By Debbie Koenig
In 2011, John and Molly Chester left a cramped apartment in Santa Monica, CA—where he was a filmmaker and television director, she a private chef—to become farmers. They bought Apricot Lane Farms, located 40 miles north of Los Angeles, and spent the next eight years transforming it from run-down to bursting with life.
Achieving their vision of a regenerative farm, one in which native plants and wildlife coexist with crops and farm animals, where the soil is rich and full of nutrients, took years. And every step of the way, John was filming their progress. The Biggest Little Farm, now showing nationwide, is his acclaimed documentary about how Apricot Lane Farms grew to become a 214-acre gem.
Today the farm is an interconnected ecosystem in which large-scale worm composting, managed livestock grazing, and a thoughtful mix of cover crops helps keep the soil healthy. That soil then supports lemon and avocado orchards, various vegetables, and 75 varieties of stone fruit. The Chesters say that their methods for managing the farm’s land and water, flora and fauna make it a model for reversing the effects of climate change.
WebMD spoke with John and Molly about how their way of farming produces more nutritious food, how they believe regenerative farming could save the planet, and why they think “sustainable” shouldn’t be the goal. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.
WebMD: Molly, as a chef you talk about how the health of our food is determined by how it’s farmed. What do you mean by that?
Molly Chester: I went to culinary school because I was fascinated by how food affected my own health. I studied nutrition and learned to cook. When you get deeper into what makes food nutritious, it’s partly the cooking techniques you use that unlock nutrition, but you have to start with nutrient-dense food to begin with. That depends on the farm and the farmer. It depends on the health of the first 12 inches of soil, the availability of the nutrition there.
WebMD: In the film you don’t talk about organic practices specifically. Is the farm certified organic?
John Chester: “Organic” doesn’t create the full picture of health that informs the nutrient density of food. The soil determines that, but there are no protocols for organic growing that require regenerative soil. It only says you can’t use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Regenerative agriculture requires healthy soil. You can do this kind of farming without being certified organic. That’s the real goal—it’s changing the conversation. Organic is not necessarily bad, but the word “sustainable” doesn’t really mean anything to farmers that understand the importance of soil as a starting point.
WebMD: Your first success at the farm was with eggs. What’s so special about your eggs?
John: The taste! The mineral component of the soil is informing the depth of flavor, so the eggs taste richer, more buttery. There’s more of a salty top to it. Eggs are the gateway drug to regenerative farming. Once you have one, you want to eat all your food raised in this way.
We did a five-year soil study and nutrient analysis in our eggs. The vitamin A, lutein, and the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio all go up over the period. The only thing that changed was the quality of the pastures, the soil, that the chickens were being raised on. The bugs and worms were living off healthier soils. Everything was more fortified with the components of these nutrients. The proof is in the soil.
WebMD: When you bought the farm, you found an old, abandoned beehive. In the third year of farming, the bees returned. Why was that such a turning point?
John: It was signaling we had a habitat where there was food for them, a complex ecosystem that could support their needs. There are indicator species, bees, hummingbirds, otters—they tell you whether or not the system is enough to support life. We were attracting the pollinators because we’d created a habitat beyond our crops and flowers. There are more than 200 native plants now on the farm. We planted some, and didn’t kill the ones that naturally came back. And we’ve increased our bird population, too. There are 140 different, additional birds migrating through the farm.
WebMD: How has farming affected your own health? Do you feel this lifestyle has made you healthier?
Molly: I was so focused on food in the beginning, everything was about food. As I’ve evolved, I’ve realized health is about mental and emotional health, community, having a mission, meaning, purpose—all those things align for me at the farm. I feel like I’m meant to be in a more rural environment. It changes you. You settle into a different rhythm. All those things put together make a difference in your vitality. We manage a lot of stress—farming is challenging! I don’t think I would’ve been able to bear all that without differences in lifestyle and a continued focus on food and mental and emotional health.
WebMD: What misconceptions do people have about farming?
John: It’s not about money. The economic viability of a farm is second to the emotional sustainability of the way you farm. You can handle a lot less economic gain so long as it’s bringing you joy and not destroying your health, physical or mental. We’ve been fortunate, we’re supported by an investor who sees the long gain. But we’ve taken the hard road on everything. We’re now selecting the types of products that bring more joy, and hopefully will bring about economic sustainability. And there’s a tremendous impact on the environmental sustainability—we’re motivated by the beauty and the quality of the food we grow. You have to pick the things you love even when they’re making your life miserable. When there’s a cow with mastitis, you have to love that cow while you’re out there dealing with it.
WebMD: What advice would you give to someone who can't make the leap to farming but is interested in growing a portion of their food supply themselves?
John: Until you can grow your own, how you choose to buy your food can make a big difference. Buy from farms using regenerative practices to preserve soil, preserve water. We’re not going to fix the earth in a shorter period of time than we spent getting here, but a lot faster than we think because we’re conscious now. We took over a 45-year extractive farming operation—Molly and I didn’t know anything, we just had an intent. We reversed it in 8 years and took it past that to a better state. We’re able to do it because consumers are supporting us.
And then, understand the value of compost! Start a program in your community, figuring out how to use it. Maybe a garden club, maybe a neighborhood farm.
WebMD: How do you hope the film affects viewers?
John: Too often we think about how to control nature. You try to kill one bug, you kill other good things around it too. I hope people see there’s an endless possibility for collaboration with a diverse ecosystem. I hope kids see that exists, and maybe we’ll stop using these destructive methods.