By Ben Stromback
The documentary The Biggest Little Farm is an accessible, beautiful and emotive documentary, demonstrating farming’s ability to completely regenerate abused and depleted farmland. It shows that when used correctly, agriculture can and will completely transform damaged landscapes, help fight climate change, and rebuild lost ecosystems and biodiversity. The Biggest Little Farm displays this with stunning cinematography, comparable in visual quality to the BBC’s Planet Earth. It captures the process of nature healing itself after irresponsible agriculture-use and drought; a process, made possible when humans lend a hand.
Molly, John and their dog Todd, the trio at the center of the documentary, raise funds and buy an old apricot farm. They refuse to use chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides to try to produce crops in the dead soil of the farm. Instead, under the generous guidance of Alan York, they employ what they call “traditional farming” and biodynamic farming approaches. Along with the crucial help of volunteers, local farmers, and a VERY generous donor, they turn Apricot Lane Farm into a lush and productive farm. As it all unfolds, the viewer gets front row seats to a seven-year time-lapse of 200 acres of dry and dead land exploding into life. This footage shows the astounding results of some of the strategies that pioneers within agriculture development have come up with. Many of these techniques are also applied by volunteers at our restoration camps here at ERC (Ecosystem Restoration Camps).
One criticism of the documentary is that the narrator (John Chester) takes personal credit for a few of the techniques used on his farm. The film does not explain nor give credit for the immense knowledge that has been made available and painstakingly built upon by others in the organic farming community. Why John (the writer, director and farmer) claimed these techniques as his own inventions is a mystery. This article will try to give a little more context and information for those of you who have seen, or want to see the documentary. But first, a little background on the wider organic farming movement.
The Dichotomy of Food Production and Nature
The seven years of land restoration, sustainable and regenerative farming on Apricot Lane Farm creates an astounding, rich landscape – very much in contrast to what we see on industrial farms. How is it that this so-called traditional form of food production is so radically different from industrial agriculture? What are the techniques and history behind these systems of agriculture?
Since the Second World War, agriculture was industrialized to scale up production, leaving behind a vital partnership with nature and soil in the dust. Therefore, industrial agriculture and farming in general has had a bad reputation within the environmental community. It is seen as the cause of many issues that we face today, such as biodiversity loss, Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, deforestation and the creation of new deserts. Industrial farming arguably does not consider itself as the part of the ecosystems, or our natural worldwide habitat. A strange dichotomy exists as a complete mental and physical separation between nature and agriculture takes place, as if they were somehow distinct and separable. The Biggest Little Farm is an example of the critical partnership between food production and nature being reasserted and reestablished.
A celebration of the pioneers of sustainable agriculture
As industrial agriculture claimed most of the arable acreage in the West, traditional small-scale farmers were still out there perfecting their trade. They were in fields, forests and pastures experimenting and producing – coming up with new solutions and continuing the work of our ancestors. In essence,traditional farming has been figuring out how we can improve the land while feeding ourselves at the same time. These achievements are now represented and used by farms and land restoration projects all around the world. We use these techniques to restore ecosystems, build soil, and improve biodiversity all at the same time. In the documentary we see these techniques used at a rather unusually large scale, which is encouraging for the future of food production.
Therefore, it is now time to present these techniques and hint at what immense knowledge has been built up over the years. Here is a little more information and acknowledgement of the people behind these amazing techniques, techniques we also use at our land restoration camps.
An element of the documentary that is a little frustrating is John and Molly’s lack of acknowledgement of the achievements of others. Many (if not all) of the techniques that are used to restore the dry and damaged land are not the invention of, John, Molly or even Alan. Despite this, they often claim these strategies as their own, rather than acknowledging that they are in fact known strategies amongst organic farmers. This includes methods such as using ducks to eat an infestation of snails, and allowing chickens to range after cows. The fact that the narrator directly claims to have come up with these particular solutions by – among other things – watching his dog rest (?!), or even by chance, ignores the rich traditions which helped to make his own work a success. This could perhaps be excused as a form of artistic license. But to someone familiar with the industry, it is frustrating and a distraction from what is otherwise an amazing documentary.
The agricultural techniques
The farming strategies being used can for the most part be categorized as belonging to permaculture and regenerative agriculture. These agricultural systems or spheres of farming, are often blended, mixed and hard to tell apart. For example, Apricot Lane Farm prefers to call themselves biodynamic – one of the oldest categorizations of organic farming, and something they inherited from Alan York. Permaculture techniques are heavily used in their work on the farm, which is another holistic approach to food production. Permaculture is a set of design principles that gets its inspiration from the inner workings and levels of growth in forests. On the other hand regenerative agriculture focuses on improving the soil and, much like biodynamic farming, will often use animals in order to do so.
These categories of agriculture borrow much from one another, and are at their best when they combine their knowledge. Telling one apart from the other is often difficult. The distinction often simply depends on what the farmer at hand self-identifies it to be, and what his or her educational background is. But let’s discuss some of the techniques and strategies that we see used very well in the documentary.
Use of Livestock
The holistic management of livestock is a proven way to restore the health of the soil and prevent land from becoming desert. This technique is a replication of the natural cycles of grazers such as buffalo and wildebeest, who graze the grasslands but at the same time return fertility and disturb the soil so that it rebounds in life in a perfect cycle. When used in farming, this technique is most commonly known as “holistic management” and rotational grazing. One of its modern pioneers is Allan Savory. Having livestock creates almost a closed loop of nutrients on the farm. Allowing the land to draw down more CO2 as the plant growth and soil-health is boosted, as is demonstrated by Will Harris of White Oak Pastures. If farms do not have animals, it means that they often import or have fertilizer transported to their farms. Compost made by animal manure has been found to be far superior to other composts and is what the soil has evolved to depend upon.
Compost unites organic farming. It doesn’t matter which kind of sustainable agriculture we are talking about – they all love compost. Compost empowers small farms to create their own fertilizer using organic waste. It is a process of decomposition, where fresh and high nitrogen material (such as manure or food waste) is combined with carbon rich material – like dry leaves, hay, or even shredded paper. As this mixture decomposes with the help of aeration, it creates a breeding ground for bacteria, fungi and microbial life that can be very beneficial for the soil. And what is beneficial for the soil immediately becomes the best friend of plants and the farmer! The increased levels of organic matter in the soil helps the land to hold onto water for longer, which is why we use it in places plagued by drought. Some pioneers within composting (whose work you should watch and read) are Elaine Ingham and Karl Hammer. There are many, many more.
Using birds instead of pesticides
Rotating chickens behind grazing animals is a technique that is present in the documentary – claimed as their own invention. John claims to have come upon it as a unique idea when he was observing nature and suddenly he had an epiphany that he could use chickens to eat larvae that hatch in the cow manure. However, this technique comes from observations of the Savannah and grasslands. As mobs of grazing animals fertilize and disturb the soil, birds always follow. The birds eat the fly larvae and parasites in the manure and keep the ecology in balance. Farmer and author Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm has pioneered this and others like Richard Perkins are carrying the torch.
John (as narrator, writer and director) again claims to have independently discovered the use of ducks as a natural pest control against slugs and snails. This one he accredits to his dog… However, this is another popular permaculture and regenerative agriculture technique and a demonstration of how plants and animals are meant to inhabit the same ecologies. Permaculture legend Bill Mollison once said, “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency!”
This lack of context, as well as acknowledgement and explanation of the strategies used on the farm, is the main critique that can be offered about this documentary. That being said, it is a visual hymn to the potential and beauty of organic agriculture and ultimately a VERY inspiring film to introduce to your friends unfamiliar with the benefits of regenerative farming. It is also a testament to what is possible in the fight against drought, biodiversity loss, and the ever-growing deserts. The high level of dedication and ingenuity of John, Molly and the others at Apricot Lane Farm is also unquestionable.
Another aspect which is shown in the documentary is the role of finance in enabling this transformation and the work on Apricot Lane Farm. Whether we like it or not, land regeneration projects will cost A LOT if they are to have an impact on climate change and the death of our soils. John and Molly were fortunate enough to have a very generous angel investor. Small-scale farms sometimes start with as little as 5,000 euros or dollars. However, to achieve this scale of regeneration of the soil and ecosystem, you need a lot of funding and volunteers. But the price is nothing compared to what can be achieved! Ecosystem regeneration is key to bringing our lost ecologies back, avoiding species collapse, and lowering carbon levels in the atmosphere. The Biggest Little Farm did us all a service by making this powerful message accessible to a wider public.
The work of ERC (Ecosystem Restoration Camps) follows the regenerative traditions, enabling those without large budgets nor wealthy sponsors to make a critical impact.
This is why we, at the ERC, would like to invite you to join us! As we start more and more restoration projects – we need more funding and volunteers. This can be as little as 5 euros/dollars a month! That covers the cost of a tree or a shovel and is a huge asset to us. Go to our Website and join the growing international community dedicated to ecosystem restoration!
In order to succeed, we ALL need to participate in the solution