May 19, 2023
Molly Chester is a farmer—a real-deal farmer, with 234 acres and the pigs to prove it—but like many people, she started out with just a tiny apartment and a tomato plant.
Chester is a traditional foods chef and the co-founder of Apricot Lane Farms, the center of the 2018 documentary “The Biggest Little Farm“. In 2011, she and her filmmaker husband, John, decided to leave their apartment in Los Angeles in search of greener pastures. Craving the land to grow vegetables for Molly’s cooking, they set out to find about 10 acres of land where they could start a small farm.
Instead, their hunt brought them to a like-minded investor and a 200-acre farm outside of Los Angeles, where the soil had been almost entirely depleted due to more than 50 years of extractive farming practices. They immediately brought on Alan York, one of the world’s most well-respected soil, plant, and biodynamic consultants, to help them nurse the dilapidated soil back to life.
Molly and John’s journey, as chronicled in “The Biggest Little Farm“, involved rethinking everything they (and most Americans) know about farming. Instead of planting rows and rows of neatly organized fruits and vegetables, they began to employ biodiversity, cover cropping, and other regenerative practices. They had to learn to bring the soil back to life, to understand that everything on their farm works together, from the cows to the crops (and yes, even the pests and predators).
We spoke to Chester about her life lately, which involves continually adapting to the changing ways of her evolving ecosystem. Lucky for us, her day-to-day work also involves recipe development—and we were able to snag one of her favorite recipes from The Apricot Lane Farms Cookbook to share with our members.
You shared in your book that you grew tomatoes and other vegetables when you lived in the city, well before you started the farm. What advice would you give our members if they were looking to start growing their own food?
“When I was a private chef in Los Angeles living in a little apartment, all I had space for was a tiny tomato plant. But it brought me so much joy, and I was so proud of those tomatoes! Experiencing the process of growing food connects you to nature’s intelligence, and gives you a deep appreciation for where food comes from and what it takes to grow fresh, nourishing ingredients. My advice would be to start small and keep it manageable, whether that’s growing tomatoes in pots, some herbs, or a small raised garden bed with a few vegetables. There are lots of great online resources out there—our friends at Farmers Footprint have a great garden club, as does Rodale Institute. My husband John and I have curated a list of resources that have helped guide us on our farming journey here.
I’d also recommend composting to even further connect yourself to the full lifecycle of your food. You can compost in your backyard, or check out your local municipality—many farmers markets and community gardens have programs where you can drop off your food scraps, and get finished ready-to-use compost for your garden. We sell vermicompost at our local farmers markets and On-Farm Saturday Farmstand, which is the byproduct of our 40-foot worm bin—the heart of our Farm Fertility Center. Vermicompost (aka worm poop!) is a soil amendment with a powerful concentration of beneficial microbes that brings organic matter to the soil and ultimately boosts plant fertility. It can be incorporated into the garden by sprinkling on top of plants, incorporating into potting mix, or by making “compost tea.”
Finally, if space allows, consider growing plants that are native to your region, which attract pollinators who can improve fruit and vegetable production, and beneficial native insects who can manage pests such as aphids.”
Regenerative agriculture is a buzzy topic (and for good reason!), but one that is still fairly new to most people. Can you share how you define regenerative farming at Apricot Lane Farms?
“I define regenerative farming as a way of seeing the farm holistically, as a self-contained ecosystem, with the ultimate goal of restoring a healthy soil system. Everything we do and every farming decision we make at Apricot Lane Farms serves the end goal of building healthy soil. We do this by maximizing biodiversity, which in practice looks like growing cover crops, applying compost, and carefully grazing animals who help fertilize the land.
I see soil as the gut of the land and the digestive system of the plants that grow from it. In culinary school and through my own personal health journey, I learned about the health-supportive properties of food and gained an understanding of the gut microbiome, and how it is the foundation of health in a human body. To increase probiotics in my own body, I eat fermented foods (many recipes are included in the cookbook!). To increase beneficial microbiology across our farmland, we focus on soil health using the aforementioned practices. Healthy soil produces healthy crops that are not only more resilient to disease, but end up being more nutrient-dense with deeper flavor. It all starts and ends with soil.”
What does a typical day look like for you on the farm?
“Waking up in nature is a gift that never gets old. Before becoming a biodynamic farmer, I studied Business Management in college followed by traditional foods at The Natural Gourmet Institute, then worked as a private chef in LA. I never imagined this dream job or lifestyle living in such close connection with Mother Nature, but in hindsight, I can see how all of these seemingly unrelated stepping stones connect and equip me to manage our unique regenerative farming operation.
In the morning, I step outside and take in our ecosystem, whether that’s a single flower in bloom or a cawing crow. I prep my son Beaudie’s lunch, and hop in a cart with him, my husband John, and dog Blue for morning drop-off at The Farm School. At eight years old, Beaudie is beginning to take on farm chores on the weekends with me, like feeding the pigs, collecting eggs, and helping harvest for dinner, which has been fun!
After over a decade of farming this land and building its systems, the farm has grown and so has our team, so I am in lots of meetings to oversee overall operations. Every day is different! One day I’ll have a meeting in the garden to observe the health of our incoming blueberries, a marketing meeting to plan the launch of our new Pixie Mandarin Honey Lemonade, and our bi-weekly “all farm” meeting, where our team of nearly 100 lovely humans gather in the garden around a fire. And not a day goes by where I don’t tuck into our beautiful “Fruit Basket” orchard (my husband John documented its creation in The Biggest Little Farm) where we take biodiversity to a new level by growing over 60 varieties of fruit trees using biodynamic practices. In the evening, we have dinner as a family, always incorporating some of what’s in season on the farm.”
“We developed this recipe during peak blueberry season when we were having pork chops for dinner,” Molly shares. “On the farm, we raise heritage breed pigs (Red Wattle, Large Black, and Berkshire) using Holistic Management Practices, so they are given the freedom to roam and forage on pasture. Our pastured pork is phenomenal, with fat that has a pleasantly sweet and nutty flavor, and subtle grassy notes. To complement the natural nutty notes of the pork, we thought a peanut sauce (like a satay sauce) would work well… and then experimented with adding stewed blueberries, since PB&J is such a classic combo! It totally worked—as evidenced by my husband and son scarfing down the whole platter.”
For the pork chops & brine:
1 cup apple juice
2 tablespoons mild raw honey
2 teaspoons minced ginger (about ¾ -inch knob)
2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
3 tablespoons fine sea salt
4 boneless 1-inch-thick pork chops (3¾ pounds)
For the PB&J sauce:
2 tablespoons unrefined avocado oil
1 tablespoon minced ginger (about 1-inch knob)
1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
2 tablespoons minced shallot (about 1 small shallot)
1 cup fresh or frozen and thawed blueberries
¼ cup creamy unsweetened natural peanut butter
2 tablespoons mild raw honey
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1½ tablespoons fresh lime juice (about ¾ medium lime)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
In a small saucepan, stir together 3 cups of water, the apple juice, honey, ginger, garlic, and salt. Place over medium heat, cover, and bring to a simmer.
Remove the lid and reduce for 5 minutes.
Transfer to a shallow container and cool, uncovered, in the refrigerator, about 30 minutes.
Submerge the pork chops fully in the cooled brine.
Return to the refrigerator and marinate for at least 3 or up to 8 hours.
In a medium saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat until shimmering, 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the ginger, garlic, shallot, and blueberries. Saute until the blueberries soften and the garlic and shallot turn translucent, 3 to 4 minutes.
Transfer to the pitcher of a blender and add 1 tablespoon of water, the peanut butter, honey, vinegar, lime juice, and salt. Puree until smooth and creamy. Depending upon the quality of peanut butter, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until your desired sauce consistency is achieved.
Preheat the oven to 375°F and position a rack in the middle.
Remove the pork chops from the brine and pat dry with a paper towel.
In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil over high heat until shimmering, about 2 minutes.
Sear both sides of the pork chops until golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes per side.
Transfer the skillet to the oven and roast for 15 to 20 minutes, until cooked through and the internal temperature registers 145°F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove the skillet from the oven and set it aside to rest for 5 minutes.
Plate the pork chops and drizzle with the warm sauce. Serve hot.
From THE APRICOT LANE FARMS COOKBOOK: Recipes and Stories from the Biggest Little Farm BY Molly Chester and Sarah Owens, published on October 25, 2022 by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Organic Spark, Inc.
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