When John and Molly Chester bought their farm, the land was as dry and barren as a desert. Today, the farm produces over 75 varieties of stone fruit, avocados, and lemons and is home to pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, guinea hens, horses, highland cattle, and one brown cow. The ecosystem that the Chesters built has even induced native wildlife to return, creating a haven of biodiversity. See the Chesters’ incredible journey in The Biggest Little Farm, opening in theaters May 10. Click here to see the trailer. Thanks to Rachel Allen, Cinetic, for arranging this interview.
Note: On the day before this interview was published, the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) issued a report detailing a massive loss of biodiversity worldwide–over a million species are now threatened with extinction. “The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
In light of this report, Earth on Screen honors the tremendous efforts of men and women like John and Molly Chester, who devote their lives to restoring the delicate and beautiful balance of life on this planet through a sustained and conscientious stewardship of biodiversity.
EOS: You and Molly built a farm that counteracts two of the worst environmental stressors we face today: loss of biodiversity and soil erosion. How did you accomplish that?
JC: First and foremost, without topsoil you can’t grow food, especially in a way that doesn’t require copious amounts of synthetic inputs and extreme chemical control to fight disease, which comes from an unbalanced soil system. And biodiversity offers an immune system of support that works in collaboration with the farm.
If you view the planet’s ecosystem as its immune system, there’s an ebb and flow and constant adjustment that’s going on in order to balance out life on this planet. That is our immune system. The farm can either mimic that and become a microcosm of the greater ecosystem, or not. When you choose not to, then you’re left with only the resources of chemical control. Creating stability on a farm starts with soil, because soil takes decay and death, breaks it down, and turns it back into the nutrients and minerals that will feed plants.
We had to reestablish the immune system of our farm, which had been extractively farmed for forty-five years. The extractive method of farming is an effort to grow food in a cheap way. It’s not regenerating, it’s not giving back to ecosystems, it’s not giving back to the soil food web.
EOS: What did the previous farmers grow?
JC: It was a conventional lemon farm using industrial techniques of chemical control. Nothing was allowed to grow except those trees, so everything was sprayed intensively with glyphosate (Roundup), and the soil was almost white.
EOS: Creating topsoil was a huge endeavor.
JC: It’s really simple in theory. Plants build soil. Cover crops, grasses, legumes photosynthesize, pulling down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into sugar that gets infused into the soil, where it feeds microorganisms. Microorganisms break down organic matter—decaying plant and animal life—and convert that into a usable form of nutrient that then gets reabsorbed by the roots of new life, feeding plants and all life above.
We built soil by growing cover crop. It took a lot of water at the beginning, but after two or three years, we were using far less water than our allocation. We also established grasses and legumes beneath the trees. This created a habitat for predator species of insects that fight the pests that attack our food trees. We created this entire system where predators live year round. The ladybugs lay their eggs right there in the cover crop, so when the aphid explosion breaks out in that tree, the ladybugs are already there.
EOS: How do you deal with the ladybugs?
JC: Ladybugs aren’t an issue, but there are other predators, like coyotes, that do become a problem. Coyotes eat the gophers, but coyotes also eat the chickens. This way of farming is not easy. It’s a simple way of farming, it’s just not easy. You have to love it. You have to love the challenge of the complexity of trying to integrate within that whole web. Farming in this way is first and foremost an art, and a way of seeing, and then everything else after that is work.
EOS: Is there a name for this kind of farming?
JCC: Regenerative agriculture. Your farm is an ecosystem, and you’re focused on the restoration and integration of wildlife habitat and rebuilding the soil with every decision you make.
I decide how many chickens to have on the farm through the lens of what the soil can handle, and how that number either adds to or detracts from the soil. Topsoil is built from the top down. It’s built from decaying plant matter on top, not from the ground up. Every decision you make about what you put on top of soil is how it will or will not be built.
EOS: Many of the surrounding farms that used conventional methods were washed away in the floods.
JC: I wouldn’t say they were washed away, but every time it rains they lose a significant amount of topsoil. It takes nature one hundred years to build one inch of topsoil. One inch of topsoil can wash away in an hour with an inch of rain coming down in a short period of time. Then what you’re left with is a soil that doesn’t function, and when the soil doesn’t function, plants are completely reliant—like an addict—on inputs from the outside. Those inputs don’t necessarily inform the long-term health and stability of those plants; they just keep them pumping along, without providing a buffer against disease.
Among other things, cover crop creates a soft landing for the raindrop as it hits. It hits grass, then trickles down to the base of the plant. Then it starts to seep into the soil, where there are holes because the roots have created crumb structure and porosity. And with that is oxygen. So you have aerobic bacteria formations, you have porous soil for water to seep in, and then whatever water is not used by the cover crop and the plant crop over time works its way back into the ground, refilling the aquifer, a natural geologic formation that’s beneath many of the farms, especially where we are in southern California.
EOS: Talk about biodiversity and how it functions on your farm.
JC: Maximizing biodiversity helps prevent epidemics of pest and disease, because you’re creating a checks and balance system. Industrialized agriculture puts nature in a straitjacket; it controls nature to such a degree that nature becomes more dependent upon the farmer. With regenerative farming, you have to be accepting of some level of loss within an imperfect harmony, or a comfortable level of disharmony, like I said in the film.
Biodiversity is your buffer against those epidemics, but it takes a while to build up that buffer. You want the good, the bad, the ugly, but the farmer’s goal is a creative one. It’s first an act of art and a way of seeing, and then the rest is figuring out the puzzle and how it fits together and accepting some of the loss. I had one farmer tell me, “To control all those starlings you’re going to have to put nets over all your trees.” Then another farmer, who’s in his seventies who’d been doing it for years, said, “Trust me, at some point you’ll grow enough for them, enough for you.”
The cooper’s hawks came back because we didn’t cut down all the big trees that normally some farmers would see as competition shading out our cover crop. So when the starlings come through, the cooper’s hawks dive down and make those starlings a little nervous. The starlings spend a little less time in our trees, and they never feel safe. That’s what you want.
EOS: The cooper’s hawks weren’t the only wildlife to return. Many, many species came back to your farm.
JC: The return of nature was the return of collaborators that balance out the disharmony. It wasn’t until year five that I actually saw the complexity and the scale, from the finite to the infinite, of how all this stuff was weaving together. It was so profound to me to suddenly go from feeling like nature was attacking us to feeling it was caring for us if we would allow it to do a little bit of what it needs and respect its mutualistic relationship with us, like two things living in parallel worlds but working off each other.
There’s an immense opportunity for the greater public to vote with their dollar and support farms that are growing in this way, because ultimately that’s what’s going to change the need for a Monsanto, the need for an agricultural monocrop conventional farm. I want to empower people with the knowledge that this possibility exists, and it’s extremely important. People can be involved in how they choose to buy their food.
EOS: That does bring up the very painful question of economics.
JC: There is no such thing as a stable economy without the finite natural resources that all countries and cultures are based on. Since the industrial revolution we’ve wiped out 46 percent of the forests. We’ve lost more than a third of our topsoil. We’ve doubled atmospheric carbon from 260 to 400 ppm. The Earth has been in existence for 4.5 billion years. If you spread that out over one calendar year, humans didn’t show up until about the last minute of December 31. The industrial revolution started the last two seconds. In that last two seconds unconsciously we’ve done all that damage. Imagine if we were conscious and tried to interact with it differently. I think we’re an incredibly powerful force of nature, but the economic question must take in the complexity that we are on a very short timeline. If we don’t look at the way we invest in farms and food as a family or as a culture, there will be no such thing as a stable economy.
Let me give you another economic lens to view this through. We created one of the worst gopher problems in Ventura County on our farm by growing cover crop. I paid three guys a total of $100,000 a year to sit there and catch gophers full-time. You know how many gophers they caught? Nine thousand. Simultaneously I also looked at it through the lens of biomimicry and diversity. I spent $700 on about twelve owl boxes. You know how many gophers the owls caught? Fifteen thousand. It’s the shit I didn’t know that I wish I had known that would have made it cheaper.
But the thing is this—we’ve lost the lore, we’ve lost the techniques, we’ve lost these innovative ways to collaborate through our complacency and trying to control it with chemicals, trying to control it in order to grow cheap food. We need to focus on supporting the innovation we’ve lost over the last seventy-five to a hundred years.
There are a lot of different economic scales, and this method of farming has already been proven by Rodale, especially in the organic side, to produce as well if not greater than chemical-based industrialized agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is essentially creating the long-term fertility and immune system for your land. We’re looking at what crops we can experiment with to take us into the future while at the same time leaving enough soil for my son to farm with so that he can build from that and maybe find some way of farming that is truly sustainable.
EOS: Do you till the soil? I know it’s a controversial practice.
JC: Deep tilllage breaks up the mycelium fungus strands that shoot off mycorrhizal fungi. This is the root tip of the plant. Mycorrhizal fungi grab onto that root tip, colonize, sometimes even drill right into it, and send off—it wants something from this plant, it wants sugars, but it’s got to pay for it—these mycelia. They can send them sixty feet away to find nitrogen or potassium, even moisture or water, drawing it right to the root tip on demand. In exchange the plant pays for it in sugar. When you till, you cut up all those communication pathways that are trading nutrients and water beneath the soil. You take away a plant’s independence, and it becomes more dependent on you. When you don’t grow cover crop the same thing happens. The sun will eventually bake out and kill those fungal strands.
In the beginning, to prepare our soil we had to do a deep till in order to break up the hardpan. The way our farm had been farmed, not touching it and allowing the roots to do it would probably have taken a thousand years. So we got aggressive in the beginning, but after that if we till it, we’re tilling it maybe two to three inches.
EOS: Let’s turn to science communications. You’re a director, you’re a cinematographer, and this film is enormously powerful. What do you think film can do as a medium in terms of communicating the science?
JC: I think a lot of environmental films don’t work, at least on the scale where the right number of people can get behind it, even from polarizing viewpoints. A lot of documentary films scare the hell out of us. For a little while they’ll change our behavior, but if you really want to create long-lasting change, I believe you have to give people different ways to see, you have to empower them with the capability to see. You also have to allow them the opportunity to not be so scared of the thing that we want them to protect. They have to fall in love with it. They have to love its complexity. They have to love its imperfectness. And they have to be reminded of its beauty and their belonging to it.
A lot of people see themselves as other than nature. They think that because they’re scared of spiders or snakes they’re not nature people. I think that we forget that we are from this. My hope was to draw out the complexities of it that would help turn people on affection, not turn them on fear, because I think it has a much longer-lasting and energized way of ultimately taking us where we want to go. Cinema and storytelling have a duty to be unflinchingly honest and raw, and I think I was with this film, because I didn’t shy away from the hard stuff. But there’s no reason to scare people with all the facts and figures they already know. Even knowing them, people haven’t really changed their lives much.
EOS: But you yourself had to reach that moment of loving nature, which you described so beautifully a little earlier, before you were able to make this film.
JC: Absolutely. I really wanted nothing to do with making a film until it was year five. Then the story hit me all at once, and the only thing I felt I could do was mess it up. I just had to figure out how to spend the time to make sure I could exemplify visually the things I was able to see but are so hard to capture, because I could see the way it could be woven together and I just was so scared that I wasn’t going to spend the right amount of time to get it right.
EOS: You totally got it right. Your film made me feel the effects of biodiversity and the interconnectedness of all things in a way I hadn’t felt before. Biggest Little Farm will be available for community screenings after theatrical release. What do those screenings accomplish?
JC: People donated money to allow underserved communities to see the film prior to release, and that will happen again after release.
I believe there are a lot of people who don’t feel empowered to have the right to believe with as much idealism that this type of collaboration with profoundly diverse ecosystems is possible because there’s no example they can point at. I think these screenings give people the permission to at least point at something. Molly and I are not the only way, but what we did in eight years is real. I think it gives people a little bit of hope and confidence that the thing we feel intuitively inside—that we’re wired this way, we’re wired to actually be connected to nature—is a matter of survival. In fact I attribute it to a lot of the anxiety we feel as a people. We’re in search of this connection that can’t be satisfied even through what we think of as our career of choice, which oftentimes can help create purpose and meaning, but when it falls short you’re like, what? how?
You hear about a lot of people who go back to farming or go back to nature. They’re seeking this meaningful connection with the thing that gave them life. I wanted kids to have the opportunity to have an experience to see nature in this way, and not in the way I was shown. I remember loving nature films but never understanding why there was no story about the people and the planet. There was the myth of the animals, and there was the myth of the planet, and there was the myth of the people, but where’s the one where they’re actually interacting and they’re the same?
To learn more about regenerative agriculture, click here.
Copyright © Earth on Screen 2019