Notes on The Biggest Little Farm

Fenster writes:

“I could teach anybody, even people in this room, no offense intended, to be a farmer.”

-Mike Bloomberg at Oxford

People, despite their seeming complexity, often yield up their characters quite readily to those with an eye to see. You can learn a lot about Mike Bloomberg from that quote, and it is likely further brushes with the camera’s unforgiving eye over the course of his disastrous campaign would simply validate any first impression gleaned from his comments at Oxford.

By contrast that handful of earth from your back yard may look simple yet it is anything but. The complexity, beauty and imponderable qualities of nature, starting with humble soil and going on from there, is the subject of a very interesting documentary entitled The Biggest Little Farm.

The film is in one sense a glorified home movie. It consists mainly of footage shot by Jim Chester of the events surrounding the decision taken with his wife to chuck professional careers for the farming life.

In 2010 the couple was living in Santa Monica in a tiny apartment. Molly, Jim’s wife, was a “private chef and culinary blogger” and Jim was cameraman on wildlife projects. They had a yearning to undertake a collective life project of some sort that was larger and more meaningful but had neither clarity of vision nor resources. The drama kicks off as they are evicted from their apartment as a result of their dog Todd’s unwillingness to stop barking when they are away from the apartment.

What to do? Their commitment to the dog prompts hard thinking, and then a large leap into the void, trading their urban life and careers for a new life together as farmers.

Having read from time to time about the young and educated dropping their conventional careers in favor of farming I was expecting a modest but inspiring lifestyle tale–e.g., “sick of the rat race two Ivy-educated investment bankers find love and meaning on 20 acres in the Berkshires with Belgian endives and Bessie the Cow.”

Jim and Molly’s tale has a good deal of that romance but it is quite a bit more complicated than that. For one, despite the claim that they have no money they presumably are networked into a fairly well-heeled crowd, as they are able to spin the business plan they develop into backing from investors. And they must have raised a tidy sum. They may not have understood farming but they presumably knew their way around a good business plan.

So this is no 20 acres in the Berkshires thing, bought on a whim from last year’s bonuses and able to be reversed if there is a change of mind. They purchase 200 acres an hour from Los Angeles and immediately set out to bring a failed farm, complete with dying fruit trees and dry, depleted soil, back to life. Even in the first year of operation you can see why they needed heavy investors. No expense seems to have been spared. Serious heavy equipment is purchased. Crews are brought in to restore, and then work, the land. They retain a full time natural farming guru, a Zen master of farm design and crop and animal diversity, to more or less run the show while sharing his wisdom.

Jim’s little film is likewise more than a low-key, low-tech home movie. His career in wildlife photography is made apparent, with an awful lot of professional quality footage of aphids, snails, coyotes, owls, fruit trees, the birth of piglets and the entrails seeping from the gut of a baby lamb that has to be put down.

You eventually realize that some of the professed modesty of our main characters presented at the outset may be a tad contrived. They had some serious access to capital and were from the get-go aiming high on everything, including agricultural aspiration, scale of operations, idealistic devotion to natural principles and film making craft.

The cynic in me gets suspicious here. Maybe, I thought, this is just an example of two trust fund kids who said they were chucking it all when they were simply looking for a new and environmentally sensitive canvas on which they could paint their new lives, combining career success with high minded principles.

And yeah there’s something of that in the film. Nonetheless the film won me over, and the protagonists did too.

It took a while for me to be won over. Some things take time to grasp, including something as “simple” as a farm. The guru Jim and Molly brought on as an advisor told them it would take time, as well as a lot of effort. But he gave them a broad template to follow: diversity is good, more diversity is better and you can never have enough diversity.

And at the same time he sketched out a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When you get things seriously diverse the enterprise will achieve a kind of lift off, and more or less run itself, in the way nature does by its very, well, . . . nature. It’s a lot of work to set the contraption but in time you get to sit back and let the farm happen. It’s all mapped out so that everything in nature pulls for everything else –that’s the theory anyway.

We see some glorious images of the farm in operation in the first few years and we get a tantalizing glimpse of this vision of self-regulation. Appealing as I found these images it was around this point in the film that my cynicism was at its high point. Is it all just crimson and clover, over and over?

But things keep going awry. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, or the President of the United States, or even the Zen master of natural farming–something can always go wrong, seriously wrong, and quickly. When their guru dies of cancer several years into the project the couple is made aware with a start how unprepared they still are.

They realize that “embrace diversity” is fine as a general principle but what to do about the coyotes that insist on killing lots of chickens? The birds that peck at the fruit and ruin the harvest? The snails that devour fruit tree leaves, retarding the growth of the fruit? The gophers that gnaw at the tree roots?

It is not giving the story away too much to say that they manage to find solutions to most of these problems. And they are continually surprised to find the answers to problems right under their noses most of the time–ducks to handle snails, coyotes to kill gophers rather than chickens, and so forth. In time they come to see wisdom in a particular method: 1) foster a sufficiently complex and diverse environment such that so that a solution is likely to be at your feet, 2) observe closely 3) draw tentative conclusions directly from nature and then 4) take action based on the observations made in an environment rich in life and possibility.

They end up with what appears to be a highly successful farm, with tours offered to visitors from around the world impressed by the commitment to natural processes as well as the farm’s striking visual beauty. Once again my cynicism bell starts to ring. Is this whole thing going to end too neatly? Is this a worthwhile venture but still something of an elaborate conceit of most use to the affluent who can pay the surcharge for the endives? Most of all, does the film attempt to impart to us an idealized view of nature?–sure, it is hard work but it all comes together with a kind of perfect symmetry in the end.

To their credit the Chesters do not avoid tough truths. Sure, many of the images are gauzy and the underlying commitment to the natural way is unambiguous. But a lot of questions remain unanswered. How do you reconcile your love for an animal with its value as food, or as a commodity to be sold? And is nature’s way a panacea? Many questions are addressed using nature as a template–but nature is not inherently ordered, much less compassionate. A fire could destroy everything in an afternoon.

Perhaps it is helpful at the beginning of the journey to hold to one’s ideals, to believe in nature as ordered, and to aim at fashioning a farm, or a life, to be a kind of self-running clock. But in end the work goes on, and nothing is settled or certain.

. . . and in the end if the whole idea was to live in harmony with nature, well, we made it this far with a comfortable level of disharmony. The ecosystem of our entire planet works the same way. And when I look at it like that . . . . it’s perfect.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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