How do you turn barren land into a complex working farm that reflects the planet’s biodiversity? Just ask John and Molly Chester, who traded city life in Los Angeles for 200 acres in Ventura County, where they are rebuilding soil health and growing the most nutrient-dense food possible. That’s all in the company of their animals, like Georgie the gopher-eating egret, Emma the pig who welcomes her newest litter, and an adorable lamb named Moe who believes he’s a dog.
JOHN CHESTER (FARMER): I’m going to tell you about this place that ten years ago didn’t even exist. And what created this wasn’t brilliance, it was freedom to allow nature to show us a better way. That’s exactly how my wife Molly and I rebuilt this whole farm over the last decade. And it all started with a dream.
PETER GWIN (HOST):
Ten years ago, Molly and John Chester lived in a Los Angeles apartment with one tomato plant and a dog until they bought the farm…well not that farm, actually they really bought a real farm in southern California.
With no prior experience, they purchased an old lemon grove but instead of just one crop, their goal was to grow hundreds of types of plants, and raise many different animals, all while working within the natural ecosystem.
I’m Peter Gwin, Editor at large at National Geographic and you’re listening to Overheard,
a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world
This week, I interview Molly and John, who documented their experience in the film The Biggest Little Farm: The Return, which is out now on Disney Plus.
We’ll talk about what it takes to cultivate this kind organically integrated farm from scratch, running a business, and raising a family, all while battling forest fires, fending off snail invasions, and dealing with hungry coyotes.
All that and more after the break.
GWIN: Hey, John and Molly.
JOHN CHESTER: Hi.
GWIN: So why don't we just start off and maybe you could both introduce yourselves. Just say your name and what you do.
MOLLY CHESTER: My name is Molly Chester. I'm a chef and farmer of Apricot Lane Farms from the Biggest Little Farm.
JOHN CHESTER: My name is John Chester, along with my wife, Molly. We're co-founders of Apricot Lane Farms and I'm also a filmmaker.
GWIN: OK, so for people who haven't seen the biggest little farm? Can you tell us a little bit about your farm, Apricot Lane?
JOHN CHESTER: Well, we were living in the city with an adopted rescue dog. And we had talked about this idea of building a farm in the image of an ecosystem for a long time. And we decided to do it. It was probably about 2011, and the idea was that we would enter into this land, regenerate it, return it back into a biologically diverse ecosystem, and then try to farm within that diversity as a way to create a self-balancing system. Which is pretty different compared to the way most farming has gone over the last hundred years. So it was the perfect mission for two very idealistic, naive former city dwellers.
GWIN: OK, I have to ask, did you watch a lot of episodes of Green Acres before you went and did this?
JOHN CHESTER: No, apparently not enough. That is a question that gets asked a lot.
GWIN: Does it really? Well I think that's because there is sort of this. I don't know if it's an American sort of like part of the American dream or one of the American dreams. Is that like, yeah, we're going to just leave the rat race and go back to sort of the simple life on a farm. but you guys actually have done this. Is there some sort of impulse to get close to the land that you guys felt like you were tapping into?
JOHN CHESTER: I think the idea taps into a universal coding within the human experience to want to go beyond just purpose and meaning in our lives and find this connection to the ultimate source. And whether we know it or not, it's programmed within our DNA to want to find that. And farming is just a term used as a method. And for us, I think we were just tapping into something that everyone has in them, whether they know it or not. We were just a little, maybe, crazy enough to sort of admit it to each other and declare it to the world.
GWIN: How did people react when you told them what you were doing?
MOLLY CHESTER: We have certainly got many different reactions, and not all of them were enthusiastic.
JOHN CHESTER: Yeah, I think some of that resistance is a good indicator of where you need to go in life, you know? Most of your family and closest friends will not be telling you it's a good idea. It's usually strangers.
GWIN: Oh, interesting, huh. OK so how did you guys decide among yourselves you were going to do this?
JOHN CHESTER: So it's always been in us. I think, you know, just as life goes on, you're seeking these meaningful and purposeful experiences. And at some point you come to a crossroad and you realize the last one is that connection to each other and your connection to the planet. And to get there, you kind of need to go all in. And you need to feel that—what it feels like to be vulnerably dependent on the ecosystem.
MOLLY CHESTER: I also think one of the things about the unique combination of John and I that really has enabled what we desired to come true is that we do kind of come at any problem from very different perspectives. And at the beginning, I may have come in with the desire for a certain type of food. John had a real innate understanding of more kind of the wilderness aspect of the ecosystem part. And through the pull and tug of those things and the understanding of how the interplay of them works, we've come to a great spot.
JOHN CHESTER: Yeah, like the one thing we both probably would say we know for sure is that neither of us know nothing for sure. So it's really good to stay open to the possibilities and other perspectives that someone may bring to the solution to the problems that you face.
MOLLY CHESTER: Those first couple of years, I've always said it felt like we're riding on the wings of God. You just said, yes is essentially all that happened. And you're having to then learn through the challenges that are meant to strengthen you in the unique ways that you need to be strengthened to be able to finish the task.
GWIN: Once you guys decided you wanted to do this, where do you go looking to find, you know, a farm?
JOHN CHESTER: That's a really good question.
MOLLY CHESTER: Well I didn't want to visit this farm. John was like, "Let's go check this place out." I was like, "Oh, it's a horse farm..." I wasn't really…
JOHN CHESTER: Horse and lemon farm. It didn't look like— they didn't sell it well, I guess.
MOLLY CHESTER: But we knew at the moment we walked on...
JOHN CHESTER: Yeah, we didn't even get to this gate and we were like, "We have to make this happen."
MOLLY CHESTER: We felt it.
JOHN CHESTER: We felt it. Most of the farms in this area, they’ve literally eliminated every tree or plant that is not a crop. So there's no diversity, there's no place for a hawk to perch or an owl to perch. You know, and there were at least some old growth trees here. And you know, when we found it we knew it was the right spot.
GWIN: So what's the first thing you did? Where do you even start with a massive project like this?
JOHN CHESTER: Where we thought we would start and where we needed to start were two different things. Where we thought we would start was, OK, what are we going to plant? But the reality was, we really ultimately had to start with rebuilding the soil before we really could even begin to plant new things. The soil was—in comparison to what it is today, it was dead. And we had to create a system that would enhance and regenerate that. So composting, starting a composting operation on the farm so that every cutting or every ground-up old-growth tree got turned back into mulch to feed those microorganisms to start that flywheel of essentially alchemizing death back into life to build soil.
GWIN: That really is ground zero, I guess, right?
JOHN CHESTER: It's everything, you know, without that, there is no new life after death. Death is intentionally transferred back into a living thing through that process of decay and decomposition that happens on the soil layer.
Coming up Molly and John talk the great snail invasion, that’s right after this break.
GWIN: It started off as a horse and lemon farm. So now what would you tell people what kind of farm it is?
JOHN CHESTER: Just on the animal side, cows, pigs, chicken, sheep, ducks, guinea hens, turkeys,
MOLLY CHESTER: Oranges, apples, nectarines, peaches, plums, cherimoyas, guavas, macadamia nuts, and then over 15 different varieties of avocado trees.
JOHN CHESTER: And one kid.
JOHN CHESTER (FILM CLIP): Whatcha got there buster?
BEAUDEN CHESTER: Peach. Maybe an apple, maybe a peach
MOLLY CHESTER: Alright, not too many.
JOHN CHESTER: It's not required for a biologically diverse farm to grow that much diversity in terms of food crop. It's just something that two naive people did.
MOLLY CHESTER: That like to cook with all the things.
JOHN CHESTER: Yeah, I mean, this is the problem. Don't start a farm with a chef.
MOLLY CHESTER: Rule number one.
GWIN: I'm writing that down, actually.
JOHN CHESTER: Yeah, don't do that. What's important is essentially creating the immunology of your farm. The immune system of the farm is based upon its biodiversity. And I think what we've added is this layer of stability that doesn't always fix a problem right away, but there is a toolbox there waiting to be tapped into and called on that comes back into life that starts to eat away at what was maybe a disease epidemic in the making.
JOHN CHESTER (FILM CLIP): I’m making it sound easy, but it wasn’t. The birds attacked our orchards, Snails smothered our trees. Our ducks polluted our pond. Coyotes killed our chickens.
GWIN: One of the things in the film that I was struck by is just how you would address problems that arose. And the one I'm thinking of is the snails. How did you guys go about finding solutions that would fit within your philosophy?
JOHN CHESTER: Well, first, we panicked because everything felt—we thought it was the end. So we would panic, then we would probably fight about it.
MOLLY CHESTER: Me and you fight? (laughs)
JOHN CHESTER: Yeah, we would fight. And then we would try to maybe think of ways to fight it. We realize that every act of control that we want to put onto the system has collateral damage. And so you have to think through, well, if I do this, what other things will die because of it? And there's no perfect solution. You realize very quickly on, there's no such thing as good and evil. There's no such thing as right and wrong. In nature, there is one law and it's called consequence. Well, what eats snails? What eats ants? or what does this? or why does it even exist? Is it existing because it was something else? Have we caused the problem? Which oftentimes is the case. So I think you have to be willing to be curious in the moments of that great fear, you know, because that is what we ultimately realized was the antidote to all of our fear at every moment was actually a deep sense of curiosity for it. Not trying to control it completely, but actually try to understand why it existed.
JOHN CHESTER (FILM CLIP): The solutions to our problems began to appear within the diversity that we had created. Hawks returned to chase away the starlings, guardian dogs protected the chickens, oh and as for that snail problem? In just one season, our ducks ate over 96,000 snails, turning the snails into nitrogen rich duck poop, adding yet another layer of fertility to regenerate our soils.
GWIN: The time period that you guys have been there has been a pretty rough time for California and California farmers in particular. And we've seen, you know, the fire seasons, you know, wind, drought, et cetera, it seems like a whole nother layer on top of this already big challenge that you both have undertaken.
JOHN CHESTER: It did feel like the world was ending. I mean, it was the beginning of the worst drought in 1,200 years. They said these winds are 50 miles an hour, get ready for them. And they were 80 miles an hour. Like a sustained 80-mile-an-hour wind for not just a day, but for sometimes weeks, sometimes, you know? On and off. It's intense. Add fire to it. I think it has felt apocalyptic at times. But is there still more we can do to create a resilience for the next season of those challenges? Absolutely. And we're learning every year through surviving it what we can do to adapt to those changes. And I think that that's not exclusive to our journey.
GWIN: So looking back, is there anything you guys would have done differently with all this experience under your belt?
JOHN CHESTER: When you're rebuilding something like a piece of land. Actually start where there’s already something working. There's something stable and healthy about this biome, you want to put the next venture right next to it because there's a stability that it offers. If you try to like create health here, and a healthy island here, and a healthy island here. It's much more difficult. There are these islands that are not interacting, not working together. And so now I think, you know, looking back, I would probably have paid more attention to where things were already working and start there and expand out. And it says so much about even the way that we build our lives, you know, like what is it that we resonate with? And in building the life that we want to live, what is the person we want to be? What is the thing that first sparks my interest? Because if you feed into that it, it expands into what becomes the career or what becomes the life you were born to live. And I think there's so much in that that was missed in the beginning when we were just coming in here trying to fix it all.
GWIN: Sounds like sage advice.
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And to see the Chester’s film for yourself, The Biggest Little Farm: The Return is now streaming on Disney Plus.
We’ve included a link in our show notes, they’re right there in your podcast app.
This week’s episode is produced by Brian Gutierrez
Our producers are Khari Douglas, Ilana Strauss, and Marcy Thompson.
Our senior producers include Jacob Pinter.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who edited this episode.
Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.
Our photo editor is Julie Hau.
Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
David Brindley is National Geographic’s interim editor in chief.
And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.
How do you turn barren land into a complex working farm that reflects the planet’s biodiversity? Just ask John and Molly Chester, who traded city life in Los Angeles for 200 acres in Ventura County, where they are rebuilding soil health and growing the most nutrient-dense food possible. Their film, The Biggest Little Farm: The Return is now available on Disney Plus.
For more information on this episode, visit natgeo.com/overheard.