Farming, Filming and Biodiversity: An Interview with John Chester

Filmmaker John Chester and his wife Molly took a leap of faith leaving city life behind to become farmers with the ambitious goal of bringing life back to a lifeless 200-acre piece of land. They relied heavily on the mentorship of Alan York, a pioneering leader in the biodynamic viticulture movement, who sadly passed away as the farm took shape. John documented their many failures and ultimate success in the film The Biggest Little Farm. Arty Mangan, Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Director, interviewed John about his travails and triumphs.

ARTY MANGAN: Before getting into the themes of the film, my first question is a practical one. For new farmers, raising capital to get land is huge barrier. Any tips you can share from your experience?

JOHN CHESTER: Each experience is incredibly unique, I mean, the type of investor, their open and willingness and belief and support, and the time that it takes to build the immunology of a regenerative farm, because that’s really what we’re talking about, rebuilding the biodiversity of the soil and the ecosystem of the land. The other thing is proximity to a large city, to be able to sell direct to a local food economy. The closer you are to a large city, the more expensive the land is. These are all factors in the numerous considerations when you’re looking at the emotional, economic and ecological sustainability of the farm.

We were fortunate enough to find an investor that didn’t need to be convinced that nutrient-dense food grown in an ecologically restorative way was the future. But they also had the patience to realize that when you purchase a piece of land that had been extractively farmed for 45 years in order to grow as cheaply as possible, you are going to have to spend some time and money putting finances into the bank of the soil to regenerate it to where it would become what you envisioned, which is a more self-sustaining, nutrient-cycling flywheel.

In terms of finding the money, we talked about our idea incessantly and told everyone our dream. Oftentimes when we talk about our dreams in life, we’re shamed by the standard questions of, “How do you know anything about that? Have you ever done anything like that before?” So, many people don’t talk about their dreams and aspirations. But we talked about it so much that eventually it connected us with the right people. I really believe we deserve the credit for cultivating that luck, because we risked the shaming and shared our vision with the world at a time when we probably were no more deserving than anyone else to get the opportunity.

John Chester and Emma

ARTY: From your dream, your original vision, when you look back now, how naïve were you when you began?

JOHN: We were a mix of incredibly naïve and idealistic about coexistence [with the natural world]. We have now reached a comfortable level of disharmony and purposefulness in the disharmony. Over the eight years, we are beginning to understand and accept why things can’t be perfectly balanced, because that’s not the intent of nature, at least in our eyes the way we see balance. But we’ve begun to develop a new appreciation for why the imbalance is there and have a wider acceptance for judging our coexistence with nature. We were naïve in the beginning thinking if we do all these things right, nature’s going to give us a hand. Nature doesn’t look at things from the perspective of right and wrong, it’s purely based on consequences. That’s a deeper truth that you have to take time to appreciate the integrity of.

ARTY: At one point in the film, your wife Molly said it seemed like the more the farm flourished, the more pests you attracted. There were a number of discouraging events – 70% loss of fruit to birds, major snail infestation, gophers destroying the orchard, coyotes killing chickens. Did you feel like giving up? What kept you going?

JOHN: It’s so true. It feels like everything we did to enhance the biological diversity of the land just brought about the next pest, and with vigor at embarrassing levels. We created the worst gopher problem in Ventura County. If someone would have told me what we could do about gophers, the farm would have been in the black by year three. We had the worst wild morning glory problem on any farm that I’ve ever seen. It was on easily 60 to 100 acres of the farm climbing trees, climbing the irrigation sprinklers and other stuff.

One year, the team member who was running the orchard, said, “I don’t know what else to do; I think we should spray RoundUp.” I said, “We can’t do that. It goes against four years of what we’ve built up to get [organic and biodynamic] certified.” It was either completely give up and go with a whole other way of farming, or we’ve got to see this through. Although it felt incredibly crazy and scary at the time, the more time we sat in the embarrassment of the failures, the more it gave us a deeper level of awareness for the possibilities for innovation. We all want to escape the embarrassment part of failure and put band-aids on things to cover it up, but that doesn’t solve the problem.

ARTY: Alan York, a pioneering leader in the biodynamic viticulture movement, obviously was a great mentor to you. One of the things that he said was that the rhythm of nature becomes more predictable in the seventh year. That year your sales were higher than ever before and it seemed like an ecological balance started to come into play. What happened on the farm in the seventh year?

JOHN: Between year five and seven, we saw such an immense return of biodiversity that we became aware of nature’s intent to balance out epidemics of pest and disease that we’d been struggling with years prior. That was like the cavalry coming over the hill in the third act of the film when you thought that the cavalry would never show up. It was that profound and splendid.

A simple example was the amount of ladybugs and ladybug eggs I was seeing in the spring resulting in the decimation of the aphids. Not only the aphids, but a rebalancing of everything from aphids to ACP [Asian Citrus Psyllid, an insect pest] and other things that the ladybugs like to devour. But we were also learning that you can’t solve a problem with one simple fix. That’s not how an ecosystem works unless you’re willing to take collateral damage, because the simple fix is overly aggressive.

We also learned simultaneously that the aphids and the ACP are being protected by the ants. Maybe it’s time to actually spend money on the ant control. Because we didn’t use chemical sprays, we spent five years not killing wolf spiders, which would have been inadvertent collateral damage from chemically derived sprays. So now, there’s tons of wolf spiders on this farm. They eat things like aphids and ACP. So, all these other critters were coming back to life simultaneously, and that’s what Alan kind of promised. That’s what gave us so much confidence, just keep doubling down our belief in it. That’s what cultivates more opportunity.

ARTY: Talk a bit about your relationship with Alan and what that meant to you.

JOHN: Alan was someone who had put his time in. And Molly and I are still very young, green farmers. I feel like we know nothing in comparison to what Alan could have continued to teach us. His presence in our lives gave us confidence to be really courageous and quite crazy in terms of that courage. I think he’d been waiting for the opportunity to find a couple like us that were willing to really go for it. So, he was able to take the 50 years of his life experience and apply it on a farm that grew more than just grapes, because he was mainly a vineyard consultant in the biodynamic world internationally. His emphatic cadence of speech was always direct. It’s more fun to believe him than it is to go against him.

ARTY: At one point in the film, Alan said, “Observation followed by creativity is the greatest ally.”

JOHN: That’s actually something that I’ve heard from a few people, including Joel Salatin – it could very well be his quote. There is a really important final component of that line, and that is observation followed by creativity followed by humility. And to that I would add repeat. So you just keep repeating observation, creativity, humility, repeat. You’ve got to just keep going back at it.

The humility part of it is the most freeing, energizing, encouraging realization that I think both Molly and I had. Humility means admitting you don’t have the answers, asking for help, admitting you’re scared, and realizing at the same time that your greatest mentors around you are feeling the same things. It frees you from being a farmer who has to know anything definitively, because even after eight years, the only thing I know for sure is that I don’t know anything for sure. It’s quite freeing, because it gives you the space to stay present and traverse through breaking down the anatomy of the failure, and understanding the elements that exist on your farm to combat it. But you have to stay present. I think to free yourself of this responsibility of having to know or should have known more, or should be more educated, takes up bandwidth in your brain.

ARTY: Keen observation is kind of a lost art in our culture these days, particularly when it comes to observing nature.

JOHN: I think that art has obviously been lost on farming. We spend a lot of time shaming farmers for not being millionaires. I think shaming farmers into thinking that they’re failures when they’re trying to innovate alongside nature, which is a courageous act, is an atrocity that will not encourage more farmers to innovate our way through the next 200 years.

ARTY: How can the system be changed from rewarding those who use degenerative practices – spraying chemicals, creating pollution, destroying biodiversity, etc. –  to economically encourage regenerative agriculture?

JOHN: We have underestimated the force of nature, which is conscious and more powerful than the political framework. It’s far more powerful than the economic framework. When that’s aligned and it’s supporting farms that grow things in a regenerative way, expect massive change. I think that we’re seeing incredible support from consumers who know about soil. There is a growing tide of awareness and education and those consumers are the people that will make the difference, beyond the politics, beyond the chemical companies that we’ve become dependent upon because of our complacency and detachment over a prioritization of innovating alongside of nature, which has been lost for 75 to 260 years.

We’re in a much better time now because there is a consumer base that wants this, that understands the value of nutrient density. There’s another consumer base that understands the value of restorative eco-agricultural practices. Ten years ago, people weren’t even saying the word regenerative.

ARTY: Another quote by you in the film illustrates for me a spiritual perspective, “The farm is energized by the impermanence of life.”

JOHN: I’m really glad you brought that up because I think that is, to me, the most important line in the entire film. I say that because if you spent time on a farm going through enough repetitive seasons, or gardening in your backyard and you understand the way soil systems work, you begin to realize the requirement of death as a part of life. To grasp the profoundness of that can reshape how you see death. It reshapes how you see life. The limit of life is a requirement for the energy that is needed by the next life.

Knowing something is impermanent also allows you the freedom to accept and let go when things are on their way out – an animal, a tree, a plant. You can’t have anything new without the death of something. For me that’s been the most humbling part of this whole experience. In the beginning, I was trying to hold on a lot more to things than I do now. I’m not saying that I’ve washed my hands of things or take myself out of the responsibility of being restorative and trying to save something, but I have accepted the impermanence of life in a very different way, and that’s changed the way I see my life, and Molly’s and my role on the farm.

ARTY: You experienced a lot of death on the farm, the death of hundreds of chickens, and near death of Emma the pig, and your interaction with the coyote.

JOHN: The coyote, there’s a moment in the film where we’re setting up to coexist with nature, and coyotes killed 350 of our chickens. My crew is looking at me saying, “Why does the coyote deserve to live over the lives of these chickens?” It’s indefensible. I finally killed a coyote in the film. That was the loss of the commitment to the idealistic pursuit to coexist, and to me it felt like complete failure, but through that experience, it allowed me to see something completely different in the coyote. That was a pretty low moment for me because I realized that it wasn’t just one coyote. I was going to have to kill probably 12, maybe 15. And when would that stop? And what else could I have done?

So it’s a battle of the lesser of two evils. Was it right? Was it wrong? It’s all based on consequences and sometimes it takes a lot longer to figure out what’s right and wrong because time needs to reveal those things.

We want answers. We want answers to everything right here and now. We’re an immediate sort of culture and species because we have this intellect to be able to say, “Well, there’s an answer.” Sometimes it’s hard to accept that answer will not come right away, that you have to be accountable to the decisions you make. So, that moment was really very challenging for us and humbling.

ARTY:  You had all of these profound experiences and life lessons with a camera following you. What was that like?

JOHN: The film was shot over eight years, so there was definitely a time, especially in the beginning, where we were running the camera when I was too conscious of it, even though I’ve been in the business for 30 years. I was self-editing, and when things got hard, I would say, “Don’t shoot this; we don’t need this.” Then I realized, who am I serving here? Am I serving the truth of what this experience is like? Because my ego is in jeopardy and I’m terrified that I don’t know what to do.

Then there was a moment of clarity, and I sat down with two of the interns who both became very competent [film] shooters, and I said to them, “I’m never going to say this again. No matter what I say after this, you don’t have to listen to me, but I’m going to say this once. If I ever tell you to stop shooting, I want you to just step back 10 feet and keep rolling, regardless of what I say.” So we would have these moments where I would say, “Don’t shoot this.” And they would disappear, and later, and I’d ask them, “Did you guys keep shooting?” And they’re like, “Yep, we kept rolling.” And I was like, “Okay, we’ll see if it ever sees the light of day.” But I’m really glad I did because I think the film is way more valuable as a tool of inspiration with the more honest and vulnerable element that I allowed myself and my wife be in the experience.

ARTY: I commend you for your courage and the right decision in terms of letting it roll. The authenticity really comes through in the film.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.