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‘The Biggest Little Farm’: Buoyant doc paints upbeat portrait of agrarian hell

The movie poster for "The Biggest Little Farm." - Photo courtesy of Neon Pictures.

By Jim Bloch

Spoiler Alert: The following article contains mild spoilers in a synopsis of the film. Read on at your own risk.

I can barely keep my lawn mowed. I cheer when environmental organizations urge me to “cut it high and leave it lie.” I hate yard work. To keep runoff into the Pine and St. Clair rivers at a minimum, I don’t apply commercial fertilizers, insecticides or pesticides. I stopped raking leaves when I learned that leaf litter provides habitat and food for birds and insects and offers natural fertilizer for the grass as it decomposes over the winter.

I consider myself lucky that my lawn-laziness coincides with ecological best practices.

That’s why the documentary “The Biggest Little Farm” made me twitch. Too little soil. Too much toil.

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But the movie delivers a smart, bucolic look at the importance of a biologically diverse environment — and the dire consequences of monoculture farming.

The film, directed by farmer and former pro wildlife photographer John Chester, tells the tale of John and wife Molly, a personal chef and food blogger. The couple rescues a big black mutt with soulful blue eyes from a dog-hoarder, the harsh conditions of which John had been hired to document. They name the mutt Todd. The problem is that Todd barks incessantly when left alone in their apartment. Their eviction in 2010 creates the opportunity to search out land for the fairytale farm they’ve always wanted and they buy 200+ acres of soil-depleted farmland an hour north of Los Angeles, home to a former lemon farm. The hilly property is surrounded by massive monoculture farms — the largest indoor egg operation in the country, now abandoned, a vast raspberry farm and an avocado plantation.

They hire Alan York, with his long gray locks and deep ecological wisdom, to advise them. York’s goal is to guide them in creating a farm that emulates the natural ecosystem and to create the highest level of biodiversity possible.

“Where can we get rid of things that should never have been planted?” he asks.

They rip out 55 acres of crops and trees. They rebuild the irrigation pond and drill a new well. The build a big composting facility driven by thousand of worms. They hire two knowledgeable farmhands. They invite starry-eyed young people to stay on the farm to learn the interlocking principles of sustainable farming firsthand — and to work.

“Plants build soil,” York says.

They plant cover crops to rebuild the earth. They buy baby chickens, baby ducks, sheep, a pig named Emma, and plant 75 different varieties of stone fruit, including peaches, plums and nectarines. The eggs eventually produced by the chickens sell out immediately at the farmers market. Wildlife returns. Herons. Hummingbirds. And bees, critical for pollination and honey. All photographed beautifully, guided by John’s trained eye.

By the third year, the farm has become a paradise of diversity. They begin to learn that every successful agricultural action creates a natural, and not necessarily good, reaction.

Coyotes close in on the property and kill chickens by the dozen. Birds devour 70 percent of their stone fruit harvest. Gophers aerate the soil, but also attack the tree roots. Emma gives birth to a litter of 17 and nearly dies of fever. Zillions of snails, attracted by the cover crops and newly enriched soil, dine of the citrus leaves, decimating the trees. As cows and pigs multiply so does their manure, the maggots that arise from it and the flies they turn into. The Chesters discover California’s fifth season: Wind. By mid-decade, they’re in the middle of the state’s worst drought in 1,200 years. Wildfires threaten to overwhelm the whole area.

York reveals that he has advanced cancer and dies.

“It’s like the slow dissolution of our earnest intentions,” John says.

Intent, he realizes, is not a protection against agrarian catastrophe.

John watches the dog Todd study his surroundings with depth and patience and begins to adopt the same approach. When something goes haywire, he steps back, analyzes the situation and tries to respond creatively.

He and Molly learn that Great Pyrenees dogs will guard the sheep from the coyotes; they find a dog without a taste for poultry and he guards the chickens. They learn that coyotes also eat gophers, helping to keep their population under control. They erect owl houses and attract 87 barn owls to eat the gophers the coyotes cannot. They discover that chickens love to eat the maggots in the pig and cow manure, controlling the fly population, and that ducks love snails; they eat 90,000 in one season, which in turn become fertilizer.

“Even pests have a role to play,” says Chester.

When the rain returns in an 18-inch deluge in 2015, neighboring single-crop farms lose their topsoil to runoff. But not the biggest little farm. The cover crops soak up the rain like giant sponges, sequestering an estimated 100 million gallons in the aquifer.

“By the time Todd the dog died, it was no longer a question of who saved whom,” Chester says.

By then, the Chesters have a son of their own to raise.

The farms produces and sells 500,000 pounds of food that year.

By the end of the film, nine billion micro-organisms are churning away in the soil, transforming decaying material into all kinds of minerals and nutrients to enrich the earth, turning death into life in the great loop of being.

“The ecosystems of our entire planet work the same way,” he says.

It’s a beautiful vision. But all I can think about is the work.

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