“I have a bunch of fantasies,” Celeste Nolan said over the phone from southeastern Ohio, about improvements that would make her farm more sustainable. “My dream world was that someone would put us on reality TV and show us doing all these different projects to make a sustainable farm, and then at the end of it, I’d have biodiesel, and I’d have a windmill, I’d have all of these different things. How to pay to do those things… I haven’t figured that out yet.”
It was a Thursday, and Nolan was off the farm delivering cheese. It’s one of her many recurring farm tasks, some of which are depicted in Farmsteaders, an intimate documentary that aired as part of PBS’ POV series in September. In the film, viewers watch her wheel a standard blue-and-white picnic cooler into a restaurant kitchen in Columbus, with small children in tow. By turning the lens on the daily grind of farm life, filmmaker Shaena Mallett chronicles the challenges of supporting a family on a small, grass-based dairy farm in rural America.
It’s one of a recent spate of documentaries about farm life, including The Biggest Little Farm, which made its theatrical release in May. That film depicts a pair of young farmers who appear to be living in one version of the “dream world” Nolan describes—albeit one with plenty of serious challenges, like snail infestations, chicken-eating foxes, and wildfires.
Twenty minutes north of Los Angeles, documentarian John Chester and his wife Molly—the farmers as well as the filmmakers of Biggest Little Farm—have worked for eight years to transform 200 acres of land into what looks like the Garden of Eden. The film’s frames are filled with Apricot Lane Farm’s abundance—75 varieties of stone fruit, fresh vegetables, pigs, chickens, ducks, cattle, a state-of-the-arm vermicomposting facility, and a restored irrigation pond.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the farm employs a staff of 60, sees long lines of customers at its farm stand, and sells a dozen eggs for $15. The feel-good film has also been doing well in the box office, with current domestic sales at more than $4 million.
Both films tell stories of young couples who are motivated to farm at least in part by a desire to embrace traditional agrarian ideals—stewarding and improving the land, caring for animals, and raising children in touch with nature. But the discrepancy between the economic realities depicted in these two films is stark. And while Farmsteaders made the financial strain of farming a central character, Biggest Little Farm made no mention of economics, focusing instead on how regenerative agriculture practices can fit into solving the climate crisis.
“In Ventura County, there are people coming from all over looking at the farm and going, ‘You know, we’ve got 100 acres or we’ve got 40 acres; we could do this.’ They just need to see the example,” John Chester told Civil Eats. “The film is just a way to introduce the idea that it’s possible. There’s nothing in the film that says it’s easy. It’s just possible.”
And yet, given the economic realities beginning farmers face, whether it is in fact possible for most people is still an open question.
Lorraine Walker, a farmer who attended a screening of The Biggest Little Farm, says she laughed, cried, and related intensely to both the struggles and joys of building farm ecosystems and dealing with the whims of nature. Walker runs Eatwell Farm, a 105-acre diversified organic farm in Dixon, California, west of Sacramento in the northern Central Valley. Walker took over the operations at Eatwell when her husband Nigel passed away in 2017.
“I thought the movie was so beautiful… but it also makes me a little bit angry that they aren’t open about how much money it costs to run that farm,” Walker told Civil Eats. “They created a fairy tale, and they didn’t talk about the importance of supporting this type of work.” After the screening, she posted an impassioned response on Facebook and included it in the farm’s newsletter. A local organization then published and shared her insights with its members.
“The idea that you can give up your city job and live the dream on a farm is so far from reality it isn’t even remotely funny,” Walker wrote, as she speculated about what some of the on-screen projects, such as a major excavation, planting orchards from scratch, and a large vermicomposting facility might cost. “Sure, if you have VCs investing many—and I do mean many—millions of dollars, then maybe…”
In The Biggest Little Farm, Chester hints at that part of the story. “We had a great idea with no way to pay for it,” he says. For many, that’s where the dream would end. But as a successful couple living and working in media in Los Angeles, there was a second part to that sentence. “It was time to find an investor.”
Chester said he couldn’t disclose the amount of start-up capital the operation required because it was a private investment, only that the investor they found believed in their project’s ideals and understood the long-term nature of the return. (In the agriculture space, that kind of investor is notoriously hard to find, although some new organizations are trying to address that issue.)
But in terms of costs, there’s no doubt that the price of the land alone would have been significant In 2011, the year Apricot Lane Farms was started, the average farm real estate value in California was $6,600 per acre. At that price, the approximate upfront purchase cost of the number of acres the Chesters bought would have been over $1 million, and land that close to Los Angeles was likely priced much higher. (This year, California’s average farm real estate value has climbed to $10,000 per acre, making land access even more prohibitive.)
Land access and affordability is the biggest challenge cited by beginning farmers, and many beginning farmers also put everything into buying land without thinking about the capital they’ll need later, said Darryl Wong, the farm site and research lands manager at U.C. Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. “They think, ‘As long as I get that piece of land, I can get a shovel… and I’m just going to go for it,’” he said. “The equivalent is saying that you’re going to go to San Francisco and find an abandoned lot and… start a fancy restaurant.”
Nick and Celeste Nolan of Farmsteaders took on two mortgages to pay for their land in Ohio and a loan to purchase cows, all of which they’re still paying back. But they soon realized that milk prices were too low for them to be able to make the payments and keep the farm afloat. The couple did not want to take on more debt, but they were able to get a zero-interest loan from Nick’s mother to build the cheese house.
Nolan says the cheesemaking operation, dubbed Laurel Valley Creamery, made it possible for them to make ends meet, but just barely. “I’m not as economically stressed as other dairy farmers [who are] not processing their own milk. I’m making more money than they are,” she said. “But it’s not sustainable; that’s how I still feel about it.”
Of course, dairy is the toughest segment in agriculture right now, and Apricot Lane has the benefits—both environmental and economic—of diversity. Still, farmers say it’s not easy for those operations to succeed financially, either.
U.C. Santa Cruz’s Wong was part of an idealistic group that ran a small, diversified organic farm in California for about five years, until 2013, and his experience led him to study small farm economics. “In some ways, I think it’s a romantic vision to really look at [any small farm] and hope that it can do everything—that it can pay workers well, treat the soil well, and produce good food. Oftentimes we forget that it’s operating within this political economic context of agriculture that really drives what can happen. You’re going to have to play within the rules of the game, so many of which are dictated by large-scale agriculture.”
Wong said that for a small, organic farm to really be successful, it would be difficult to start with less than $100,000 to $200,000 in the bank. Once up and running, his team estimates that a beginning farmer can expect to gross $30,000 to $35,000 per acre annually, with about a 10 percent profit margin. Notably, farmer Jean-Martin Fortier, author of The Market Gardener, preaches a system that allows small organic farms to gross over $100,000 per acre, but others in the industry say they rarely see those numbers.
Getting bigger can improve the numbers a bit. “The folks I see [who] have a standard of living that’s reasonable have scaled up to 40 to 200 acres,” Wong said. “They’re grossing a million to $4 million per year.”
Meriwether Hardie, the chief of staff at Bio-Logical Capital, a regenerative agriculture investment company, said infrastructure is the key to unlocking a business model that brings in enough revenue to really make an organic, regenerative farm work. “It’s really hard to make a living just growing the crop and selling raw commodities, but it is also the easiest way to get into farming, because it [requires] the least amount of resources.”
Hardie’s team has been working on a project that looks a lot like an East Coast version of Apricot Lane Farms. The company invested in transforming a 400-acre Vermont dairy farm into a diversified regenerative organic operation, starting in 2014. And in July of 2018, they built an on-farm market to begin selling the farm’s meat, produce, and value-added products. Bio-Logical Capital plans to share numbers about the investment within the next couple of years as the project reaches an evaluation point but will not disclose them yet.
After five years, Hardie said the farm was finally about to “break even” in terms of income and expenses. “We got to take a couple of years and really study the land and work on starting the herd and then building it up and letting certain areas of the landscape rest,” she said. “That’s a luxury that many farmers don’t have.”
And it’s at the heart of the difference between Farmsteaders and The Biggest Little Farm. In other words, Hardie said, like most businesses, the more money you put in upfront, the more profit potential exists, and the more likely you are to have long-term success.
Over the phone while on a trip to New York, Chester apologized at the dispatches coming through his farm scanner in the background. Three fires were burning around Apricot Lane Farms; he was distraught about his absence and alternately excited to talk about how the farm’s regenerative approach made it more resistant to burning. The healthy soil, now with 3 percent more organic matter, was holding thousands of gallons of water, so the trees were filled with moisture.
“The problem in Southern California is that certain wild land areas are so incredibly dry,” he said, “the trees have no chance.” Faced with the threat of wildfires, questions about investment and how much it cost to build and run Apricot Lane Farms agitated him.
Chester said his intention with The Biggest Little Farm was to create a narrative of farmers as environmentalists and about what farming in harmony with nature really looked like, and he didn’t see how digging into finances would achieve that.
“I wanted there to be an appreciation for the amount of work that goes into this type of farming,” he said. “If we just keep telling people this stuff’s really expensive, there’s no affinity, there’s no love for what the ‘regeneration’ word even means. But when you see more deeply into the complex, integrated system, you start to value it, because now you can identify it. Like, ‘Oh, it means hummingbirds and ladybugs and hawks and worms and soil that’s rich with microbial diversity.’”
And while Chester acknowledged many of the elements of the farm were expensive, like the vermicomposting facility, he said cover crops made the most difference in terms of building up the soil to create a productive, healthy farm. “We spend $10,000 to $12,000 a year on seed for cover crops, and they regenerate soil, sequester water, cycle nutrients… they do so many things.”
Chester’s main argument, though, was that if giving young couples the opportunity to start climate-smart farms and make a living takes money, a story like Apricot Lane’s was needed to convince those who have that money to invest in more of these kinds of projects.
“After every screening I do, I have people walk up to me who have land, who have money, and they say, ‘I would love to be able to find farmers like you to farm our… property in a regenerative way,’” he said. “Everyone’s so infuriated by the fact that the 1 percent are buying all this land, but if we can convert [them] into conscious land owners who will infuse their farm with regenerative farmers, I mean, that’s pretty incredible. It’s literally the most hopeful thing I see.”
Most farmers, however, don’t see that. “The fact is, I’m looking at two very old tractors that are going to have to get replaced at some point in time, and I don’t know where the money’s going to come from,” Lorraine Walker said, as she describes how making ends meet at Eatwell is “nearly impossible.”
Between what’s possible and what’s pragmatic are those who are faced with the daily trade-offs Wong mentioned. For every story on the power of cover crops, there is a story of skipping a season of cover crops to make a mortgage payment.
“[The Biggest Little Farm] is turning regenerative agriculture into a national conversation—and that is really powerful,” said Hardie of Bio-Logical Capital. But for many rural farmers like Nolan and Walker, it’s a conversation that also relies on sharing the economic realities, and the need for policies that support all farmers’ efforts toward conservation.
“I honestly don’t know how people can afford to buy cheese that’s as expensive as mine,” Nolan admitted. “I don’t know if that’s the rural-urban divide, or just, you know, the economic realities of where I’m from and how I’ve grown up.”