“A new perspective can throw us off our center a bit. Loosen our grounding. Shake things up until they settle into the new normal.”-Molly Chester
Quick question: Have you been looking around your home/apartment/condo over the past however many days of self-isolation, noticing all of the projects that you have been planning to do but haven’t gotten around to?
Or is that just me?
I don’t know about you, but it seems like this has become a new favorite pastime for my husband and me. He even started a running list where we can name all of our grievances with the house, lest we forget them after we can spend less than 22 hours a day here.
It wasn’t just because of the quarantine, though. Even before this happened, my New Year’s resolution was to make the backyard a space where we actually wanted to spend time. We hadn’t made any real improvements to it since we moved in almost four years ago, despite our initial plans to add a deck and do something to make the grass resemble more of a lawn and less a scratchy patch of weeds.
Even our dog, Arthur, can’t go back there without getting bombarded by plants that cover his snout and paws with various seeds: tiny lime green balls, sticky bean-like pods, and the worst of all, spiky brown burrs that remind me of a Medieval mace. In a somewhat entertaining parallel, when these seeds get stuck in between the pads of his paws, Arthur acts like he’s being tortured. Then again, he also limps when a tiny leaf gets caught in there.
As glorious and long-lived as the weed kingdom’s reign has been, the time has come to actually follow through on our plans and maybe, just maybe, keep a New Year’s resolution (maybe).
To start the process, we followed the example of many others on social media by building a raised garden. This was something we’ve been planning but haven’t find the time to do, so why not spend a few of the 48 weekend hours in lockdown checking this one off the list?
Although at first I just saw the garden as another way to stay busy, I quickly became enthralled with plotting the vegetables we would attempt to grow, researching the techniques that might improve our odds, and watching videos of Florida garden experts sharing their pearls of wisdom. Once we finally finished the annoying, but necessary, step of building the wooden box, I volunteered to get my hands dirty and spread the dank soil around. Digging to plant those specially-chosen seeds was especially satisfying, but it also brought about an intense feeling of déjà vu.
When I was little, I desperately wanted a garden. My friend Caroline’s mother had an enormous, lush garden in their backyard complete with something called a “compost pile,” both of which I was endlessly fascinated with. After spending hours with Caroline’s mom learning about gardening and then pleading with my mom (probably incessantly), she finally relented and let me have own garden in our backyard.
My dad preferred (and still prefers) a well-manicured lawn, but he relinquished a small square plot of grass behind our shed for the undertaking. Caroline’s parents had a till that her father brought over to turn that green square into what I saw as an empty brown canvas of infinite possibilities. After adding her mom’s preferred fertilizer (which, to my dad’s horror, was pure cow manure), we were ready to go. I don’t recall everything we planted, but I distinctly remember picking plump cherry tomatoes and more undersized cucumbers than we could eat, and I know we planted marigolds around the edges “to keep the rabbits and bugs away.” I loved that garden and the time I spent outside in the sticky hot summer watering and caring for it.
When these memories came rushing back to me, others followed in their wake. Did you ever play “The Game of Life” or “Mash” when you were younger? My friends and I were fiends for both, and I remember always crossing my fingers that I would pick the farmhouse as my home. I know it wasn’t just growing vegetables; I was obsessed with animals as well (I’m sure I’ll share about my foray into breeding leopard geckos on here at some point), but the whole concept of living on a farm was intensely appealing to me.
I clearly didn’t end up on a farm or even with a garden until quarantine-induced boredom set in, so when, exactly, did I turn away from this love? Was it when I noticed all of the other girls crossing their fingers for the mansion instead? When I realized that gardening wasn’t a “cool” thing to talk about around other middle schoolers? Or, maybe I was just like all other kids, who like petting zoos and growing lima beans when they’re young, but eventually move on to other hobbies.
Last year, when we were still allowed to go to the movies, I saw a documentary at our local historic theater called “The Biggest Little Farm.” I had seen a commercial for it when I was in New York for work, and the trailer alone made my heart leap with joy. It took a few months to come to Tampa, and I was so excited to finally see a showing here that I immediately bought a ticket to see it on a Wednesday night by myself. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I cried no less than five times in that theater. Afterwards, I began stalking the farm’s Instagram account, tried to see if I could visit when I was out in L.A. last fall, and pre-ordered a digital copy of the movie. Since then, I’ve watched it at least five times. If you haven’t seen it yet, I obviously highly recommend it.
The documentary follows a couple’s journey to start a “traditional farm,” where instead of spraying pesticides and mono-cropping, they plant a diverse array of fruits and vegetables and rely on nature (with a little intervention) to create a balanced ecosystem where every plant and animal serve a purpose. More than a message about modern farming, it’s a beautifully-filmed and uplifting story filled with hope, loss, and of course, tons of adorable baby animals. (Plus, there’s a love story between a pig and a rooster. It sounds wrong, but trust me, it’s amazing. Made me cry twice.)
Before they became farmers, John and Molly Chester both had successful careers in other arenas. Although they’re not household names, or even particularly well-known, can we learn something from their story about finding your purpose? Let’s find out.
John and Molly Chester began their journey in 2011 when they purchased close to 200 acres of land with an investor who shared their vision for traditional farming. Before they made the leap to start Apricot Lane Farms, John spent 20 years as a documentary filmmaker and Molly worked as a private chef for celebrity clients in L.A. In the film, Molly seems to be the bigger proponent of the venture, but John was eager to make a change as well, saying in an interview: “I quit the film business with no intention of making this film. It repulsed me.”
The documentary makes it seem as though John had no prior knowledge of farming, but press interviews reveal that this isn’t exactly true. John grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and in his 20s he worked on a few different family farms in this largely rural, agriculture-dependent area. He downplayed this experience in one interview, saying, “I worked on a couple of family farms, but they were, you know, industrial, sort of commercial monocrop operations, growing corn and soy for, essentially, Perdue chickens, but no understanding of soil.”
This experience probably seemed negligible to John, because the only passion he recalls having as a child was for film. He was known as being “really into film and video stuff,” and as a result, one of his teachers sought him out to give him and a few other students dominion over the school’s cable access program. With this group, John started a show called, “OC Live,” which was, in his words, a “parody of us trying to do a local news show being kids.”
He was in his teens at the time, and unlike other purpose-driven lives we’ve examined, John’s family and friends supported his passion for film from an early age. As he said, “I came from a town that just supported my dream to such a degree. And I think that OC Live was a big part of that. It just felt like the town was lifting all of us up.”
From there, John did work on various farms, but he saw that as just a blip before he moved out to California to pursue his “dream career” of filmmaking. He worked on different docu-series before getting his big break with A&E’s “Random 1,” a series where he and a partner sought out strangers whose lives they might change with a random act of kindness. Based on the success of that show, John went on to direct the critically-acclaimed documentaries, “Lost in Woonsocket,” based on a “Random 1” story, and “Rock Prophecies” about renowned rock photographer Robert M. Knight. As a result of his work, John won won five Emmy Awards for short films.
John was, by all objective measures, very successfully pursuing his lifelong passion of filmmaking. And yet, when John and Molly decided to start Apricot Lane Farms, he said that he was “repulsed” by the film business. This was the industry that not only allowed him to pursue his purpose, it lauded him for doing so. Had John been wrong about his childhood passion translating into his life’s work?
As for Molly, she began her career in the entertainment industry as well, working as a producer for John’s “Random 1” series. (Ostensibly they met there, but I couldn’t tell for sure.) After that, she attended The Natural Gourmet Institute of Culinary Arts in NYC before moving to L.A. to start her career as a private chef. Molly’s expertise as a chef centered on cooking “traditional foods,” which I learned from Google means using only nutrient-dense whole foods. In addition to cooking for clients, she started a traditional foods blog called Organic Spark.
Molly had no real exposure to farming when they started Apricot Lane, but her training and experience as a chef convinced her that we needed an intervention earlier in the “food chain” to improve our overall nutrition. Molly realized that she couldn’t achieve this through cooking; she had to start in the field and with the seeds to ensure that her food was nourishing and nutrient-rich.
So, in starting Apricot Lane Farms, Molly and John both began pursuing their life’s purpose of traditional farming. Or did they?
While they both can certainly call themselves farmers today, I would argue that their journey of becoming regenerative farmers has simply been the best way for each of them to fulfill their very different dharmas, which have been within them since childhood.
Although John was disgusted by the film industry when he made the switch, he couldn’t help but film the entire process of starting and building their farm. As a result, he created what I obviously believe to be his most successful film. It’s apparent to me that his childhood passion for filmmaking still burns inside of him, and I would be surprised if he didn’t create other films for us (me) to obsess over in the future.
And while Molly might tell you that her life’s work as a farmer is limited to her exhausting-sounding responsibilities on the farm and with their product line, I think her purpose is much broader than that. In her cookbook, Molly shares that she became a vegetarian when she was nine years old after learning what eggs actually were made of and deciding to remove animals from her diet. The self-described “soy and carb” vegetarian later realized she wasn’t getting the nutrition she needed and changed her diet again to include grass-fed organic meats. From there, she learned about the traditional food movement and has been an advocate for that diet ever since.
“One thing that I have gained from all of the books and nutrition experimentation I have done over the years is the belief that we have the power to fix many things that are broken in our body and our lives. The food we choose to eat. The path we choose to take. The friends we choose to have.”-Molly Chester
As with John, Molly’s purpose of discerning and sharing how food, especially the quality of food, impacts overall health showed itself early in her life. She just expressed it in different ways as she learned more about food and nutrition, from deciding not to eat meat to learning about and cooking traditional foods to now farming higher-quality produce and livestock.
So, based on John and Molly Chester’s story, my childhood love of gardening means I should become a farmer, right?
Not quite. Even though my sprouts are starting to shoot up and I’m having dreams of fresh-picked green beans, I think the main lesson we can learn from their story is that while it’s helpful to look to our childhood passions for clues, our ultimate purpose and how we pursue it might look very different from how we expressed it when we were young.
From the outside and in hindsight, it’s logical that John Chester would take his passion for documentary filmmaking and pair that with his agricultural upbringing to find his life’s purpose in filming his experiences as a farmer. It likewise makes sense that Molly Chester would first examine the nutrition in her own diet, and then that of the food she prepared for others, before pursuing her purpose of improving nutrition at the source through farming. However, neither of them knew that this would be the case when he was a documentary filmmaker and she a chef.
And so, the other takeaway I glean from their story is that the experiences we have before finding our ultimate purpose will contribute to it in some way, even if we do not or cannot see it now.
Just like the time John spent working on industrial farms or the years Molly thought she was improving her health by being an “unhealthy vegetarian,” the hours we spent waiting tables or the years we worked for that horrible boss will all somehow be useful to us once we’re living your dharma. We just can’t see it yet.
And what’s more? I do believe those things we loved to do when we were little will play some role as well. I don’t know how this will manifest in my fight to find my purpose, since I don’t exactly have the knowledge or experience to write about farming (or gardens, for that matter). But who knows? Maybe I’ll find my way into nature writing or something along those lines.
Also? Similar to John and Molly, we won’t know for sure until we take that leap and pursue our dreams. More and more, it seems to me that only by taking that chance can we clearly see the purpose our life will serve.