Filmmaker turned farmer John Chester finds fertile ground for drama with his documentary The Biggest Little Farm

When John and Molly Chester suddenly decided to move out of their cramped California condo and start up a farm focused on biodiversity, they would’ve never dreamed their tireless efforts would lead to much more than simply a place to produce high-quality foods with respect to both animals and the environment.  

However, John also wasn’t your typical farmer either. With over 25 years as a cameraman and documentary filmmaker, the aspiring agriculturalist was sensible enough to occasionally swap the shovel for a video camera and document the dramatic eight-year saga of their start-up farm.  

As a result, The Biggest Little Farm has been winning over critics and audiences alike with an incredibly inspirational story about the rewards of working with nature rather than against it – even as Mother Nature dishes out wild predators, wildfires and fruit-annihilating arthropods.

We caught up with Chester ahead of The Biggest Little Farm’s premiere this Friday at Eau Claire Market Cinemas to discuss working with nature, following your dreams and how the head of a 200-acre farm has time to make movies … on the side.

Q: Making this film and making this farm has been an eight-year journey. Respectively, how did you find the time to make a movie along with running a farm? Or find time to do this interview for that matter? 

A: For the interview question part, there’s now more people that work with us so I’ve had interns that have become full-time team members and they know the cycle of the farm, so you kind of plan for this to a degree. Then during the making, I carried a camera around with me in the truck, I had a couple interns who knew how to run cameras and one who had gone to film school, so I always had people around that gave it the appearance of looking easy but it was never easy – it was incredibly stressful and difficult once we decided we were definitely going to make the film.

Q: And it was during year five that you decided to make the movie?

A: Yes, year five is where I saw this incredibly profound return of biodiversity with intent. We were solving these problems we were having, agriculturally speaking, and I was like, “Oh my God – I’ve been shooting that.” I didn’t see the value of that thing and now I’m seeing this thread connect (so) I felt this responsibility that now I had to turn this into a longer film. 

Q: There are so many heartbreaking moments dealing with certain pests and predators or even just the elements. What was the most important or most emotional event you had to include in the film?

A: Definitely the ongoing saga of the coyotes (stalking poultry) was really formative for me and quite profound and hurt a lot. I still remember shaking and feeling just so much stupidity and guilt after killing a coyote – I was shaking for hours and just trying to justify it.

Q: I bet. After all, this film certainly shows the interconnectedness between nature and well, everything and the importance of that. What central message do you hope is taken from your story?

A: I think there’s a lot of messages about life and pursuit of dreams and imperfectness; the imperfectness of that pursuit, the imperfectness of our courage as we pursue something of great meaning. I think that message was surely profound for me. Then there’s the more practical, or yet idealistic, story that within this deep complexity of extreme biodiversity, (there’s) this possibility for collaboration. 

Q: What is the greatest challenge to work within an ecosystem that is constantly besieged by unpredictable climate change?

A: I can’t say. I mean, with every farm it’s going to be different and ours – from year to year – is different. Every year we call it “The Year of.” So we’re like, what is The Year of 2020 going to be? Last year it was The Year of Morning Glory (a thick-rooted invasive plant). The year before that it was The Year of the Gopher. So it’s always some new problem where we’re all looking at each other going, “This is it, we’re dead. How are we going to fix that?”  So I think the realization is that you’re opening Pandora’s box, which is really a metaphor for turning on the ecosystem.

Q: Late in the film Molly says that she didn’t expect the hardships to make the dream itself feel more alive – do you agree that’s a universal lesson to take away in all facets of life?

A: Absolutely. If dreams come easy, they’re not properly revered and without that reverence and that humility and the sanctity of the opportunity to be living a dream, there’s no richness; there’s no way to appreciate it. You can’t appreciate something that you also don’t have an awareness of the fragility of it all. 

Q: Lastly, since you have been doing this now for eight years, have you seen this type of biodynamic farming grow in that time? Is it changing?

A: Absolutely. But more importantly, what I see is a generation of young people who are really into the idea of it. They have the lens with which to see the importance of it so it’s meaningful to them. So it doesn’t feel like hard work, it feels like meaningful work … I would say the movement is impressive and moving faster than I ever imagined. 

The Biggest Little Farm opens Friday, May 24 at Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire Market Cinemas. For showtimes please click here.

Steve Gow has spent a good amount of his time conducting interviews for a variety of publications as well as on television. Most notably, he was a film reporter for The Movie Network/HBO Canada and his written stories that were regularly featured in Calgary’s former “go-to guide” FFWD weekly, as well as Metro, Toronto Star and more.