The Biggest Little Farm: A Portrait of Caretaking

“Soil doesn’t have much of a place in the minds of most Christians today,” notes Colin Hoogerwerf, producer and host of the recent Language of God podcast, “Faith and Soil.” “We’ve lost our connection to the soil, and in doing so, we’ve lost some of the humility that comes out of that relationship.”

If you are in the market for a fleshed-out, real-life story of getting down in the dirt and recovering the humility of connecting to the soil, The Biggest Little Farm, a documentary hitting theaters May 10, might be just the ticket.

The Biggest Little Farm is the story of John and Molly Chester as they try to make their dream, a farm where they “live in harmony with nature,” a reality. It is not a “Christian film,” but it is family and classroom-friendly,[1] and it could provide a great stimulus for conversation about what it looks like for humans to be stewards of God’s creation.

At the beginning of the film we are introduced to Molly, a personal chef and food blogger, and her husband John, a nature photographer. When they adopt a rescue dog whose incessant barking gets them evicted from their cramped Los Angeles apartment, they decide to pursue a crazy dream Molly has—starting an old-fashioned farm that grows an abundant variety of fruits and vegetables and provides a hospitable home to hosts of animals, both domesticated and wild. The couple recruits some investors and purchases 200 acres of failed farmland in California. And so begins their formidable quest to turn a bleak and forsaken piece of land into a thriving haven of life!

The Chesters hire a quirky consultant on traditional farming whose out-of-the-box strategy sets them on a twisting and obstacle-strewn path toward their vision. The film follows them as their ideals collide with the practical realities of the task in front of them. They are complete novices to agriculture and animal husbandry, so we get to learn along with them as they research, hope, plan, fail, wait, succeed, innovate, and problem solve. It turns out that connecting with the soil is definitely a humbling experience in quite a number of ways.

There is no heavy-handed political or environmental message here; no dire warnings about climate change, no railing against big agriculture, no guilt trips for people who fail to eat exclusively locally-sourced, organic food. What the film does present is a motivating vision of what being a caretaker of the earth might look like. It depicts the challenges of attempting to take from nature, while fully embracing the responsibility to nurture and give back.

In that sense it presents a real-world picture of the tension between dominion and stewardship. Molly and John Chester have goals. They want to make a profit selling nutritious organic produce that will delight and benefit humans. They persevere in the belief that they can reach their goals while at the same time tending a healthy ecosystem for the wild and domesticated animals who live on the land and play a role in making it productive. Much of the film illustrates the conflict inherent in balancing the needs of the plants and animals that make the land fruitful with the desires of the humans to “subdue the earth.” The original ideal of living in harmony with nature gives way to a more realistic project of creatively and compassionately managing all the inherent disharmony of the situation. The film is honest in showing that the road to the abundant crops and pictures of fecundity they showcase after eight years is paved with a lot of waste and frustration from a human standpoint. But it is impossible not to rejoice with them when you see the before and after images of how the land has transformed from desolate to flourishing.

Why should Christians see The Biggest Little Farm and care about the Chesters’ work there? Going back the Language of God podcast “Faith and Soil,” Dr. Norman Wirzba, Duke University professor of theology, ecology and rural life, sums up the motivation for his life work in creation care saying,

Love needs to be the inspiration and sort of the power that keeps you doing the work that you do…Like you, when I read the scientific reports…I want to crawl into the fetal position and just wish it were not that way. But love does not allow you that option. Love requires you to get to work. So I’m interested to see, where are people doing the kinds of work where love is on display?

Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger, theology professor who oversees the environmental studies minor at Hope College, adds, “I, as an earth-keeper, am called by God to do my best to serve and protect my home planet for all its inhabitants… I’m going to try to make the world a little better place where I am and connect with other people, whether they are Christian or not, who are trying to do the same thing who share that vision of a flourishing planet.”

John and Molly know what it means to get to work on a vision of a flourishing planet. Everyone who cares about making God’s world a better place can celebrate their contribution at Little Apricot Farm and learn something from their labor of love. You can watch the trailer for the film, right here:

As mentioned, The Biggest Little Farm is family and classroom-friendly. Here are some questions to stimulate discussion with your children or students:

For younger students:

  1. In the film, the coyotes and the gophers cause some problems for the Chesters. Does that mean some animals are good and some animals are bad? How do the coyotes and gophers contribute to the ecosystem?
  2. The Chesters do not appear to be vegetarian. Animals are being raised for food and to provide profitable products like milk, eggs, and honey. In what ways did the people compassionately care for their animals, even though the animals were ultimately there to provide food for people?
  3. What were some of the differences in way the soil looked and felt at the beginning of the film and the way it looked and felt after eight years of taking care of it? What things did John and Molly do to help bring the soil back to life?

For older students:

  1. The more vibrant the farm became, the more attractive it was to “pests,” and a natural balance between pests and their predators did not happen overnight. Can you think of some examples when Molly and John simply waited for nature to take its course and bring things into balance and some examples of when they intervened and did something proactive? What do you think that says about the role of human discernment, creativity, and ingenuity in protecting and restoring ecosystems?
  2. Sometimes we think the best that humans have to offer when it comes to conservation is high-tech solutions, but that is not always the case. Can you think of some examples from the film of the Chesters using their careful observations and creative problem-solving to find “low-tech” solutions to problems?
  3. Nature can seem selfish and inconsiderate. Can you think of an example from the film where animals took more than their “fair share?” or where something natural was destructive, harmful, or wasteful? Humans, on the other hand are capable of sharing and making selfless choices. Does that make humans more responsible for other creatures’ welfare? Why is it wrong for humans to be destructive and wasteful?
  4. Working in conservation and creation care requires lots of patience. Can you think of some examples from the film where the Chester’s willingness to do something that did not seem to be very efficient or have an immediate benefit paid off as time went by?

Feel the love, and get to work!

Not all of us are in a position to buy a farm, but the film highlighted some ways that most of us can contribute to conservation. Among them are starting a worm compost bin, and planting flowers and caring for your yard in a way that supports local bee populations. Consider committing to one of these projects, or do some research and share with us some other ways we can all care for the earth.

Christy Hemphill
About the Author

Christy Hemphill

Christy Hemphill and her husband Aaron work as linguistic consultants on a minority language Scripture translation project in southern Mexico, where she homeschools her three children. Prior to her work in Mexico, she worked as an educator for eight years in various contexts including high school, museum education, college, and adult education. Christy has a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics/TESOL from Old Dominion University, and a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics/Bible Translation from the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics at Dallas International University. Christy serves on the curriculum development team for BioLogos INTEGRATE and on the BioLogos Advisory Council. She has also served as a moderator on the BioLogos discussion forum since 2015, and you can often find her there sharing her pursuit of good biblical exegesis and good science with anyone who wants to join in.
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