There are a lot of reasons to either love or hate California, and whichever side of the political aisle you occupy, there’s no denying that much of the nation’s produce comes from the Golden State. Despite that fact, there’s very little attention or education devoted to just how our ecosystem works, and the time, care and cost that is needed for it to thrive. “The Biggest Little Farm” offers a personal view into one couple’s journey in farming and all the trials that come with it, but fails to adequately explore how privilege allowed them to reshape their lives and their farm.
Director/cinematographer/co-writer John Chester begins the film with his dog, Todd. When Chester was shooting Animal Planet’s “Dangerously Devoted,” about a woman hoarding hundreds of dogs, he met the pup that would change his and his chef-food blogger wife Molly’s lives. After facing the threat of eviction due to Todd’s constant barking, the couple was seeking a more open space for Todd to thrive in, and coincidentally, Molly had always dreamed of growing her own food to cook.
Their search led them just an hour outside of Los Angeles to Moorpark. The land they purchased was essentially dead and needed more work than they originally estimated, and with the help of “traditional farming” consultant Alan York, they burned through their first year’s budget in just six months.
By focusing on biodiversity — in layman’s terms, creating an interlocking ecosystem with a diversity of livestock and crops all supporting each other — the couple started from scratch as Chester filmed the entire process. What followed was several years of ups and downs, of victories and downfalls, and ultimately, success and beauty. What the film consistently fails to mention, however, is the cost, selling the story in a subtle “You too can do this!” format.
In a past life, I did a bit of food writing and went on several farm tours all over California. Farmers were very blunt about the lack of funding and the staggering cost of keeping their farms afloat, especially during one of the worst droughts in the state’s history. Another thing the farmers I met with always focused on, and went to bat for, was their migrant workforce, something Chester’s farm benefits from, even though the film never really addresses it.
“The Biggest Little Farm” also only briefly mentions the drought, just as it only fleetingly refers to financial concerns early on. All of these are important issues, ones that farmers need to educate the world about, because it takes more than just a will and some dirt and water to create a successful farm.
In a way, it’s misleading to those who view this film as any sort of model to follow, and even more so, it doesn’t reach the level of being inspirational because it omits so much of the story. If Chester can mention how he struggles with slaughtering livestock he helped birth, then why not mention how his farm and family managed to get by when it appeared they lost money for many years?
Still, Chester’s experience in filming wildlife and their environments really pays off here. There are some exquisite shots of both the farm and the smallest parts of its ecosystem — the pests and pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds — that rival any National Geographic film. The use of color and the bird’s-eye view shots are particularly stunning, and the before-and-after sequences are truly awe-inspiring.
“The Biggest Little Farm” is a decent personal narrative film — even inspiring at times — but it could have provided a much-needed educational view and a deeper look at the importance of California’s essential agricultural life.