Emmy-winning director John Chester recently won “The Damn Fine Film Award” at the Ocean City Film Festival. His film, which is in part autobiographical, follows he and his wife for about a decade, as they purchase 200 acres of land in southern California and build it into an old-school or traditional kind of farm. Chester and his wife refer to it as a traditional farm, but what they’re doing is probably best known as organic farming. Chester’s documentary paints organic farming as an ideal and idyllic way of farming, if not the best or optimal way. He compares it to a children’s book, pretty and simple, bold and colorful. He certainly compares his farm as being “in harmony with nature.” No doubt, organic farming is more natural, both in appearance and in practice. It’s just this beautiful place where animals frolic almost free. It’s a paradise, a kind of Biblical Garden of Eden.
Besides the aesthetics, there seems to be no overwhelming or super-convincing reason why farming in Chester’s method is more preferable than modern, commercial farming or what they refer to as mono-culture. There’s a triumphant moment where Chester’s farm isn’t flooded by torrential rain. The reason the soil is saved is due to the planting of cover crops, but cover crops aren’t unique to the kind of farming that Chester is doing. If this film is meant to be an argument for the kind of traditional or organic farming that Chester is doing, I’m not sure he’s satisfying on any factual or rational level. It’s more about how pretty everything looks and how cute and adorable the animals are.
There is one disingenuous moment or scene. One mother pig is brought to the farm. Chester and his wife name the pig “Emma.” Emma is pregnant and the documentary shows her giving birth to a dozen or so piglets. Other than that, Emma just lounges around in her sty. One scene sees Emma get sick. She lays around and stops eating. Chester believes that Emma might die. My question is what are the pigs there to do. What’s not really said in the movie is that pigs are raised for food. We’re supposed to fear and lament Emma’s possible death, but we don’t make any hay about the fact that Emma’s babies are going to be raised only to be turned into pork and bacon to be eaten. It felt like contrived sentimentality.
Arguably though, pig raising isn’t the mainstay for Chester’s farm. The top products seem to be free-range eggs and various stone fruits. The movie is thus the frustrations and difficulties with maintaining those specific products. As one might imagine, the way that Chester and his wife have decided to organize their farm opens them up to more frustrations and difficulties than more commercial or mono-culture farmers. One difficulty are coyotes eating the chickens. Why this is a difficulty is because Chester doesn’t want to kill the coyotes. Yet, the tension intensifies when fencing doesn’t really work and there is a brief conflict over whether or not Chester will compromise his values and be forced to kill the coyotes.
What doesn’t help is that besides learning in the beginning that Chester is a nature photographer, we don’t really get much else about him. Obviously, he knows how to use a gun or a hunting rifle. Yet, we’re not shown how the value of not wanting to kill coyotes originated. There’s also no discussion of what if a bear was invading the farm. We don’t get much conversation between Chester and his wife. We don’t really delve into who they are as people. All the movie is what they do as farmers. Maybe, the point is that work is all consuming, but eventually the two have a son, so it can’t be that consuming.
Seeing them navigate the issues that arise with protecting their fruit crops is clever. Both Chester and his wife when they start this farm seem to have no idea about how farms work. They rely on a farming consultant named Alan York. He comes across as the guiding force for them and the true architect for their farm. It gets to a point though that Chester and his wife have to manage the acreage alone without York’s guidance. We don’t really feel the pressure or burden of them being alone though. The cleverness therefore becomes not a revelation but simple connecting the dots if one has a basic understanding of an ecological food chain.
Various pests threaten their fruit crops. The fruit trees attract birds, insects and even snails that chow down on the crops. The issue is how to stop or get rid of these so-called pests without using chemicals like pesticides or some other direct human intervention. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots that these pests are or can be prey to some predator, even an unlikely predator. Yet, we never see Chester or his wife connecting those dots. All of a sudden, the dots are just connected. Their solution doesn’t seem obvious at first, but maybe it was.
Rated PG for mild thematic elements.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 31 mins.
Playing in Salisbury and Rehoboth Beach.