“Heart Work” Grows the Biggest Little Farm

A typical day for farmer John Chester at Apricot Lane Farms in Moorpark begins with checking on the well-being of his pastures, animals and team.

“Each day starts and ends by walking alternating routes,” says John, who along with his wife, Molly, founded the farm in 2011. “I like to observe how problems or the solutions we’ve enacted are evolving over time.”

John’s journey with the farm is also projected in the award-winning documentary, “The Biggest Little Farm,” a story about John and Molly leaving big city life in Los Angeles to fulfill their dreams of owning and reinventing the 214-acre Apricot Lane Farms. John, a longtime documentarian, felt compelled to make the documentary based on his experiences with bringing the farm back to life.

“After year five, I saw the return of nature and the diversity become the thing that was solving problems and regulating pest and disease pressure,” says John. “I realized I had a unique opportunity to capture something over the course of eight years that probably no one else would be able to do in the same way. I felt obligated and inspired to share it.”

The story documents the eight-year journey of regenerative farming, a practice that focuses on soil health to build the fertility and immunological needs of plants, all while living in “a comfortable level of disharmony” amongst nature. The process included planting cover crops and native habitats, fixing more than five miles of irrigation, diversifying the orchards, and utilizing compost and compost teas, among many other things. John and Molly also overcome obstacles and learn lessons from droughts, coyotes and other crop pests.

“We’re focusing on regenerating the biodiversity of the farm by allowing beneficial predators, such as barn owls, gopher snakes, and even coyotes, to help balance pest pressure,” says John.

One of the main goals of regenerative farming is to build soil by increasing soil organic matter, which draws down atmospheric carbon, sequestering it back into the soil. By farming regeneratively, they have increased the soil organic matter by 3% to 4% in the past seven years, bringing farm-wide averages to 4% to 6%.

With the regenerative practices, in just one teaspoon of healthy soil, there are more than 9 billion microorganisms. 

“If we focus on biodiversity, it can afford you a toolbox of solutions,” says John. “Industrialized methods suppress nature using toxic methods leading to collateral damage that kills the biodiversity of the soil and the beneficial organisms living above.”

The documentary also explains that the Chesters’ desire to own a farm began with a promise to Todd, a rescued black Border Collie. After the couple received an eviction notice from their landlord due to Todd’s constant barking, they knew it was perfect timing for them to invest in farmland. With Todd and Alan York, a biodynamic viticulture consultant who passed away from cancer in 2014, John learned the importance of farming.

“To develop our farming methods, it required us to see our farm with a curiosity for deeper context around why things did or didn't work,” says John. “It’s the only way to harness the power of an interdependent ecosystem”

The farm consists of more than 200 different types of produce and animal products, including biodynamic certified avocados, lemon orchards, vegetable gardens, pastures and more than 75 varieties of fruit trees. The residents include pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, guinea hens, horses, highland cattle, a dairy cow named Maggie and a 9-year-old pig named Emma.

Apricot Lane Farms’ produce is sold in selected grocery stores and at the Calabasas, Mar Vista, Thousand Oaks and Santa Monica farmers markets. Their most popular items are eggs, avocados, stone fruit, blueberries and vegetables. Each year, people purchase more than 500,000 pounds of food.

“(The avocados) have a way higher fat content than most; we also released an avocado oil that’s doing well,” says John. With our eggs, the chickens are raised on grass pastures, eating grasses, bugs and worms, resulting in a pretty tasty egg that customers seem to really love.”

John says the methods behind regenerative agriculture see plant health as directly connected to soil health. “The soil is the immune system and nutrient system that enables a plant to produce deeper flavor profiles that tend to be higher in nutrient density,” says John. “Soil is the gut microbiome of the plant.” 

Molly, who has worked as a private chef, also cooks up dishes with ingredients produced at the farm. What is John’s favorite food that she prepares?

“Everything,” says John. “Molly focuses on preparing and sourcing foods to maximize the flavor and availability of nutrient density in the way it’s cooked.”

With the Covid pandemic still occurring, John says Apricot Lane Farms is thriving.

“I think with Covid, people have become way more sensitive to the nutrient quality and access to healthy food,” says John. “We have almost doubled in sales with markets.”

As part of Ventura County Farm Day, hosted by Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture, “The Biggest Little Farm” will be shown during a drive-in movie night on Sunday, Nov. 1, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds from 6 to 8 p.m. A question and answer session with John follows the screening.

“I hope that watching the film helps (attendees) to defamiliarize the familiar so they can see the things we take for granted, as having these powerful purposes that are interconnected to the web of life that exists in front of us,” says John.

For more information, visit ApricotLaneFarms.com. To attend the Ventura County Farm Day Drive-In Movie Night, visit VenturaCountyFarmDay.com/drive-in.

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