The story behind filmmaker John Chester’s debut picture book, Saving Emma the Pig (Feiwel and Friends, May), begins with a dog. In 2011, Chester and his wife, Molly, were living in a small apartment in Santa Monica, Calif. The Chesters—both animal lovers—were delighted to bring home a rescue dog they named Todd. But Todd was not well-suited to apartment living, and expressed his displeasure through near-constant barking. When the Chesters faced eviction because of neighbors’ irritation, they found themselves at a crossroads. Should they find another dog-friendly apartment? Re-home Todd? Or do something else entirely?
Molly Chester, a traditional foods chef and blogger, had long had the dream of one day running a farm, an aspiration that had always seemed out of reach. But she and John decided to take the leap into the unknown. After pulling together resources through crowdsourcing, the Chesters purchased Apricot Lane Farms, 214 acres of land in the Ventura County foothills. Chester documented their experience on the farm over an eight-year period, eventually compiling the footage into several short films and a feature-length documentary film called The Biggest Little Farm, which premiered on May 7.
As Chester explains in the documentary, as a result of drought and the previous overharvesting of a single crop, the soil on the property was severely parched and lacking in nutrients. The couple’s goal was beyond ambitious; according to some skeptical farmers, it was maybe even impossible. They aimed to transform the soil using techniques of regenerative farming, an agricultural practice that focuses on increasing biodiversity, and promoting biomimicry and topsoil regeneration. “We were very idealistic in our utopian vision,” Chester said.
With the help of regenerative farming expert Alan York and a team of farming assistants, they planted 10,000 orchard trees and more than 200 varieties of crops in the attempt to “reawaken the ecosystem,” Chester said.
The couple became more optimistic as they slowly witnessed the drought-stricken acreage transform into crops and green pastures. However, operating a fully balanced farm ecosystem came with challenges from the outside wilderness as well as from within. Coyotes depleted their chicken population—and by extension, their chief crop, eggs—forcing Chester to make a difficult choice about how best to scare the coyotes away. But when one problem arose, solutions presented themselves in unexpected places. Chester learned that coyotes love to eat the gophers that were happily devouring many of the fruits from the orchards. Sometimes, Chester discovered, stepping back to observe the complexities and subtleties of a farm—rather than promptly trying to intervene—can reveal the hidden symbiosis at play. Nature in balance, is like “a self-regulating immune system,” Chester said.
John Chester hadn’t ever anticipated writing a children’s book—but then, he didn’t expect to co-found and operate a 200-acre regenerative farm, either. After meeting the Chesters and viewing their films about the individual farm animals (including Saving Emma, Worry for Maggie, about one of their dairy cows; and The Guardians, about the farm’s sheepdogs), literary agent Cathy Hemming contacted Jean Feiwel, senior v-p and publisher at Macmillan. According to Feiwel, “Hemming asked me if I would take a look at the Apricot Lane Farms website and come up with some ideas, a plan, and talk to John. I watched the beautiful, affirming films. I was either going to become a farmer or figure out a publishing program. You know the rest of this story,” she said. In addition to this spring’s picture book, two more titles are currently planned in the Biggest Little Farm series, to be published in 2020 and 2021.
In Saving Emma the Pig (and the short film on which it is based), Chester tells the story of Emma, who arrived pregnant at the farm. When she gave birth to 17 piglets (the Chesters had expected only around six), the strain of the labor made her dangerously ill. The Chesters initially took the piglets from her in order to give her space to get better, but her condition only worsened. When they brought the piglets back to Emma, however, the Chesters saw rapid improvement—and then a complete recovery. Saving Emma the Pig features mixed-media illustrations by Jennifer L. Meyer, and contains back matter that teaches readers more about Apricot Lane Farms and the real-life Emma.
As Chester conveys in the films—and now, in the books—he became connected to the animals in ways he hadn’t imagined. “I didn’t expect to become deeply enamored with these characters, [or with] their ways of relating to us, to each other, and the wildlife around us,” he told PW. In spite of missteps and tragedies—including the death of their mentor Alan York from cancer—Chester marvels at the richness of his and Molly’s experiences on the farm. Learning to farm using regenerative methods has taught him to see that humans have an “infinite potential to collaborate with ecosystems,” rather than to control or damage them. His hope is that, through the individual animal characters introduced in the Biggest Little Farm series, young readers will also begin to understand how, in nature, “everything is interconnected.”