Life gets real on the farm—meaning sometimes cruel. Those of us who live more urbanely, shopping for hermetically sealed dairy, meat, and produce in the supermarket can easily forget this fact. But your grandparents or great-grandparents, and if not them, your pioneer forebears knew all about the farm’s morbid facts of life.
Having lived on a farm myself for nearly a lifetime, I’ve been largely desensitized to the prey-predator drama enacted on many farms every day. For example, I often tap the fence around our livestock pen with a stick when I walk by to roust Shirley, our pig. She’s a curious creature, always ready to shove her wet snout through the fence slats to get a sniff of my pants. I smile until I remember Shirley, at nearly 300 pounds, is almost butcher weight. Honestly, if I thought about this much, I would turn vegan—or Muslim—but sadly, one of these options in America today might predispose me to being the one butchered (at least metaphorically-speaking).
This past summer I watched a charming movie, The Biggest Little Farm, about a city couple, a husband and wife from Los Angeles, who loved animals and wanted to try their hand at sustainable farming in California’s Central Valley. It’s always fun to watch city people “do” farm life. I think of that silly early 2000’s reality show, The Simple Life, about a spoiled heiress, Paris Hilton, and her manicured best friend, Nicole Ritchie, slogging through cow dung in waders.
But John and Molly of The Biggest Little Farm were much more serious about going “full hayseed.” They wanted to be a model, an example, that food, both plants and animals, could be produced in humane and sustainable ways.
Pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers were a no-go. They wanted to prove that a bio-diverse environment, with a variety of plants, animals, and other creatures, would find a rhythm and harmony that was not only natural, but profitable. I was cheering for them every step of the way in my movie theater seat. If they could do it, maybe bigger farms like the one my husband and I operate, could too.
To their credit, John and Molly created a relatively honest film. Which means—the way they controlled pests like aphids, snails, gophers, and coyotes—was by letting nature take its course. It other words, allowing animals to eat each other, i.e. prey-predator cycle. Of course, there was savagery in this, and not all of it was planned.
Oopsies happened, like when the coyotes broke through the fence and ripped the throats of baby lambs. One of the trusted guard dogs even ravaged the beloved pet rooster, Greasy, Greasy’s entrails scattered across the barn yard.
As animal-lovers themselves, the way life and death played out on the farm became an unavoidable nightmare for John and Molly. Yet, they were determined. They acclimated. They watched stoically as the sweet, little piglets they helped birth, were hauled off to sale and slaughter.
By the end of the movie the before/after pictures of John and Molly’s farm were not quite as dramatic as a 600-pound woman post stomach stapling surgery, but it was impressive. Where once the southern California dust skittered over alkaline patches, fruit trees bloomed and herds of sheep roamed through grass meadows. John and Molly though, looked older, more haggard, and less enthusiastic.
It took seven years to realize their sustainable farm—and it came at a cost. The price appeared to be their idealism.
And did they make a profit? That was less clear. Something my businessman-husband picked up on immediately. For despite the Garden of Eden John and Molly had managed to nurture in the California desert, my husband’s one comment at the film’s end was: “I want to see their spreadsheet.”