monicans John and Molly Chester went full Green Acres because of a rescue dog named Todd who howled in misery, sitting around their apartment while they worked (him: Emmy-winning nature documentary maker; her, locavore caterer). Possessed with visions of taking Todd-the-dog to live on a farm “like something out of a children’s book,” the Chesters’ brought in investors and purchased a 200-acre lemon-and-avocado orchard in Ventura County.

With the guidance of Bruce Dern-like advisor Alan York, this exhausted ranch, worn-out by monoculture, comes alive before our very eyes.

One respects Biggest Little Farm for reminding us of farming’s challenges. This lovely green hilltop is constantly under siege by pests and predators. Gophers gnaw the roots of the trees, a plague of snails slithers through and starlings sample the peaches one by one.

Coyote raids are devastating, with piles of hens killed, but not eaten, by the beasts. A rifle is an essential tool on even the most children’s book-like farm.

Chester’s film induces a rare tranquility with its rapturous images of wild creatures, drowsy piglets and a personality-rich, but poorly feathered, rooster named “Greasy.” The search for balance gives this film tension, and it’s gratifying to see the old ways working. Give a parliament of barn owls room to roost and they’ll work nights solving your gopher problem. Ducks herded into the orchard scarf up the snails and fertilize the trees. All this may be derided as boutique farming, unsuited to feeding the ever-growing population of the world. Nevertheless, if organic farming is just a trend, it’s not just the oldest trend. It’ll also be the last one.

‘The Biggest Little Farm’ is playing in limited release.

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