Monday, May 27, 2019

3255. Film Review: The Biggest Little Farm

By Kamran Nayeri, May 26, 2019


This film is about the Apricot Lane Farms located 40 miles north of Los Angeles and established in 2011.  Directed and narrated by John Chester, a longtime documentary cinematographer, the film mostly gives the impression that the farm is the work of a husband and wife team, John and his wife Molly, the former chef and blogger, who were fed up with life in Los Angeles and decided to become “traditional” farmers.  The film shows an young couple who have no clue about farming guided by a guru named Allen who preaches biodiversity in farming (“let nature do the work”) start with an exhausted soil to make it rich with life again year after year. Each progress bring about a new challenge. Until by the end of the film the farm becomes commercially sustainable. John Chester closes the narrative by admitting that their original hope for farming in harmony with nature has failed and he resign himself with a measure of “disharmony” with it.

Of course, the Chesters’ initial idealism and the progress they have made to replace some key practices of industrial farming with “sustainable” practices in more harmonious with nature is commendable.  But the Apricot Lane Farms is far from what is needed to replace industrial agriculture which lies at the base of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization’s malignant relationship with nature with future humanity needs in order to survive, that is, a society that ensure harmony one among people and with the rest of nature.

Consider one of the many conflicts (John Chester calls it “disharmony”) with the rest of nature. The Chesters are raising chicken for eggs to sell on the market for profit. The chicken invite hungry coyotes to nightly raids which then set up escalating conflict with John and Molly. One day, John Chester picks up his gun and shoots an intruding coyote for the simple crime of trying to survive by eating a meal at the farm.  It is very clear that he does this as a “last option” and some in the audience may judge John’s killing of the coyote as a necessary measure to save the lives of peaceful chicken from wild coyotes. But it must be self-evident that as the farmer John is protecting the chicken not because of altruism but because it is a commodity with a market value. Why else would farmers raise farm animals if not for generating a stream of income and in Chesters’s case profit?

The conflict with nature is rooted in the very idea of the farm because it is an integrated artificial ("man made") ecosystem with domesticated plants and animals that provides controlled environment for extraction of wealth from nature. These animals as well as many domesticated plants depend on the farmer for their life.  and all animals and plants that intrude in the production process in the farm must be eliminated by the farmer.  Agriculture, is the basis of all civilization and civilization, which has always been some form of class society has been in perpetual war with the rest of nature and civilization itself is riff with social stratification and various forms of oppression and exploitation, hence ongoing social conflict. Thus, ecosocial crisis is an unavoidable consequence of all civilization. The anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization has simply globalized this ecosocial crisis leading to existential threats to humanity and much of life on Earth. In the film we see its manifestations in California drought and wildfires which John Chester documents but does not ponder except as a threat to his farm.

The Apricot Lane Farm is no exception. While its use of agroecological methods are certainly a step in the right direction, nothing essential in the relationship of the farmer with the animals and plants that it grows is changed. Although the Chesters call their employee their “team” they are still wage workers working in a capitalist firm. At the beginning of the film, John Chester talks about securing the backing of "investors" for their business plan (the farm) and anyone knowledgeable about farming can easily tell that their project has been a multi-million dollar one from the beginning. According to the website for the farm, it currently has some two dozen full time employees and without a doubt the farm this size could not operate without seasonal agricultural workers.

Of course, the audience is charmed with many adorable animals and the landscape lush with plants and an enriched soil .  But humanity is facing an existential ecosocial crisis that calls for radical action on massive scale worldwide.   To tackle crisis, billions of working people must realize that humanity must stop acting as the God Species and we must chart a course to step back into a much more modest niche like any other megafauna occupies as we also transcend the capitalist system.

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