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Healthy Soil, Coming to a Theater Near You: 5 Lessons From 'The Biggest Little Farm'

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The Biggest Little Farm [Official Trailer]

By Karen Perry Stillerman

An email in my inbox last month caught my attention. It was from author, environmental advocate, and Academy Award-winning film producer Laurie David (An Inconvenient Truth), and it offered a preview of The Biggest Little Farm, a new documentary film David had coming out soon. "I promise you that any person that goes to see this film will leave inspired and caring a whole lot more for the planet," her note said. "I promise you it will help your organization achieve your goals!"


I clicked on the link, watched the trailer, was intrigued. The movie looked gorgeous. But would it hold up to scrutiny from skeptical agricultural scientists?

A few days later, in a conference room with several members of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) food and agriculture team, I dimmed the lights and let the film roll. The Biggest Little Farm (in theaters this month) chronicles the adventures of filmmaker John Chester and his wife Molly as they leave their lives in Los Angeles behind to start a diversified farm on an exhausted piece of land north of the city, where they intend to live and grow food "in perfect harmony with nature."

At first, the storytelling seems to veer toward the precious. John documents the promise they made to their rescue pup Todd about how much he'd love being a farm dog. The narration, over cute animation, extols the idyllic life John and Molly imagine for themselves. But I soon realized he was setting up viewers for the same jolt he and Molly would soon get — repeatedly — about the harsh realities of farming, especially when you're trying something new and complex.

Because it turns out this kind of farming isn't all rainbows and puppies and adorable baby goats. It's also exhausting and sometimes heartbreaking. Before long, the story got real — very real — and I was hooked. After the credits rolled, my colleagues' reviews came in:

A really beautiful, honest, and engaging film. It shows the many tough challenges of farming with nature rather than against it, but leads with the opportunities and a hopeful optimism.

I don't think I've ever seen such a stunning illustration of the ecology of diversified farming – the challenges, the potential, and all the interconnectedness of a complex farm ecosystem.

More dead chickens! Why did you make me watch this??

Indeed, midway through the film, the casualties start to pile up. John, Molly and their team face a seemingly never-ending string of predator attacks, pest and disease outbreaks, and other deadly natural phenomena as they struggle to make Apricot Lane Farms a sustainable enterprise. Although the relentless mishaps challenge their core belief in working with nature rather than against it, they persist, learning something from each experience and finding creative ways to adapt.

Their story, while unique in many ways, contains some key lessons for U.S. agriculture:

Soil is paramount. 

When the Chesters first arrived at Apricot Lane Farms, their newly acquired soil was so compacted and devoid of organic matter, they could hardly break it with a shovel. "The soil is dead," John says flatly. "And we have no idea how to bring it back to life." But with the help of consultant and soil guru Alan York, they set about enriching it. "Plants build soil," Alan said as they seeded cover crops. They also installed a state-of-the-art compost tea system and added animals (so many animals!) for their manure. And indeed, by the end of the film—which spans a seven-year period of historic California drought followed by an unusually wet year—the Chesters' spongier soil seemed to have paid off, as it held water better during dry periods and soaked up more of it when the rains fell. At a time when climate change is driving more weather extremes in every part of the country, building healthy soil will be critical to ensuring that farmers can be successful.

2. Increasing a farm’s biodiversity is critical (and hard).

Someone recently said to me that farmers are the only manufacturers who work outside, completely exposed to the elements. There's truth in that, for sure, but the choice of the word "manufacturers" is revealing. Factories typically make one thing, over and over, day in and day out. And farming in the United States has become a lot like that—an overwhelmingly industrial process, divorced from nature and, in fact, often fighting it tooth and nail. In the film, we see Alan explaining how the Chesters must emulate how natural ecosystems work (we call this agroecology). His mantra: "Diversify, diversify, diversify." John and Molly take this to the extreme, eventually farming 200+ crops and animals across pastures, orchards, and a large vegetable garden. A plethora of wildlife also returns, including new pests that require more creativity and further diversification to combat. Alan promises all this diversity will become simplicity, but as John notes, "a simple way of farming is just not easy."

3. Few farmers can go to the lengths the Chesters have. But most don’t need to.

The 76 varieties of stone fruit trees John and Molly now tend is…probably a bit much for most farmers. And without access to investors like they recruited, few farm startups can afford fancy composting systems, miles of new irrigation line, and the costs associated with repeated trial and error. It is never clear, in the film, how much up-front and continued investment was necessary to do what they did at Apricot Lane Farms (though we can assume it was a lot). Nor do we know at what point in the saga that investment was fully recouped, if it has been. But recent research has shown that even more limited and lower-cost efforts at diversification on farms—for example, expanding from two crops to three or four, or planting prairie strips around the edges of crop fields—can have substantial benefits. And federal farm programs provide help (though not nearly enough) for farmers to do such things.

4. One way or another, the ecological debts of our industrial farming system must be paid.

Apricot Lane Farms required substantial upfront investment not only because the Chesters had ambitious plans, but also because they needed to pay down an enormous ecological debt racked up on that piece of land over the years. Industrial agriculture has been called an "extraction industry" because it takes nutrients from the land without replacing them, allows precious soil to wash or blow away, and sends rainwater running off the surface rather than percolating down to refill underground aquifers for later use. Due to decades of short-sighted management, this is the situation on farmland all across this country. And while John, Molly, and their investors had the means to take on Apricot Lane's ecological debt, it's not fair or realistic to expect farmers to make up for the damage caused by industrial practices and the public policies that have incentivized them. Rather, "The Biggest Little Farm" shows once again why shifting agricultural policies to help farmers diversify the landscape and rebuild their soil and is a smart investment in the future.

5. Nature is breathtakingly beautiful. 

The film's message is in line with what the science tells us about farmland diversification and healthy soil, and it comes at a time when legislators in many states and in Congress are looking to expand policy supports and public investments to help more farmers advance soil health. Even though Apricot Lane is just one farm, and a unique one at that, my hope is that this film adds to the conversation. But you don't have to be an advocate for healthy soil policy to appreciate the movie, which above all is visually stunning and brimming with optimism. You'll marvel at the ways John Chester's cinematography captures the beauty and devastation of nature and life on a diversified, ecologically-based farm—from aerial footage of painstakingly designed orchards to images of playful lambs and terrifying wildfires, infrared footage of nocturnal predators, and superslomo shots of the hummingbirds and beneficial insects who return as part of the farm's renewal. If you like that iPhone commercial, you'll find this film equally appealing.

The Biggest Little Farm opens this Friday, May 10, in Los Angeles and New York, and nationwide May 17.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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