February 02, 2020 07:00:00
The uprooting of Molly and John Chester’s lives began when they adopted a rescue dog.
Or, to be exact, when its “incessant barking” got the couple evicted from their home.
“And then we thought: ‘we’ve always wanted to be on a farm now let’s make it happen’,” John tells ABC RN’s Life Matters.
So they did, surrendering their Los Angeles life to pursue their long-held dream.
It wasn’t long before they had more animals chickens, sheep, cattle, pigs, fish as well as their principal mainstay: crops and plants.
But the transition to farm life wasn’t easy.
Neither had prior farming experience; John was a documentary filmmaker and Molly a chef.
John acknowledges they were “incredibly naive and extremely idealistic”.
“We started growing almost 250 different things while restoring an entire ecosystem of a rundown farm in southern California,” he says.
It probably didn’t help that their new land primarily full of lemon trees was a “notch above desert”, with what John remembers as dead soil lacking in biological diversity.
“We had to literally rebuild the thing from the ground up,” he says.
“And that was first and foremost bringing a diversity of wildlife, cover crops, building that topsoil to bring back the diversity that ultimately would be the sustaining lifeforce of the land.”
It was a steep learning curve, with many pitfalls along the way whether it was managing aphid infestations, gophers or coyote attacks.
On top of being gruelling, unrelenting work it’s also expensive; the Chesters went through their first year’s budget in six months.
‘We have to regenerate’
A key aspect of their newfound farming methodology is regeneration.
“We found some investors who really believed that this form of agriculture is the future,” John says.
“It doesn’t really take an economist to realise that we are not going to ‘profit our way’ out of the problem with the finite natural resources being drilled out of this country when it comes to farming.
“We are going to have to regenerate them.”
Not everyone agrees that biodynamic farming is as effective as traditional agriculture practices; its use is contested globally.
But the Chesters believe sustainable farming practices are interconnected with growing diverse, nutrient-rich food which in turn supports healthier lifestyle practices.
It was this utopian vision that led them to grow 10,000 orchard trees and 200 different crops over eight years, a journey they documented in The Biggest Little Farm.
The film chronicles the way in which the pair deal with competing demands of wildlife resurgence and operating a functioning farm.
Relationships in nature
John says that “with every bad thing there is a good thing that could potentially come and be the solution and solve other problems”.
For example, a snail infestation became a farming lesson.
“We found that ducks love snails, and so those ducks ate about 96,000 snails in about seven acres of land,” he says.
The duck poo, in turn, became a source of “incredibly nitrogen-rich fertiliser”.
“So it was all about finding this different methods, these tricks to find these mutualistic relationships that already exist within nature, and just kind of tame them a little bit to use and harness the power of them right here on a farm that works in harmony with nature,” John says.
It wasn’t just about finding harmony with nature; the Chester’s marriage has also been challenged.
“I think it really tested my wife’s and my relationship, and the depths of which anyone is really capable of believing in the infinite power of a complex ecosystem,” John says.
Despite this, the pair want to share their story of building a regenerative farm from the ground up, because they say it’s one they didn’t hear growing up.
“I wanted to make sure that people knew that this is actually something that’s real and this is something that our future can look forward to as a way to mitigate some of the fears we feel around climate,” John says.
The challenges are ongoing, however, and John says they’ve reached a “comfortable level of disharmony”.
“The first five years are the most difficult, especially when you are regenerating land from such a degraded point that we inherited this land from,” he says.
“I’ve got to say, we look a lot to some of those Australian farmers for a lot of inspiration in what we are doing here.
“It’s actually quite inspiring.”