The Biggest Little Farm
At the Myrna Loy
One of the delights of teaching in Montana is that our classes include farm and ranch kids.
I’ve taught lots of students whose chores began at dawn. I asked Rachel, one of Carroll’s top students, raised on a ranch in Eastern Montana, if she would share how the day started on her ranch.
“Sure. In the morning and evening every day, my siblings and I were in charge of feeding our steers. We would also feed our 100-plus brood of chickens and collect and hand wash eggs. During calving season, I would help my dad when he needed to pull a calf or get a cow into the barn. I also would help with hauling hay from fields to our hay yard.”
Farm and ranch kids have an ingrained work ethic, and, more often than not, a strong sense of country values. They’re not afraid of 8 a.m. classes, although some learn to love to sleep in when parents aren’t around.
Nothing wrong with city kids, but few of them have won a barrel race.
Rachel has already learned the lessons shared in the powerful documentary “The Biggest Little Farm.”
In an era when small farms are dying, Molly and John leave city life behind, buy 200 acres of land in California and decide to become farmers.
They eventually planted 10,000 orchard trees and more than 200 different crops, all in the name of “biodiversity,” a natural “garden of Eden” formula for letting nature take care of nature – snails eat leaves, birds eat snails. One exception: a shotgun eats wolves.
Molly and John were determined to nurture a green farm without pesticides and with reverence for all animals, wild and domestic.
Their idealism is about to be tested when wolves kill their chickens, and hungry invaders eat the leaves off their fruit trees.
Mother Nature will humble these idealists with a huff and a puff and a blaze.
But Molly, in particular, has an almost spiritual determination not to surrender. The family dog has died, their pig is near death and chickens have been slaughtered by a wolf who deftly opened the chicken shed. Alan, their well-educated green crop whisperer, also is dying.
But Molly and John will keep plowing the fields, harvesting eggs and heading to the farmers market. The family never fails to see the joy in gathering at the barn in wee hours to watch dad pull a calf.
The documentary doesn’t directly address costs, and with investors with deep pockets in the background of this green project, one senses they have more of a safety net than most ranchers.
The film has been criticized for being a carefully engineered commercial for sustainable farming. Some point out John is a professional wildlife photographer and the wife is chef and blogger – not exactly random unemployed folk who decide to farm on a whim.
But none of that can detract from the honest account of survival on a small farm. The film also serves as a heartfelt testimony to keeping spiritual values intact in tough times. Sail due north in the storm!
Mother Nature is a supporting cast member. Floods threaten to wash away their carefully cultivated top soil. A raging California forest fire races toward their land.
“I’m leaving now,” says a frightened Molly, grabbing the kids and rushing down the road, smoke billowing on the horizon.
Mother Nature didn’t get a copy of the script instructions: “Happy ending with no surprises.”
As for Rachel, she has no regrets about being a Montana woman.
“Being raised on a ranch has taught me responsibility, integrity and honesty,” says Rachel. “If you tell someone that you did the chores but you didn’t, you are putting the animals at risk as well as your own integrity. I learned that being honest about mistakes makes it easier to figure out the best way to fix them. It’s taught me to always try my hardest even when it’s really not a fun job such as cleaning the chicken coop or barn in 100-degree weather.
“It’s not a lot of money, especially if crop prices are low and commodity prices are low, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Above all, Rachel says farming teaches you to have faith.
“Hope is something you learn from farming,” she says. “You hope your wheat crop won’t get hailed out in late July. You hope that all of our cows will be good mothers. Some things are just out of our control and so hope is all you have.”