“The Biggest Little Farm”: A Bumpy and Beautiful Road to Farming for a Healthier Planet

As industrial agriculture so often pollutes our soil, water, air, and people, this new documentary spotlights a different way to grow food and raise animals.
John and Molly Chester’s Apricot Lane Farms
Credit: NEON

As industrial agriculture so often pollutes our soil, water, air, and people, this new documentary spotlights a different way to grow food and raise animals.

Forty miles north of the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles is a farm that stands out from the pack. Nestled between farms that grow their crops using degenerative practices, John and Molly Chester’s Apricot Lane Farms embraces regenerative and holistic approaches to agriculture—a rare find in this part of Southern California. Apricot Lane Farms is a place where healthy soils and well-balanced ecosystems harmonize. It’s a place where farmers and ranchers pour their hearts into nourishing and naturally feeding the land so that our hard-working soil can do its part to draw down carbon from the atmosphere. It’s a place where visitors, students, and volunteers learn how to adapt management styles based on nature’s signals.

On May 10, 2019, John and Molly’s documentary film The Biggest Little Farm will be released in theaters. The Biggest Little Farm showcases the Chesters’ journey into farming and regenerative agriculture.

Not only does this documentary reveal the guts it takes to be a farmer, but it also brings to life NRDC’s vision for a healthy, equitable, and regenerative food system, from farm to fork, including healthier soil, responsible antibiotic use, and pesticide-free food. 

Healthier Soil

Soil is the foundational ingredient for agriculture. Without healthy soil, we don’t get healthy plants, food, environments, or people. Soil has the power to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and pump it back into the ground, fighting against climate change. Soil has the power to act as a sponge and naturally retain water underground. Soil provides the network for nutrients to be pumped into our plants and food. The regenerative practices that John and Molly embrace, practices like cover cropping, crop diversity, no-till, and integrating livestock, naturally feed all the microorganisms, bacteria, and fungi that live in the soil, helping to strengthen our plant-growing powerhouse. “We’re basically treating the soil of the farm as the gut,” says Molly, “doing everything we can to increase the digestion of that gut and give it the most nutrition we possibly can.”

When farmers are not incentivized to take care of their soil, its power degrades, breaks, and weakens. NRDC advocates for changes to our agricultural system by promoting policies and programs that reward farmers for building their soil health. Our advocacy includes fighting for changes in the Federal Crop Insurance Program, the largest agricultural subsidy program in the United States, to make it easier for farmers who embrace healthy soil practices to get the federal assistance they need. We also worked with a coalition of agricultural and business groups to successfully pass a Soil Health Demonstration Trial in last year’s federal Farm Bill. This pilot program will pay farmers for carbon they sequester on their farms through soil building practices, paving a way for farmers to get paid for their stewardship.

Responsible Antibiotic Use on Farms

Unlike the vast majority of animals raised for food in the United States, which live in confined, stressful and unsanitary conditions, The Chesters’ chickens, pigs, cows, and other livestock are free to roam, play, and interact with each other, eat native California grasses or other healthy foods, and spend time outdoors.

These humane animal husbandry practices—along with the farm’s organic certification—mean antibiotics are not used at Apricot Lane Farms. This is hugely important because the misuse of antibiotics—both in human patients and on farms—fuels the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, sometimes known as “superbugs.” These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread from farms into communities, and increase the risk of drug-resistant infections in people. NRDC’s advocacy focuses on limiting antibiotic use practices in livestock because an astonishing two-thirds of antibiotics important to human medicine are consumed by food animals in the United States. Our campaign to end the overuse of antibiotics relies on a multifaceted approach that is leading to concrete change.

After many years of increasing livestock antibiotics sales, in 2016 and 2017 those sales dropped for the first time since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration started tracking the data in 2009. In 2017, sales were 28 percent below 2009 levels. This dramatic decrease reflects the impact of our many years of advocacy and high-profile consumer campaigns, which resulted in time-bound commitments by the majority of the chicken industry in the United States to switch away from the routine use of antibiotics. In fact, more than half of the chicken sold in U.S. grocery stores—including mainstream chains like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Kroger—is raised without antibiotics. It used to be that folks who could afford to bought more expensive, responsibly raised meat and poultry, but everyone else was left out of the equation. At least with chicken, that is no longer the case. However, much work remains on beef and pork.

Less Pesticides and Greater Access to Organic Food

For years, NRDC has worked to get toxic pesticides out of our food system, especially chemicals like chlorpyrifos that harms brain development in children, and glyphosate, which international experts identified as likely to cause cancer. “Agriculture is pretty significant, especially when it comes to the degradation of soil and the use of glyphoate to kill ‘weeds’ and grasses out of fear they’re interfering with crops,” John says. “Those plants are the way that soil is able to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and regenerate and feed the microorganisms that essentially turn death into life.”

Our new campaign to expand access to organic food in schools is another way we are working to mainstream sustainable food production practices like those featured in The Biggest Little Farm. This year, NRDC is sponsoring a bill in California that would create the first-ever organic-to-school pilot program, giving schools serving primarily low-income students extra resources to buy California produced organic food like fruits, vegetables, milk, and more. More organic food in schools will mean less pesticide exposure for the state’s most vulnerable children. It also means fewer farmworkers exposed to toxic pesticides, more protection for honeybees and other pollinators, and more climate-friendly farms that prioritize practices that protect soil and help it trap carbon, as so beautifully illustrated in The Biggest Little Farm. After all, healthy food starts with healthy soil. “We are trying to be an example with our patch of the quilt,” John says. “If our methods of regeneration have a positive impact and other farms do similar things, the patches on that quilt will spread.”

The Biggest Little Farm manages to achieve the impossible—it shows how a strong belief in regenerative principles can propel farmers away from degenerative practices that, too often, plague industrial agriculture and pollute people, soil, water, and air. It compels viewers to ask different questions at farmer’ markets and leaves viewers inspired about a different way of growing food and raising animals. It doesn’t soften the harsh edges of a farmer’s reality—being at the mercy of a changing climate, of pests, of challenging economic circumstances. But also reminds us all that a different path truly is possible.

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