Johnchester

He Traded the City for a Farm — And Learned Nothing Tests a Man Like 200 Acres of Raw Nature

John Chester talks about his documentary ‘The Biggest Little Farm,’ as well as learning humility, letting go of his old identity and embracing couples therapy

There are two stories going on simultaneously in The Biggest Little Farm, the one the documentary shows you and the one away from view that’s even more intriguing.

The film, directed by and costarring John Chester, an Emmy-winning filmmaker and documentarian, chronicles what happened when he and his wife Molly, a chef and cookbook author, decided to leave behind their lives in L.A. to start a farm about 40 miles north of the city. But it wasn’t going to be a typical modern factory farm: The Chesters were determined to make theirs biodynamic, which meant eschewing chemicals, and instead, working directly with the land. The Chesters knew that would be harder, especially because their land’s soil was nutrient-poor when they began, but they sought what they considered a more moral and environmentally conscious way to farm.

As we witness in The Biggest Little Farm, the Chesters’ eight-year journey was often fraught with failure, and the movie becomes a hushed paean to listening to the rhythms of nature — to being in awe of how Earth’s complex ecosystem works in mysterious ways. All of that is relatively riveting, but I was drawn to another element of this narrative, which is how the farm’s challenges, setbacks and eventual triumphs affected John Chester himself. Although he narrates the documentary, and appears on camera a decent amount, The Biggest Little Farm is more about his farm than it is about him. No doubt that’s in part because the documentary serves as an advertisement for their Apricot Lane Farms, but when I spoke to Chester, I bypassed conversations about biodiversity and growing seasons to talk about a different type of growth — the personal transformation he had to go through so his relationship (not to mention his farm) could survive.

To his credit, Chester was candid about the private challenges that this farm created. Calling from a barn at Apricot Lane, he discussed the strain this radical lifestyle change put on his marriage — and how he had to confront his own rigid views of masculinity in the process. (He also learned that the slamming-doors style of conflict resolution he witnessed in his childhood home wasn’t going to work with Molly.) There’s no doubt that Chester speaks with the evangelistic spirit of a true believer — he insists that taking on this farm has profoundly reshaped him. But he’s also humble about all the obstacles that still remain — both for himself and Apricot Lane.

Lots of people fantasize about leaving everything behind and going off the grid. Was that part of the appeal of running this farm?
Absolutely, but it was also about finding a way to reconnect with something. Regardless of whether or not people think they like or hate nature, the ultimate form of reconnection is back to understanding how we’re a part of nature. The farm kind of satisfies this deeper level of meaningful pursuit, because everything starts to make sense. You begin to understand the nuances behind the impermanence of life — that it’s a fuel for all life. When you can start to see the value in death, that’s a pretty profound lens to start viewing the entire world through.

You lived in L.A. before this move. Were you missing nature?
Oh, yeah, I grew up in a very rural area of Maryland on the Eastern shore. There were hunters and fishermen, and we were very connected to nature. All through my life, I grew up outside — I came from a small town, rural America, but I could never figure out a way to make my life work in it. Being a documentary filmmaker, I had to leave [Maryland], but I always dreamt of going back to that. So when we left L.A., I thought that this could be the way.

You couldn’t acclimate to a big city?
No, I don’t think I ever really did. I always felt suffocated by the idea of living in a city. I valued my time there, but I moved there mainly to be able to connect with work. But increasingly, my jobs were taking me to the Arctic Circle, or out in the bush in South Africa on these giant wildlife reserves. I found myself constantly seeking out those types of jobs, and I realized that I didn’t have to actually live in L.A. anymore to do that work. Then we decided to do this farm together, and it was pretty clear that I had to give up the job as a filmmaker if this farm was going to work.

Making a career change is hard —
Your identity is gone.

Exactly. So was it easy to give up the old “you”?
Hell no, it was terrifying. The loss of my identity that I had built up over 25 years — that was probably the most terrifying part. The arguments that Molly and I had, I was like, “But you don’t understand, Molly: I worked 25 years for this identity. This is all I know. This is who I know I am. This is how I’ve been able to provide a living for myself. As soon as I tell people in the film business that I’m going to be a farmer, they’re going to stop calling tomorrow.”

That was terrifying, but the thing that was amazing was that — as I let it go and accepted it — I was able to see, finally, around me the beautiful opportunity I had in front of me. [I could] build something that very few people get the chance to build — literally building a farm that was able to regenerate biodiversity. That was a fascinating experiment.

And you could create a new identity. But how much was your vision of being a farmer different than the reality when you started?
It took me about three months to realize that we couldn’t leave. There were so many things dependent upon us for their life — we were probably never going to get to leave this place again. It felt incredibly terrifying, but the funny thing is that it’s so rewarding: Every time you wake up the next day — and you just keep filling each day — you kind of forget about this desire to leave. You trade a geographical experience of life for one in a single spot of great depth. You go deeper on the land where you live, because you realize you wake up every day dependent on the ground beneath you to be the thing that provides life for you.

You don’t think about that when you’re in an apartment in Santa Monica. You don’t think about Santa Monica needing to be tended to and cared for in order for your life to work. So you don’t notice the trees. You don’t notice the animals. You don’t notice the weather, unless it’s inconvenient. But when you’re on a farm, you notice everything — from the almost nearly microscopic pest to the hawk and where those hawks are nesting. And the change in the weather: Why is it foggier this time of year than it was last time this year? And what’s going to happen to the fungal issues? Suddenly, there’s just so much more meaning in everything you see because it’s all a part of the system that’s providing life for you. You go much deeper in a place that you never leave, so it never really feels like you’re not leaving — it just feels almost like this transformative experience of great depth.

The Biggest Little Farm spends just a little time talking about the initial years of struggle as you tried to get the farm running. How did you deal with just the daily amounts of failure and frustration? It seems soul-crushing.
In the midst of failure, people talk about a lot of things, like being afraid, anxiety, feeling stupid, whatever. I think the most surprising feeling that no one really talks about — which was the driving force for the most pain — was a feeling of embarrassment.

Neither Molly or I really knew the solution [to the farm’s problems]. And we would argue about the solution, but neither of us had the experience. Embarrassment forces you into this perspective of trying to fix it quickly to hide from it. And that’s the exact opposite of how to farm and coexist alongside of an ecosystem. You actually have to stop and slowly try to understand and peel back the layers and figure out what fuels it. What are the multitude of ways that can start to help you? An ecosystem solves problems not with one thing but with numerous things. And so embarrassment rushes you to fix things too quickly and misses the opportunity to fix things more deeply.

It seems like the experience taught you humility.
I mean, yeah, the humility comes in the second wave, after you’ve fixed something and you’re proud of it — and then two years later you realize that fix no longer [works]. What I always say is, after eight years of [farming], all I know for sure is that I know absolutely nothing for sure. When people go, “Oh wow, how did you solve the problem?,” I say, “Well, I can tell you how I solved it in 2016, but I have no idea if it’s going to last.”

And in a way, humility is a freeing thing, you know? Because with all the experts and consultants that we’ve called and other farmers that I talked to, the consensus is that none of them know for sure anything. They have that humility if they’ve been at it long enough. But it’s refreshing because you realize that you’ve got just as good a chance at this as long as you’re willing to persevere. You’ve got just as good a chance to innovate your way out of a problem, and there shouldn’t be shame in failure.

The movie doesn’t discuss how your and Molly’s relationship was impacted by the challenges of operating this farm. I imagine it must have had profound effects on the marriage.
It nearly tore Molly and I apart. If it weren’t for our couples therapist that we ended up having to get at Year Three or Four, we probably wouldn’t be together. I mean, it put such a strain on our relationship, and it forced us to figure out a new way to communicate. And talk about humility, right? It forced us as a couple to speak in a way that identified our vulnerabilities. We had to speak about the feeling that was making us feel vulnerable in order to connect. And it was about trying to stay connected while in the midst of a disagreement.

I was taught that you get mad, and then you slam doors, and then you just don’t talk about it — that’s how I was raised as a kid. It ultimately came down to [doing] the opposite — in the midst of the most chaos, [we had to] figure out a way to still stay connected. That requires an individual to stay really vulnerable and transparent with that vulnerability, which is something that most men aren’t taught. And I had to learn that.

It also seems that a job like farming conjures up very old-school notions of masculinity — you know, being the breadwinner and provider. It seems impossible to go through what you did and not have your own vision of yourself as a man be questioned.
Oh, absolutely.

So how did you face up to that?
Well, in the beginning, there was a lot of masking, and faking that I had answers and that I knew what I was doing — or that we knew what we were doing. I shouldn’t speak for Molly — because she was probably way more honest about what she didn’t know — but I did feel like my ego got shattered and broken, and I found true humility around Year Four. Then it was about being comfortable with my limitations and really looking at the [farming] team around me that had different talents than I had. [I had to learn that] my identify as a farmer, or someone of worth to the farm, wasn’t dependent upon being this can-do, fix-it-all, knows-the-answer-to-everything type of a man. I had to find my answers through a deep humility. I can’t say that that’s everybody’s experience, but that’s been mine, for sure.

And, of course, all of this challenge was compounded by the way you and Molly chose to run this farm.
Yeah, I mean, a modern crop operation is pretty simple: It’s input chemicals, output profit. It’s pretty basic — you’re fighting everything with massive amounts of chemicals. But our thing requires a comfortable level of disharmony. You have to actually be comfortable with a certain level of failure and imperfection. It makes you see the entire process of success way differently.

While watching The Biggest Little Farm, I was struck by the fact that you two basically did the real-life version of all those sitcoms where some city slickers decide to live off the land…
It definitely felt like we were the classic fish-out-of-water city couple, like We Bought a Zoo or the book The Dirty Life, which was about what we did, essentially.

Right, but the cliché is that the couple initially hates this lifestyle shift but ultimately learns important life lessons. That really happened to you, though: You did learn something about yourself through this process.
Yeah, anytime you pull yourself out of your comfort zone and go for something that you really want in life, it’s going to require you to evolve. I feel we will never get to where we want to go in life if we’re not willing to go very deep and look at the dark spaces that have been these points of injury throughout our life that we’re protecting. If we stay protective of those dark spaces and those insecurities, then we’ll never have the foundation within ourselves to be able to achieve great things. And so the crazier the dream, the more evolution is going to be required.

You said earlier that you soon realized that you could never leave the farm. Has that changed? Are you able to actually mentally disconnect from the farm and just, say, enjoy a vacation?
We haven’t learned that yet. I hope to learn that in the next eight years, though. I mean, we’re aware of this great stressor. But even in the worst moment at any given time, I still think I’d choose this version of torture than any other. But we’re still learning how to do that. You’re catching us at another transformative time in our lives: We’re sharing our very personal story with the world.