Soil Is Everything: John & Molly Chester’s Biggest Little Farm

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“This all started with a promise that we would leave the big city and build a life in perfect harmony with nature.”

John Chester


Biodiversity. Regenerative agriculture. Ecological sustainability. Carbon drawdown. Climate change reversal.

These are popular themes that recur regularly on this show. But in practical terms, what do they actually mean?

I wanted to better understand these subjects. Not from the perspective of an academic, scientific researcher or political pundit but rather from the direct experience of actual practitioners — people who live and practice it every single day — farmers.

Nine years ago, personal chef Molly Chester and her filmmaker husband John Chester traded their life in urban Santa Monica for 200 acres of infertile land nestled in the foothills of Ventura County — an arid and desolate plot called Apricot Lane Farms.

Hence began a journey to build a new life from scratch. The vision? An organic, biodiverse farm based upon regenerative principles, thriving in harmony with nature. It began with repairing the draught-laden, nutrient deplete soil, followed by planting 10,000 orchard trees. Rooting over 200 crops. Introducing a myriad of animals. Managing the chaos that ensued. And patiently stewarding the farm from inert to irascible and ultimately into what it is today — an awe-inspiring symphonic ecosystem in vibrant, sustainable co-existence with nature’s rhythms.

Along the way, John chronicled every daunting, obstacle-fraught step, plying his storytelling skills and masterful wildlife cinematography to produce The Biggest Little Farm — an extraordinary documentary that evidences the planet’s innate power to heal itself in synchronous partnership with humans devoted to restoring its precious biodiversity. Uplifting and wildly entertaining, it dispenses with the dystopia common among ecological fare, instead leaving audiences uplifted — and in love with the hard-earned possibility of positive change.

I was quite moved by this film. Compelled to know more, me and my team spent a day touring Apricot Lane — an educational and eye-opening experience that left me with a deep appreciation for the Chester’s achievement — and the nuanced complexity of their mission.

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In the wake of my visit to Apricot Lane, I posted images from the experience on Instagram, accompanied by an expression of gratitude and respect for manifesting what environmentalists unanimously urge mandatory to repair the rapidly vanishing biodiversity of our precious soil (literally the planet’s microbiome). To sequester carbon and create sustainable food security. And to serve as a viable model for the future of farming.

John and Molly didn’t just protest climate change. They got to work, taking an action-based stand against the glyphosate-laden, chemical-based industrial, conglomerate owned, seed-controlled, GMO-infused, animal intensive CAFO factory farms that monopolize our current food system to the great demise of human, animal and ecological health.

More than anything, Apricot Lane proves that regenerative farming isn’t just possible, but profitable. And that it doesn’t just work, but exceeds conventional methods by yield volume and nutritional density metrics. Meanwhile, it controverts planetary warming by drawing down carbon and building long-term, natural resilience against pestilence, drought and soil erosion without the products and practices ‘BigAg’ wants you to believe are mandatory.

Basically, John and Molly live the credo echoed by several past podcast favorites and their respective advocacy organizations. People like Zach Bush, MD (Farmer’s Footprint), Paul Hawken (Project Drawdown), David Bronner (Climate Collaborative), and next week’s guest Ryland Engelhart (Kiss The Ground). All vegans, these influential leaders in the sustainability space unanimously urge the adoption of regenerative farming practices as mission critical to solving climate change and restoring planetary biodiversity.

Back to my Instagram post. Although overall well received, it was also met with a loud and angry response by certain members of the vegan community. Albeit a predominantly agricultural farm, many animals call Apricot Lane home, where they also serve a key role in the soil regeneration process. Because a small number of these animals are later sold for food, this contingent of the vegan community interpreted my visit as an indefensible betrayal. Calls to ‘cancel’ me soon followed.

To those who expressed such disappointment, I get it and I hear you. I appreciate your perspective and I respect your passion. As someone who considers himself a compassionate vegan, I don’t like the idea that any animal is slaughtered, irrespective of how ‘humanely’ a life is ended or how much it was loved and cared for during its life. I made the choice to not participate in this cycle over 12 years ago. As such, I am by no means endorsing this practice. I would like to think that if I was in the Chester’s shoes, I wouldn’t make that choice.

But here’s the thing. I’m not them. I’m not a farmer. And although I am of course aware that there are veganic farms, I can’t truthfully appreciate the difficult and nuanced realities of actually running a farm.

What I do know is that as much as we would like to believe that these issues are binary, they are not. Nothing is truly black and white. And if your perspective is so hardened that you cannot (or worse, downright refuse) to learn from someone whose experience-based perspective differs from that of your own, then we stand little hope of moving forward as a society.

I refuse to stand in judgment of these people. In fact I have great empathy for John and Molly. They are not keyboard warriors ranting on principle without action, or criticizing without doing, but instead people on the front lines, acting on the solution of climate change reversal every day.

Truth must prevail over dogma. And the uncomfortable truth is that none of us are exempt from creating harm. Even those that subsist on organic produce alone must face the reality that the harvesting of plants inevitably and quite directly results in countless animal deaths — especially when conventionally grown.

Moreover, if you’re procuring your produce from a typical modern farm, you’re not only participating in that cycle of animal harm but also contributing to the ills of chemical-based monocropping, including soil depletion, water table pollution and a litany of other environmental harms that have downstream effects on animal welfare.

My point is rather simple. None of us are holier than thou. We can all do better and be better. I certainly can. But to do that we must be open to learning from those more experienced in these issues. And we must cultivate more empathy and respect for people who may not align perfectly with your binary perspective yet offer something valuable, maybe even critical, for us to hear and learn from.

A central tenet of veganism is compassion. Not just for the animals but for each other. So let’s all try to practice that a bit better. Because what the world needs now more than ever is empathy, surely for the animals, but also for each other. 

You can watch the conversation on YouTube. And as always, the conversation streams wild and free on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Final Note: On November 11 (after recording the podcast and my introduction), Biggest Little Farm took home a Critics Choice Documentary award for best cinematography. Congrats to John, Molly & the entire film crew!

I love this conversation. May you enjoy it with an open heart and curious mind.

Peace + Plants,

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