The Biggest Little Farm Review – Charming and Downright Inspirational

John Chester’s documentary The Biggest Little Farm is undeniably charming, full to the brim with shots of expressive farm animals, overflowing with lush vegetation, and shot with all the wonder and awe that most nature documentaries are presented with, all of which makes you simply fawn over the wonders of nature. Yet, despite its honesty and aspirational nature, this tale of a husband and wife team heading to country California to establish a farm and create a small business with all the rustic sheen that comes from country life, is covered with a distinct sheen of privilege that tarnishes the ‘in the moment’ experience.

I feel it’s important I get the criticisms for The Biggest Little Farm out of the way to start with, because for all its problems, they are dwarfed by the ideas that the film incepts into your mind, leaving you pondering the importance of reharmonising nature, and hoping that the future of agriculture might be a positive one. My criticisms might feel petty and small in the grand scheme of what John and his wife, Molly, are aiming for, but they unfortunately did effect how far along I was able to get swept up in their story.

Their decision to kick off this farm experiment is one driven by the need to provide their rescue dog with a space where he could bark til his hearts content. That’s not the issue, instead, despite Molly being a professional chef, and John being an Emmy award winning filmmaker, the two ‘have no money’. Luck (read: privilege) shines on them when their friends get together and somehow conjure up the money for them to secure a business grant to get their farm going. The farm was a long time dream of Molly’s, and because – of course – she needs to have that dream realised, she’s going to get her farm no matter what. There’s never a feeling that this was going to be a challenge, instead John and Molly talk about the farm like it was an inevitability, an expectation that this would happen and that it would succeed.

It would be something if John’s direction and narration carried an element of self-awareness, but just like the way the two talk about their farm-planning-genius friend and mentor, Alan York, when he gets cancer and has to step back from helping run the farm (‘he was keeping a secret from us’), there’s a lack of recognition that their life is one full of privilege. See, John and Molly got into the farming business with no notion of exactly how to operate a farm, and in this way, The Biggest Little Farm is a lot like the TV series Our Zoo (the show that We Bought a Zoo was based on). These are two earnest and hopeful people who are going to tackle a major challenge, and somehow they manage to succeed.

Part of me wishes that The Biggest Little Farm had a different narrator, a Morgan Freeman type who could reflect the charm that is clearly evident on screen. Instead, John delivers all the narration in such a dry manner that I couldn’t help but wish someone would just turn him over a little and give him some water to pep him up. The imagery is so overwhelming at times, and yet, when John talks about what he sees on screen, there’s a matter-of-fact, offhanded lack of awe in the way he talks.

But, and this is the big but that aims to recontextualise that negativity into something positive, to put someone else’s narration on the film would be to take away the ultra-personal nature of this story. This is, quite simply, the Chester’s version of how they managed to make a green future for themselves that works within the confines of capitalism. While The Biggest Little Farm is never intending to be a ‘how to’ guide on setting up your own farm, it does at least present a fascinating glimpse into the way nature can work alongside mankind if it’s just given a chance.

While the title, The Biggest Little Farm, is a deceptively twee one, it works as an important comparison to the way commercial farming has infiltrated the agriculture industry, turning orchards and crops into hidden fields, squirreled away under swaths of pseudo-greenhouse tents. The fruits and vegetables that are grown in these circumstances are so far from nature, that one can’t help but ask whether they’re even ‘natural’ anymore? It’s this aspect that makes the Chester’s farm – cutely named, Apricot Lane – all the more endearing.

That endearment is amplified by the way that John untiringly and unfailingly tries to work with nature to establish a harmony that works. They refuse to use chemicals, he struggles to shoot a coyote that’s been killing their chickens, and when they find 70% of their stone fruit crops being destroyed by starlings, they wonder whether they’re merely just growing exceptionally tasty chicken food. As they’re reminded by Alan’s guiding mentality, each year will present a new challenge, but eventually it will be like surfing, with ups and downs, and come the seventh year, everything will start to feel like it’s working together.

While this is a family friendly film (and I do genuinely urge you to take your family along to see this because it does create a lot of useful discussion points), John never wavers from showing the harshness of farm life. Countless headless or disembowelled chickens are seen, and in one moment, a coyote with a broken neck is seen shivering and shaking in pain and fear. These moments aren’t included to show the failures of the Chester’s farming methods, or to outline the cruelty that many perceive to come with farming, but instead, they exist to show that no matter how positive or helpful John thinks he is with his farming methods, there’s always going to be a new obstacle in his way.

They’re also keenly aware that to balance that harshness, there needs to be a wealth of material that makes farms such an entertaining and endearing place for kids to visit. So, you get a genuinely joyous birthing sequence with Emma the pig, who becomes the mother to an ever-increasing surplus of pigs. John’s camera laps up their expressive faces, monopolising their inherent joy-inducing capabilities. But then, repeating myself, John ensures to balance that sweet with the sour, as Emma develops mastitis and requires intense nursing and care routines. It’s the ebb and flow of life on a farm that really immerses you in the reality of nature.

It’s here that John and Molly’s methods become truly awe inspiring and hope-inducing. Instead of combatting the coyotes with shotguns, they work to find ways to help the coyotes exist with the farm. When there’s no rainfall to help replenish the pond and the ducks create an algae bloom that kills the catfish, John doesn’t think ‘got to offload the ducks’, instead, he realises that the ducks will be the solution to his snail problem. It’s an ever changing see-saw, bouncing up and down trying to find a steady balance, and it’s when John realises this that the farms gears truly click together and start moving in motion.

As he puts it, it’s harmony through disharmony. All the reasons farmers would traditionally ‘protect’ their goods are thrown out the window, with each step of the farming process highlighted, with everything from the maggots eating the cow dung, to the gophers collapsing the fruit trees, John reflects on the important role that ‘pests’ play in keeping this ecosystem in balance. Maybe The Biggest Little Ecosystem might have been a more apt title?

I learned to strip away my cynicism and reminded myself of the similar way that I’d implemented changes to my own garden. I realised how in just over a year I’ve managed to ease it into being a native vista that encourages birds, bees, bugs, and lizards, to come and visit. The previous tenants had abandoned any concept of gardening, leaving the grass to die out and the sandy soil to flourish. It was a disheartening thing to see when I moved in, and my mind raced as to how on earth I was going to turn this nutrient deficient soil into something suitable and sustainable for plants and trees to comfortably grow in. But, a little tenderness and a helping of nutrients, sure enough, the ground changed and life returned to my once naked and barren yard.

A curious omission is the way that neither John or Molly mention the words ‘climate change’ throughout the whole film. This makes The Biggest Little Farm feel less like a lecture, and more like a polite guidance of an alternative, better way of life. Given the proliferation of climate change documentaries out there, it’s refreshing that there’s no ‘message’ at the end, coming to poke you on the chest and make you feel bad about failing to stop climate change all by yourself. Sure, that spectre of privilege does raise its head again when considering this – not everyone is able to change their life in a way that will effectively transition their household to ‘clean energy’ products – but it is seen in a way that suggests that grander farming operations could take on board a thing or three about this way of life.

As Australia burns, and the rural areas are left in perpetual states of devastation, one can’t help but consider how Australian farmers could implement similar practices to those that John and Molly establish on their farm. As shown in the documentary Kangaroo, farmers routinely slaughter and obliterate wildlife that wanders onto their property, neglecting the important role that kangaroos have played in the life of soil. We so routinely combat nature, rejecting it completely, rather than attempting to work with it and find a way forward. There is much to learn from a story like this.

Emma the Pig

But, reharmonising nature takes time, and time and patience is something that capitalism doesn’t allow. It’s a quick success, quick fail world, and when it takes ¾ of a decade to grow and build a farm to a point of stability, well, it’s easy to see why many others would quit. The Chester’s way of farming feels (from my decidedly non-farming eye) like a blend of the industrialisation and agricultural age, like a recontextualisation of the steadfast, decades long mentality that has proliferated in the agricultural industry. While the documentary never shows anyone pushing against their way of farming, it’s easy to imagine there would be more than a few folks being upset by this decidedly different brand of agriculture.

And this is why The Biggest Little Farm works. In the moment, I found myself overwhelmed by how cute, and how twee it can be. It’s charming to a fault, almost obnoxiously so. But, it gives you a wealth of ideas to ruminate on, leaving you with a substantial amount of hope for the future. If the Chester’s are able to pull this off, how many other hobby farms can do the same? In this way, The Biggest Little Farm is a lot like 2040 or Living the Change – it’s a documentary that looks at the way we live, recognising the errors of our ways, and learning from those errors, working to improve and fix them, while presenting a positive future. Given how much misery we receive through the media’s reports about the dire state of the world (and it is dire), it’s reassuring to know that there are small changes like this occurring.

Sure, I complained about the privilege in the film, which is a major element of how a farm like this succeeds, I’m still left with the notion that no matter how small my backyard is, I can try make a similar change myself. And if I can do it, then you can too.

The Chester’s are keenly aware of the need for this kind of life to be embraced by, and for, future generations, which is made abundantly clear as the film wraps up. It’s furthered by the presence of a kids book based on Emma the Pig. After all, this is a family friendly film, one that encourages eager kids to see a different world than the one we currently live in, and with that in mind, I hope families head along and catch it, because gosh, it sure is charming, and that charm is downright inspirational.

Director: John Chester

Writers: John Chester, Mark Monroe

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