“NASHVILLE — John Chester’s lovely new documentary film, “The Biggest Little Farm,” opens with a tragedy in the making: Wildfires are moving toward the farm from three different directions. A horse whinnies in alarm as workers rush to shepherd a storybook cast of farm animals — chickens, pigs, sheep, cows — toward what they hope will be safer pastures. Sirens wail in the distance. Smoke and ash fill the air.
It’s a sobering opening for a feel-good film about a young California couple who leave their day jobs to become organic farmers. “Everyone told us this idea was crazy, that attempting to farm in harmony with nature would be reckless, if not impossible,” Mr. Chester says in a voice-over. But it wasn’t impossible: After the opening sequence, the film backtracks to tell the story of how Mr. Chester, a documentary filmmaker, and Molly Chester, a personal chef, managed to turn 200 acres of worn-out, arid land 40 miles north of Los Angeles into an agricultural paradise called Apricot Lane Farms.
As “The Biggest Little Farm” unfolds, the Chesters hire Alan York, an expert in biodynamic farming practices, to teach them traditional methods that will restore their land to true fertility, no chemicals required. Cover crops fix nitrogen in the soil and sequester rainwater, preventing runoff and holding the topsoil in place. Sheep graze among the cover crops, leaving behind fertilizer for the soil. A giant worm-composting facility produces more fertilizer for the gardens and orchards. It’s breathtaking, all the ways the Chesters have found to ensure that every animal on the farm contributes to the health of the crops, and to ensure that the crops can sustain the farm animals while still producing enough fruits and vegetables to sell at market. And all of it works in concert with the wildlife that soon returns to the newly restored ecosystem.
I won’t give away the film’s genuine drama by revealing too many details, but it’s not a spoiler to point out that there’s a reason industrial farms typically use enormous amounts of chemicals: Attempting to farm in harmony with nature means that nature will sometimes get the upper hand, at least at first. “I guess I don’t know what Alan’s idea of a ‘perfect harmony’ is even supposed to look like,” Mr. Chester laments midway through the film. “Because every step we take to improve our land seems to just create the perfect habitat for the next pest.”