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'Biggest Little Farm': Offers Ways To Improve Man's Relationship With Nature


This is despairing news. A United Nations report says humans are pushing 1 million species of plants and animals toward extinction. But a documentary out tomorrow looks at ways to improve the relationship between mankind and nature when it comes to agriculture. It's called "The Biggest Little Farm." Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Apricot Lane Farm (ph) is about an hour north of LA, surrounded by hills scorched by recent wildfires. John Chester and his wife, Molly, greet us at their 200-acre paradise.

JOHN CHESTER: Welcome to the farm that we have integrated into the ecosystem, that we had to first reawaken because when we got here, it was dead.

DEL BARCO: The Chesters bought their farm eight years ago after their dog, Todd's, barking got them evicted from their apartment. Molly had been a private chef, and John, a filmmaker.

MOLLY CHESTER: John had some experience working on family farms in his 20s. And I didn't have any experience at all. (Laughter). I had a terrible porch garden, (laughter), that I thought was fabulous.

DEL BARCO: But with volunteers and investors who shared their vision for farming in harmony with nature, the Chesters created their organic, biodynamic farm. First they had to build up the depleted topsoil. They introduced earthworms and their animals' manure.

J CHESTER: The microorganisms from the cow and the sheep helped build a healthy soil food web.

DEL BARCO: The land came back to life. Healthy cover crops prevented erosion and more.

J CHESTER: In the 24 inches of rain that we got this year, we've sequestered nearly 140 million gallons of water. So what our plants don't use goes back into the aquifer for our son to use one day. It's pretty incredible.

DEL BARCO: As they learned to farm, they found natural solutions to each problem they encountered, including pests and predators, day and night. John Chester documented it all with cutting-edge cameras and lenses.

J CHESTER: I just kept shooting stuff. I had no intention of making a feature film about this. I couldn't even tell what the film was going to be about, other than two floundering, you know, fish-out-of-water couple from the city trying to figure out how to farm in a regenerative way. But once I saw what was happening with the return of the wildlife and how things were starting to rebalance all the issues we were facing, and I was able to capture it as it was happening, I started realizing there was a story that had never been told before.

DEL BARCO: The documentary also features Alan York, a well-respected soil, plant and biodynamic consultant, who guided them.


ALAN YORK: Complexity, diversity, all supporting and enhancing each other. You will see a web of life.

JOHN REGANOLD: He was a real neat guy. He comes across as a very philosophical guru.

DEL BARCO: John Reganold is a soil science professor at Washington State University. He's impressed by "The Biggest Little Farm" and says it and Alan York offer lessons.

REGANOLD: It's pretty unique because of all the different crops that they're growing, and they have animals - pigs, cows, sheep, chickens. The trends, not just in the U.S., over the last 50, 60 years, have been segregating livestock from crops. And they basically built the soil back. It was just so beautiful, just to see the biodiversity and to see the animals.


DEL BARCO: Like Maggie, a brown Swiss dairy cow, and a little orphaned lamb among the sheep.


DEL BARCO: The star of the farm is Emma, a 650-pound pig, who's more than ready for her close-up.


DEL BARCO: Not every farmer has the money or investors to farm this way. But the Chesters were fortunate. Their land now boasts orchards with 75 varieties of fruits and 100 types of vegetables. And animals with a lot of personality.


DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mandalit del Barco
As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.