John Chester, a filmmaker and TV director, spoke with TIME about the 200-acre farm he and his wife Molly started, with the support of investors, to grow food in a way that regenerates the land. It is the subject of his documentary, The Biggest Little Farm.
What’s wrong with the way America farms currently? In the last 260 years, we’ve lost a third of our topsoil. We’ve destroyed 46% of our forests. It would be very shortsighted to think that the ecosystem of this planet will be able to support any kind of farming, let alone any type of economy. Regenerative farming is possible on many different scales, and the bringing back biodiversity while farming land in a non-extractive method is also possible.
So you bought 200 acres of barren land about an hour north of Los Angeles to establish a farm with biodiversity as its central organizing principle. What does that look like? We grow about 250 different things. The idea is that you’re enhancing the biological diversity and habitat needs of the greater ecosystem of your farm because you’re looking to solve problems that you face agriculturally by bringing in certain types of plants as well as livestock, wildlife, et cetera. You’re growing cover crops to build soil. We use pigs on the farm to fight invasive species of weeds. The ducks we use to run beneath the orchard trees and eat the snails, which are a pretty ferocious pest of our citrus plants. It’s biomimicry. We’re mimicking various mutualistic relationships that already exist in nature. And we’re looking for ways to kind of hack into those mutualistic relationships and use them in a way that carries the needs of the ecosystem and the farm forward in some meaningful level of coexistence.
Why don’t all farmers work this way? I think right now, what we’re doing is looked at as, “Oh, well, that’s just too expensive.” But what is the economic outcome of our ignorance, in that there’s a finite resource of nutrients available in naturally regenerative ecosystems? At some point, how are we going to grow food without soil?
Eggs from your farm are $15 a dozen. What would we do about people who need to eat for less money? We’ve become O.K. with a $3 carton of eggs and treating chickens inhumanely and eating eggs that are more nutrient-deficient. But we need to ask: What is the value of humane treatment? Of nutrient density? Of not extracting from our environment?
Your method of farming emphasizes growing a cover crop. Why doesn’t everybody do that? The single most important thing that any regenerative farm that is trying to work in an eco-agricultural way is doing is growing cover crops—that’s planting grasses and legumes, to help build soil, cycle nutrients, hold water, and prevent runoff and loss of topsoil. But I don’t know if many farmers have ever seen the importance of the nutrient cycling capabilities inherent in healthy soil, because they use synthetically-derived fertilizers and synthetically-derived pesticides to solve all of their agricultural problems.
We’re doing similar things by creating a healthy biologically diverse system, we are preventing the epidemic of pests and disease from breaking out on this farm. The cover crops build soil, and that soil when it is fully-balanced and has the rich microbial diversity in it, becomes the immune system of your farm.
Large-scale industrial ag and chemical companies are responding to the need for simple ways to eradicate issues that make it cheaper to grow food. But to pretend the extractive methods are not problematic, and that we will not at some point be asking ourselves where did it all go, and why is not working? It’s crazy.
But cover crops bring their own problems, like gophers. You brought in owls. Did that solve the problem? They were brought back into a manageable level. There’s no such thing that I’ve found at least in this type of farming as eradication. You get to comfortable levels of disharmony.
Is the farm profitable? There are plenty of regenerative farms that are profitable. Our goal is to be profitable, but part of the investment that we receive from our partners is to be innovative and collaborative with certain experimentations.
Is it more labor-intensive than other farms? Absolutely. This is a very simple way of farming, and it is not easy. It is a lifestyle. And the meaning that is derived from the reconnection to nature is by far superior to any form of dopamine feedback loop that I know out there.
What has been your impact on your local farming community? I think that at first, a lot of farmers around here thought we were rather peculiar. And yeah, they made comments. But we weren’t here to change them. We have been very open with each other, and especially recently, more of them have come around and started asking why our trees looked so good, and why we’re not dealing with this pest, and how are we dealing with the snails?
What can consumers do to help restore the soil? Go to farmers’ markets. And I think composting is the seat-belt, no-smoking, recycle mission of this decade.