Except they didn’t. They held on, experimenting and working from dawn till, well, after dusk, taking advice from Alan York, a guru of traditional farming, about what to plant where, and how to build a system where every living thing works together to repair the soil. That’s where the poo comes in. One of the first things they did was install a state-of-the-art worm farm, producing tonnes of nutrient-rich worm castings. In 2011, their soil was so hard they could barely dent it with a pick: 45 years of ‘normal’ farming had denuded the hills and leached away the topsoil. The October winds took what was left.
The Chesters uprooted the existing trees, planting 750 varieties of stone fruit, citrus and nuts. They sewed cover crops between the trees, to nourish the soil. Their chickens soon produced the best eggs anyone had tasted. These sold out in an hour at the local markets, so they bought more hens but the coyotes killed hundreds of them. John resists what everyone tells him to do – shoot the coyotes or you will lose every fowl. He has other problems.
Gophers attack the roots of the trees. Starlings eat 70 per cent of the fruit crop. Swarms of aphids eat the leaves. Platoons of snails march in at night to munch on what is left. At times the film feels like a war movie, but John and Molly refuse to pick up conventional weapons like pesticide. Alan York, ailing with cancer, assures them the system they are building will fight back, once it is strong and balanced. Meanwhile everything they have is under attack.
One of the strengths of the documentary, compiled from years of random daily footage, is that it pulls no punches about the difficulties they faced. As the story opens, a bushfire on a nearby ridge threatens everything they have built. Through seven years they battle pestilence, predation, hurricane-force winds, algal blooms and dying livestock. As each year passes the farm becomes a garden oasis, with spectacular results, producing 500,000 pounds of food per annum, with a permanent workforce of around 30; many of whom came as volunteers.
John Chester’s drily funny narration confides his doubts about whether they will succeed. This is far from airy-fairy. Indeed when he takes up a shotgun to go after a coyote, John arrives at a solemn point of crisis – the death of his own idealism.
What the film does not do is claim the farm makes a profit. In fact there is no financial information at all, beyond a vague statement that their investors are in it for the long-term (which sounds like code for it doesn’t make a profit yet). That’s understandable: it’s a feel-good movie, an agricultural thriller that turns the politics of ecological documentary on its head. Most eco-documentaries tell us how humans are ruining the planet. They’re feel-bad movies. This one shows how two people turned that around, in their small corner of the world. The film succeeds beautifully. The science is fascinating, the results thrilling, the message sober and empowering. The Chesters do not want to preach or lecture. They simply want to grow healthy things, and thereby save the world.