Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Biggest Little Farm: Audience Hit at Mill Valley Film Festival Chronicles Life on a Biodynamic Farm

Farming and food movies have grown in number over the last few years, but The Biggest Little Farm vaults the category into a higher orbit.

From the glorious cinematography of former Animal Planet cinematographer John Chester to the precise editing, and overall narrative, the film completely seduced the audience I saw it with at the Rafael Theater on Sunday. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

There it was - the American dream of a city couple moving to the country to create the most perfect farm, with all of the hardships and all of the glories.

Great Pyrenees sheepdogs guarding picture perfect flocks of sheep. Chickens squawking and laying eggs so delicious that they inspired combat among shoppers at the supermarket (and sold out within an hour, daily). Ducks scrambling through the orchard to eat the snails attacking the fruit trees. A mama pig giving birth to no fewer than 17 piglets. A landscape of barren soils turned into dark, fertile soil after constructing (and populating) a giant worm composting barn.

While neighboring farms' water ran off during torrential rains, the water on this farm did not, due to the increased organic matter in the soil and the soil's capacity for water absorption. This farm's water went into the soil and in turn into the aquifer.

In fact, the idea of farm as ecosystem has never seemed as fully realized as in this film and on this property, now known as Apricot Lane Farms.

Though the film refers to the farming practices it uses as "traditional farming," in fact, it's a Demeter certified Biodynamic farm. And the mentor who helped the the Chesters create it was the legendary Biodynamic consultant/teacher Alan York.

Alan York with Molly and John Chester
"My wife Molly searched and found him on the Internet," said Chester, speaking after the Sunday screening. "She emailed him once, and he refused. She reached out again, and he refused. And then finally, she begged him a third time. And he took us on."

For those who never had a chance to meet York, who taught the Fetzers, and then the Benzigers, and then Sting, and then Cowhorn, and then then then all the others, the film is an invaluable way to see the man and a little bit of his wisdom. Alas, he died too early, passing away in 2014 at the age of 62. You can catch a fleeting glimpse of him in the clip below.

The film won one of the Mill Valley Film Festival's audience awards for best documentary and will premiere in movie theaters this spring. Until then, you can enjoy clips from Apricot Lane Farms' web site that give you vignettes that are reworked in the feature length film. These segments have already appeared on Oprah's Sunday programming.

Even though these clips are about a farm, they are essential viewing for anyone trying to understand what Biodynamic vineyards are about, as the idea that Biggest Little Farms embodies is the farm as ecosystem, in which biodiversity - both cultivated and wild - is a major player.

As York says, "diversity, diversity, diversity." Indeed, York convinced the Chesters to plant 76 different varieties of fruit trees in their orchards.

And as the agricultural diversity increased, so did the natural wildlife that returned to the land - monarchs feasting on milkweed, raptors and owls flying the skies. These creatures were welcome. Snails, gophers and coyotes, who also came, were not. The plot thickens.

Taking a barren, burnt out farm, suffering from years of chemical practices, and turning it into the abundant Garden of Eden is a miracle we don't often get a chance to see before our very eyes.

We owe a lot to both the farming and filmmaking teams for giving us a sense of what is possible - not just potentially but in reality. The team filmed over a period of 7 years. (For the feature, they set up an editing suite in the barn so John could keep farming as well as filmmaking.) Interns helped shoot footage.

Rarely does a film team gets a chance to follow a farm story transformation both before and after over that long of an arc of time.

Critics have been glowing in their reviews. After seeing the film at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival, Variety film critic Peter DeBruge wrote this:
"No matter how important the message, it's kind of a drag to sit through so many alarmist lectures about how the world is going to end and what humans are doing to speed along its destruction. That's what makes The Biggest Little Farm feel like fresh air for the soul..."
At the end of the film, the Chesters reflect that "observation followed by creativity has become our greatest ally." Alan York would be proud.

Enjoy more of the 20+ video clips on the Apricot Lane Farm website. It's a welcome distraction.

Apricot Lane also offers real life tours and internships.

Postscript: For those who are attending the Biodynamic Association's annual conference (held this year in Portland, Oregon), there will be a screening of the film at 12:30 on Friday, Nov. 16.

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