What is regenerative farming? A conversation with Molly Chester

The author and subject of "Biggest Little Farm" talks to Dr. Casey Means about the benefits of regenerative farming


Article highlights

  • Regenerative agriculture focuses on rebuilding healthy soil through techniques like cover cropping, composting, and integrating animals to fertilize the land.
  • Healthy soil leads to more nutritious food that better supports human health, demonstrating the interconnectedness between soil, plants, animals, and people.
  • Regenerative farming utilizes both traditional farming methods and modern technology/testing to understand and work with natural ecosystems.
  • The biodynamic philosophy looks holistically at the farm organism, incorporating natural rhythms like lunar cycles and fostering a deep farmer-land relationship.
  • Bringing principles like close observation and critical thinking from regenerative farming into our broader lives and society could have many benefits.

Dr. Casey Means: Molly Chester is one of the most incredible people I have ever had the good fortune of meeting. She started Apricot Lane Farms, which is one of the most innovative and largest regenerative farms in America. I’ve had the honor of visiting it before, and it was truly one of the most spectacular and educational days of my life.

You may already know about Molly Chester and her story if you have watched the documentary Biggest Little Farm, which documents her and her husband John’s journey starting this regenerative farm in Moorpark, California, about 40 miles north of LA. They took a 234-acre plot of land (with dirt that was as hard as concrete in some places) and turned it into this flourishing, lush, verdant paradise of growth.

Molly just released the The Apricot Lane Farms Cookbook. Not only is it a primer on regenerative agriculture, but it really shows you how to coax the magic out of foods and helps you appreciate the importance of high-quality, fresh ingredients to nourish your body. We cannot have human health until we fix soil health. It’s one big, interrelated ecosystem. You don’t have healthcare without soil care.

How Molly Discovered the Power of Food

Dr. Casey Means: In the cookbook, you talk about your health journey and how you had been dealing with PCOS, gut issues, and joint pain. And you are a classically trained chef. You put these things together and learned how to heal yourself with food. Can you talk about that journey for you of learning about the power of food for healing, and how that played out in your own life?

Molly Chester: I had kind of a strange fascination with food since a very young age. When I was nine, I had decided I was going to be a vegetarian, and I stuck with it. My brother thought it was crazy. But then I went through the years and saw I had a desire for real food. My mom would kind of pack me the ’80s Kudos bars and Cheetos and things like that in my lunch. I would ask to go in and chop up my own little salads and things like that, because I could tell that what I ate was affecting how I felt.

It then went on from there. I watched my mom turn to a diet called the Body Ecology Diet, which is whole foods based and incorporates fermentation, and heal some sinus issues she’d had her whole life. In my 20s, as I started not feeling well, I had a natural inkling to say, “What am I eating and how is that affecting how I feel?” I got more and more drawn to health-food stores and understanding these concepts.

From there I ended up going to a culinary school that taught these principals, the Natural Gourmet Institute of Health and Culinary Arts. I learned about nourishing traditions and traditional foods, and really got to those foundations of where healing begins.

For me, that meant addressing PCOS and different blood sugar challenges, because PCOS is essentially a blood sugar imbalance. I was taught about sugars, and not just natural sugars, but truly just fruit—anything that affects the blood sugar cycle.

I really committed to it. I learned I had a soy allergy, which was affecting my hormones. By returning to these traditional ways of eating, I was able to completely restore the PCOS symptoms. I started to understand that it wasn’t just the choices I was making in the kitchen, but it was actually tied to the choices the farmer was making in the field.

From there, I started seeking out food that was of the quality I wanted to cook with and feed to clients—I had become a private chef by then. I couldn’t find all of them. I was looking for really great eggs, and I couldn’t find really great eggs. My husband and I started talking about raising chickens. We thought about buying 10 acres of land, but then we met our partners and it became something bigger than we could have ever imagined. But we do have the food we want to cook with now.

Dr. Casey Means: That’s incredible. It’s interesting you mentioned that your mom had had issues with sinusitis. I’m working on a book right now about metabolic health, and I trained as an ear, nose, and throat surgeon. One of the conditions that really pushed me toward realizing we need to have a more foundational, root-cause approach to health was sinusitis. It’s an inflammatory condition, and we know how much food affects our inflammatory pathways. But nutrition’s impact on inflammatory predisposition is not talked about in the ENT world. We just reach for our prescription pad.

Is your mom someone who inspired you in the food journey, or were there other people in your life who helped you understand this connection?

Molly Chester: Our relationship has developed over the years. We both always had this desire to kind of figure it out. It wasn’t enough to just take a pill. I thought, I’m 25 years old. Why is somebody telling me that because I have acid reflux, I need to take this pill for the rest of my life? It just didn’t add up.

I am grateful that she chose to go deeper. She had sinus surgery, and that didn’t solve it. It got to the point where the doctors just said, “We can’t do anything. There’s nothing else that we have.” That’s when she turned to diet, and it completely fixed the circumstances.

I’ve been thinking about it recently, because I had my tonsils out as a kid. I always had bronchitis and ear infections and all the things. Now I know this is one of the primary glands for the immune system. Nobody’s talking about that. Nobody’s saying what you do if you don’t have tonsils. We know you take bile salts if you don’t have a gallbladder. But what is helping?

Whenever I still have congestion in some of my ear pathways, I wonder if that had a part to play in it. Doctors like yourself who are looking into that and asking those questions—it’s the same type of curiosity with which we try to understand Mother Nature. You look at it and you observe it and you get curious about what it is, and then you process what’s going on so that you then have different solutions Mother Nature is sharing with you. I hope to someday learn what the heck to do because I don’t have tonsils.

Dr. Casey Means: You’re doing all the right things, which is essentially supporting your body’s resilience with nutritious food, and helping to balance that inflammatory spectrum within one’s own body with the power of food.

Regenerative Agriculture and the Farming Spectrum

Dr. Casey Means: I am sure there are people who have never heard about regenerative farming before. I had not heard of it until about four years ago. Now it takes up a large percentage of my mindshare on a day-to-day basis—thinking about soil—largely because of people like you and your husband and the content you put out.

Could you walk us through what regenerative and biodynamic farming mean, and how it is different from organic farming, and of course, just conventional farming?

Molly Chester: Conventional farming uses synthetic means to control pests, add nutrients to your soil—things like that. With organic farming, there are boundaries around what types—but there are no synthetics—of less toxic natural materials you’re allowed or not allowed to use on your land. But organic farming doesn’t necessarily talk at all about building an ecosystem, or the concept of an ecosystem.

At the time we started, the only kind of certification out there that did address those things was a biodynamic certification, which talks about the land as an ecosystem. It talks about reserving a certain percentage of your land to natively flower. It talks about building the fertility from inside of your land, because shipping things in and using extractive methods is not as sustainable or regenerative, which is the next word we’re going to talk about.

A decade later, they started to fully develop this word “regenerative,” which encompasses all of those concepts I talked about in biodynamics. Biodynamics also brings in the cosmos, which is a really interesting part of the certification, which is why we continue to maintain it. It’s special and has a lot of philosophy to it.

The ecosystem part of it, which is the predominance of what that certification is, is very similar to what regenerative is. You’re looking to solve problems with the means you have readily available. The Biggest Little Farm, the film that my husband did, talks a lot about that, with things like the ducks who eat the snails. You’re just looking for where your problem is, and where your solution is. How do they naturally feed one another?

Dr. Casey Means: Incredible. Just to reflect what I’m hearing, conventional is how a lot of our farming’s done today. That’s about managing crops with synthetics and a heavy hammer, like killing pests.

Then you’ve got organic, which has some boundaries around that. You’re taking away some of those synthetic tools, but it’s not necessarily as focused on the next step, which is regenerative—actually putting good things into the soil, building soil, and allowing for this ecosystem to be functional.

Is it kind of a spectrum like that? From conventional to organic to regenerative, in terms of how much focus is placed on creating a thriving functional ecosystem?

Molly Chester: Yes. It is definitely a spectrum. Synthetics are on one end, and in the center, maybe, is the lack of synthetics. Then on the other end, you’re building that fertility with the diversity within your farm. Philosophically, there’s no bad and good. You’re looking at it all. When you look at animals, the coyote could be perceived as bad, but in a regenerative system, you aren’t really looking at that as bad. You’re thinking, What role does it play and what else needs to be there so that it isn’t overly dominant?

When you walk out into the fields, you might see a certain weed taking over. Instead of saying, “We’ve got to get chemicals. We’ve got to eradicate this,” you ask, “What is that trying to teach us? What role does that play?”

You might get scientific about it, which is the beauty. There are many more tools to get the information to understand your intuition. When you’re standing there, you might think, What is this doing? You might want to do a soil test to understand what’s going on. Then you might learn through studies that that individual weed actually has more potassium fixer, and the soil is therefore deficient in potassium. Then you think, “It’s actually there to try to help us, but it’s taking over things in its helpful efforts. How do we bring something else in there so that it doesn’t have to be as loud as it is?

Dr. Casey Means: That is so interesting. Someone could imagine that regenerative farming means going back to traditional ways, or that it’s almost like going backwards in time. But I love what you’re saying: it actually can be very scientific and technical—testing your intuition, and then working with natural ways to address that. There can be some interesting technology and testing to help you understand what some of those relationships are.

I’d love to hear more about how traditional wisdom and methods and more modern advances in testing and technology work together.

Molly Chester: Returning to traditional ways is definitely not going backwards; it’s just not forgetting things that were working. If you were to speak to an Indigenous culture that has maintained its connection to Mother Nature, that culture deserves to be honored for not forgetting. They are connected to Mother Nature on a daily basis, learning from the source of life in that way.

We maybe had forgotten and had turned to more synthetic ways as a baseline for doing things. As we remember, we want to honor the cultures that didn’t forget. But we also need to remember that those cultures are in connection with Mother Nature. We aren’t in conflict by going to the source to start to learn from Mother Nature. In doing so, it’s also about not forgetting the progress we have made in society.

There’s nothing wrong with being able to diagnose things. When I break my arm, I absolutely want to go to the hospital and get support to get things healed. It’s just that we’ve swung so far in that direction. We’ve lost track of the fact that there’s an infinite number of things that work, and that have been working for millennia. We want to just remember those things.

I came into this world being really passionate about that. It just makes sense to me. And there’s a time and place in this world to be able to have access to synthetic things, too. That’s where it’s important. It’s stepping into your land and realizing that each piece of that has importance. There’s nothing wrong with it.

But whenever we go so far in that direction, we lose our instincts. That’s a very scary place for me to be. I’m much more terrified by being there than I would be if I were dropped in the middle of my land in the middle of the night.

Dr. Casey Means: That resonates as a parallel to the healthcare system, and the healthcare crisis we’re in right now. You could take everything you just said, and if I just used the word “healthcare” instead of “soil,” it’s very similar. There’s been an almost forgetting of the body’s healing capacity and intuition. We have miraculous technological advances in healthcare. And like you said, it’s swinging so far in one direction that there’s almost a forgetting.

In a sense, there’s a merger that can happen. Functional medicine actually helps bring this together. Precision medicine uses amazing diagnostic tools like stool testing and metabolomics testing and all these things, but that’s to help understand what the function is and to diagnose things. Leaning on some of the more natural ways to address those imbalances within the body is where you can generate true vitality and healing, versus just reaching for the hammer of a medication or whatnot. It doesn’t necessarily restore true function.

Something like functional medicine focuses on getting to the root cause, and gently getting the whole system back to functioning. Which I think is probably why so much of your messaging resonates with me.

A Look at Apricot Lane Farms: Plants, Worms, Compost, and, More

Dr. Casey Means: What is happening over at Apricot Lane Farms. What is the lay of the land? What do you guys have going on at the incredible farm over there?

Molly Chester: We’re now up to about 243 acres. We just took on another little piece of land, but it is totally dilapidated. It’s fun because now, 11 years in, we’re able to start back in a similar place to what our main land was when we first got it. We’re able to listen with the ears that have the understandings of the last 11 years.

It’s very diverse, which is the nature of a regenerative biodynamic farm. It doesn’t have to be as diverse as we are. But we have cows, sheep, chickens, pigs, ducks, layers and roosters. There are guinea hens running around. We have a horse.

Then we have a two-acre market garden plot, and a large percentage of our land is orchard trees. We have some large areas of lemons and avocados, which are very common in our region, and we inherited a lot of those.

We have put in 22-ish acres of over 75 different varieties. We’ve now taken out a few of them and added in a few. It’s a grand experiment to figure out what works in this region. And then we have an avocado conservation area, where we have 15 or 16 different varieties of avocados. There’s so much beauty in the world of avocado. (We mainly see Hass avocados in the grocery store.) This diversity enables you to learn of those other varieties. Those predominantly go to our farmers’ markets.

We’ve recently started a beautiful lemonade line, which is able to get a lot of our large amounts of lemons direct to consumer. Our avocados have turned into an avocado oil because, for us, when we go to a packing house with those larger amounts, we basically get no premium. There’s nothing. There’s an organic premium, which is the income you would get from it, but there’s nothing for regenerative or biodynamic. For us, it’s really important to develop some of those lines so that we’re able to get back what we put into it.

Dr. Casey Means: Then you also have this state-of-the-art fertility and worm center. Can you speak about what you guys are doing with the worms?

Molly Chester: Totally. The fertility center is one of my very favorite parts of the farm because it’s almost like the kitchen in the field. We have a super large worm bin. It’s a 40-foot worm bin with a bunch of red wigglers in there, passing compost through their bodies to become vermicast, which means they’re filled with microbially rich materials.

We then use that in these huge tanks where we brew compost tea. We use that anywhere from a root dip for when we’re putting in new plants to spraying the leaves to create more diversity on the leaf. We also use it in other sprays for both the garden and the orchard.

One area is called the workshop. That’s really the kitchen, because we’re either brewing different materials or drying different herbs. There’s a big herb dryer in there. We’re also making different sprays, or we make a tree paste that gets spread on the trunks. That’s good for things like sunburn, but it also builds the tree’s immunity. It’s got tons of amazing materials in it. We do that throughout the winter to keep different pest and disease pressures we get in the spring and summer under control.

It’s both traditional and progressive. Our team studies different things we’re doing. But then we might be taking the innards of an animal to compost and learning all these crazy things that then bring back that nutrition into our land. That’s the whole nose-to-tail thing: much nutrition is in those things we perceive as yucky. But that’s what makes the world go round in a lot of ways, from the nutrient-density side.

Dr. Casey Means: It’s almost like a little pharmacy creating these substances that then naturally protect other things. That’s incredible.

Everything’s Connected: How the Health of Soil, Plants, and Animals Impacts Humans

Dr. Casey Means: For someone who cares about preventing illness, or maybe healing an illness, or wants to improve their metabolic health and blood sugar levels, why should they care about soil?

Molly Chester: Essentially, whenever you are improving the diversity in the soil—the microbially rich elements of that soil—you are maximizing the tree’s ability to get the nutrients up into the tree, and therefore into the food or plant or whatever you’re eating. It’s vitally important that the soil has what it needs to thrive, because the tree is providing sugars to those microbes in exchange for the nutrients it needs. You want that exchange to be very, very vibrant and alive so that you’re then getting the nutrition you need.

In a lot of ways, plants are detoxifiers. If you’re not focused on the environment in which those plants live, which is the soil and the air, then you’re going to be creating toxic plants you’re then going to be eating. It’s the same with animals. When we’re growing grass, we’re growing food for our animals. If our animals don’t have what they need to have proper food, proper space to move around, proper companionship, all of these things, you’re creating inflamed animals, and then you’re eating that. We’re blaming so many issues on conventionally raised animals that are unhealthy when we put them in our body.

I am not a doctor in any way. But the practical part of me wonders. Whenever I got allergy tests and things like that, I thought, What egg did they just put under my skin? Is that a pastured egg? Or are they using some lab-developed substance that resembles an egg?

There’s a world of energetics in tandem with our physical world. If we aren’t considering how those energetic properties are affecting the things we’re using, we’re getting very skewed results.

Dr. Casey Means: You mentioned something about biodynamic farming, and incorporating the cosmos. Can you elaborate on some of these themes? How are some of these things interconnected in the food and animals we’re eating and raising?

Molly Chester: The cosmos element is difficult because, if a person doesn’t really have an openness to consider or think about those facts, it’s hard to convince somebody that there is anything to it. But on a simple foundational point, the moon affects our tides and it affects the water in all of our land, including, I would argue, inside our body.

Those water substances get affected by whether the moon is full or at noon. It’s going to pull those resources up into the leaves during times when it’s a full moon. If you were to, say, trim that plant whenever you’re in full moon, you know you’re getting a lot of those resources up in the plant. Maybe that’s what you want at that moment, or maybe that’s not what you want. Maybe you want to be pushing those resources down into the root.

A lot of people—much smarter than me—have studied the planets as a whole, beyond the moon, and say that there are different days in our calendar year that are more beneficial to plant something, or to do things associated with the roots of the plant, or to do things associated with the fruit of the plant, or the leaf of the plant.

We look at these calendars to say, “Okay, today is the day we should plant our new saplings,” or, “Today is the day we would want to prune.” We have found, from trial and error, how drastically different planting times affect the plant.

It’s not something like astrology. It’s not something for which you can hit every mark, because it’s incredibly complex. You might go a little bit nuts in that way, rather than following your intuition. But it’s something we turn to as a resource to guide the rhythm of when we do things.

A lot of healing when it comes to land, and when it comes to our own bodies, is about getting in a rhythm that is the most natural for whatever it is you’re working with. It’s like those circadian rhythms. We’re doing that with the land as a whole.

I also do that in management. That’s pretty much the way that I work with teams: I look for that alignment. My team probably gets tired of hearing the word “alignment,” but whenever you can get something in alignment, everything flows much better. When you consider that we aren’t an island—we’re inside of a galaxy—then there’s pressure; there are rhythms that extend beyond us. The more we can come into alignment with those, the more effect we can have on these simple things like planting a tree.

Dr. Casey Means: That is so powerful. It reminds me of something that’s happening in the health space. A lot of these female precision medicine physicians—people like Sara Gottfried, Jolene Brighten, Carrie Jones, Stephanie Estima—are finally getting a voice through platforms and books. They are talking a lot more about how women can utilize an understanding of their cycle to come into alignment with their lives. For instance, what are the energetics of the preovulatory phase versus the post-ovulatory, follicular, or luteal phases? How do you actually feel your best by thinking through the cyclical patterns of the land or the body? There are different ways we might be interacting with our work or other people. We’ve sort of ignored that and thought the whole month was the same thing.

It’s amazing to me that this is starting for the first time. I’m 35, and it’s just now coming to my attention. Throughout my medical training, I never once thought about that type of thing. But it feels really empowering. It’s just like you were saying: We are living in the midst of cycles, and fighting against them or ignoring them doesn’t help us. We’re part of it.

On Cultivating a Healthy Farmer-Land Relationship

Dr. Casey Means: I think about these concentrated animal feeding operations—CAFOs—where animals are packed together. Their bodies are probably surging with cortisol. They’re separated from their babies. All these things are happening to them. It’s inconceivable to think that does not affect the animal that is in some way then being transferred to you.

There’s no nothing woo about it. If that animal is under chronic stress and it has infections, that’s going to change its cellular biology, which then is becoming your cellular biology. What part do animals play in regenerative agriculture, and what is the relationship between the animals and the plants and the soil on the farm?

Molly Chester: Animals become a vital part of a system once you realize that there are really two ways to bring fertilization to your plants: petroleum-based fertilizers or animal-based fertilizers. There are certainly things you can do with composting green waste, too. But in my experience and understanding, both with my body and with the land—though there’s such a detoxifying importance of a vegan and a vegetarian diet, which can be incredibly powerful—when you’re talking about building blocks, having animals as a part of your whole ecosystem is incredibly important.

I was a vegetarian for a very long time, and that was part of what led my health to decline. I had to come back to eating animals. For me, it was about the way those animals were raised. When you’re raising them in a humane way, your land can only handle a certain amount of animals. And that amount of animals provides a wonderful fertilization of what you have.

For example, our sheep will go through our lemon orchards. They eat the cover crop, they pull the leaves from the low trees. The lemon leaves actually have anti-worming properties, antiseptic properties, which help the sheep. Then they poop and pee and bring the nutrients back into the soil. Then they eat the cover crop for their nourishment.

People always want more eggs. But the land can only support so many more eggs. When you look at that nutritionally, it’s kind of telling you what percentage of your diet is going to end up being animal-based, and what percentage is going to be plant-based when you’re living in proximity to your land.There are limiting factors. You need the nutrient value of those animals to nourish your plants. In a way, nature says, “I’ll tell you in California how many animals and how many vegetables you should be eating.”

Dr. Casey Means: That is one of the most fascinating things I think I’ve ever heard. There’s some balance that makes it all work. Everything’s working together in the right amounts. Whatever that amount is depends, ultimately, on the farm’s ratio of plants and animals. Since we’ve co-evolved with plants and animals for millions of years, there’s some beautiful harmony here that nature’s putting on a silver platter saying, “This is what works.” Could you explain the concept of a cover crop?

Molly Chester: Basically anywhere where there’s bare dirt, you might end up dealing with erosion. Erosion occurs whenever rain comes down and washes away your top soil. It’s that top 10 to 12 inches of soil where the magic happens. That’s where it alchemizes death back into life. You want that to be as fertile as you possibly can.The United States came with a lot of fertile land in Middle America. Unfortunately, that got washed away. Now we have to rebuild these things.

On land, then, you want to be growing something everywhere. That, over time, is what Mother Nature would do. But it may take a lot longer. If you can nurture these different open spaces to produce and maintain plant life, then when it rains, it’s going to act like a sponge. It’s creating porosity in your land and bringing that water down into the soil. It’s holding that water in the soil for the availability of the plants. It’s also going to trickle down into our aquifers, which we are then able to use to maintain water in these more arid areas.

Cover crops also provide flowering and bring in beneficial insects. They provide food and nourishment for different wildlife so that you’re able to develop a true ecosystem where the bigger animals keep the smaller animals in check, and everybody works together like that.

Your cover crops can become infinitely more inspiring to then meet the specific needs of the individual plants. You might, for instance, want to plant more nitrogen-fixing plants if the larger trees you’re growing need more nitrogen, or whatever it may be.

Dr. Casey Means: When we fly over the United States, and look down at the huge brown circles of farms, I’m assuming they’re basically barren dirt that does not have a cover crop. If it rains, it’s going to wash off that top soil. Is that what you’re looking at when you look down on those brown fields?

Molly Chester: That can be really tricky. With carbon sequestration, you’re trying to get some of that organic matter down into your soil. Whenever these lands are tilled like that, it’s literally releasing that carbon into the atmosphere. There’s time. There’s permaculture, which is a certain type of no-till farming—you never mess with the soil whatsoever.

We’re maybe a bit more moderate than that. We’ve learned a lot from our biodynamic consultant, Alan York. In the early days, his approach was to disrupt the soil for the first couple years. You plant some cover. You turn that cover crop under to get that organic matter down into your soil. But then you hit a point where you stop.

That’s the nature of the farmer-land relationship that can fast-track healing, much like a functional medicine doctor can. If you just leave the human to their own devices, they might not be able to get there. But when you provide support and a relationship, things can advance much further.

We disrupt the soil to a certain degree at the beginning—but consciously. And we make sure we are covering it as much as possible so that we don’t have erosion.

Tapping into Mother Nature—in All Aspects of Life

Dr. Casey Means: Everyone seems to want to move to a farm right now. A lot of young professionals want to get out of the city, get their hands dirty. They want to get on a farm and be closer to nature, and have less devices and all this stuff. It’s kind of like this idealized vision of getting back to nature. It’s a very interesting trend that’s happening right now.

In a lot of ways, I think it’s positive because people are realizing that it’s really good for the soul and the body to be closer to nature. We’ve kind of moved far away from that. What is your response when you hear people talking like that? What are some words of advice or words of caution or general feelings surrounding this sentiment that seems to be happening?

Molly Chester: I love it. The Biggest Little Farm was a wonderful thing because now, when I’m at our Saturday Farmstand, people say, “I saw this and now I’m going to take over my aunt’s land,” and, “I saw this, and I’m starting to raise crops on 10 acres beyond my house,” and, “I bought a farm and I did this and I did that.” I’m thrilled by that.

I look at the healing of our food system as a patchwork quilt, where there’s always going to be a global food chain. And that serves a role, too, but on this local scale, we need to have a million people doing small-scale food systems to feed our local communities. Overall, I look at that as very, very positive.

I always tell people, “Jump off your own cliff. Don’t jump off somebody else’s.” If getting back to the land is what you are called to do, then jump, because there are going to be wings that come, and you are going to be fine. It’s going to figure itself out. That’s where you want to listen to that little voice to make sure that’s your cliff.

Are you meant to go farm? Farming is hard. But so is cooking, which is what I was doing before, and so is filmmaking, which is what my husband has done. All paths can have difficulties. But when you truly love it and when it is your joy, then it’s like a child: you’re never going to walk away from that child. It’s just something where you keep on walking through the challenges.

If everybody happens to jump off the cliff of farming, I would be great with that. That’s the wonderful thing about this industry and the industry of healing: there is no competition. We need everybody to be doing this to be able to get where we want to go. If we’re all doing it, then what a joyful world to live in. We won’t need all the extras because we’ll have community. Yeah, I encourage it.

Dr. Casey Means: I love that. Do you think there’s a way to do it where you’re not going all in? Maybe there’s something that could be balanced with another career, or maybe not on five to 10 acres, but on a smaller amount of land? Is there a world in which there’s a lower barrier to entry to create your own tiny regenerative farm, even in your backyard?

Molly Chester: The concepts we practice here are actually just universal principles that can be applied. I apply them as a mother and as a businesswoman and as a farmer. It is just about applying a lens of curiosity.

When I lived in Santa Monica, I had my terrible tomatoes on my porch. They were really bad. But I was in discussion with my landlord to put a garden up on the roof, and I convinced him to let me put a freezer in our joint parking garage so that I could buy a whole cow and store all the meat. I had dehydrators in my guest room and all that kind of stuff. I was driven.

We can adapt wherever we are. The principles apply to other areas of life, like how you want to raise your child. Do you want to look at that child and think, Why is this challenge presenting right now? They also apply to your own health. Whenever my son is not talking well to himself, I say, “Hey man, you’re the manager of your microbes. You’ve got to talk good to your microbes.” We’re farmers of our internal community. We can take these principles and apply them to any profession we’re doing, from anywhere.

Dr. Casey Means: Your philosophy behind your work, I think, could positively impact the world and the way people think. You’ve mentioned going away from a black-and-white paradigm of bad and good. It’s a lot about asking why. There’s a curiosity about why things are happening, and a desire to investigate what role something is playing in a particular situation.

When I was at the farm, Nathan gave us a tour. He made a comment that really stuck with me. He said that regenerative farming is about close observation followed by critical thinking. I remember thinking, Gosh, if we all just did that—observation and then critical thinking—the world would be a more functional place. This idea is reiterated in your book.

I remember listening to Joe Rogan interview Will Harris from White Oak Pastures. He mentioned something about complex problem-solving versus linear problem-solving. Conventional agriculture is linear thinking, versus complex thinking. It feels like there’s such a deep philosophy around what you’re doing that the world needs more broadly and generally. Can you talk about how these things intersect? The philosophy, and then the practice, and how it feeds into other aspects of your life?

Molly Chester: Nathan was spot on. I love my team. We’re always trying to share with each other and inspire each other. With every problem we see, we want to get curious first about what that is, and then spend some time watching it.

Fear makes us incredibly reactive. Instead, when we can recognize that our fear is actually a desire for information, and spend more time looking for that information, that’s the process of curiosity. Through that curiosity, we’ve allowed the time needed to live into a more inspired solution. That’s basically what we do here. Once you practice that with the land, you realize the human ecosystem is just another part of this animal ecosystem, the plant ecosystem, the soil web. It’s your human ecosystem.

We apply those same principles to our teams. One of our core values is harmonious intent. Harmonious intent doesn’t mean not talking about hard things. It means you’re going into any problem with assertiveness and with a benefit of the doubt. You’re leading with curiosity. We talk about these things so that we know how to communicate with one another.

Unfortunately, those are things that, generationally, we’ve missed. But have we ever had them? I don’t know if they’ve been here. Having those communication skills is everything. That’s the human signaling to each other, which can then enhance the animal and the plant signaling because we’re then in the rhythms of the animals and the plants. The land truly reflects the health of its stewards.

I remember Allan Savory talking about how the land is only as healthy as the people running the farm. That’s where we are. We work on the human ecosystem and build health there.

Plants want two things: They want to be appreciated and they want to live in a healthy environment. When they’re appreciated, they get the things they need—water and sunlight and just love from their stewards. They’re living in a non-toxic environment, which depends on what’s in the soil, and what’s in the human ecosystem that surrounds them. These principles are very transferable.

Dr. Casey Means: This is a microcosm for what we need more broadly. It’s really amazing. It seems that the psychological or emotional dynamics on the farm actually impact the plants. Is that something you observe? Do you feel like it’s a part of the farm world and the farm ecosystem we need to take into account?

Molly Chester: Oh, for sure. We had a period when the film first came out where different parts of the farm got really stressed. We needed to become better leaders. We didn’t have the communication skills. You could see both the human ecosystem and the plant ecosystem suffering because of that. We’re very open about the fact that we have couples counselors, personal counselors, business coaches, life coaches—anything we need to get the tools to begin to thrive.

But I can see it. I can almost tell whenever a change is going to happen because you start to see suffering. The plants are kind of asking for different leadership, or they’re asking for whatever they might need. This way of farming has a whole lot of deep listening and surrendering.

The Farm School, Learning with Nature, and Discovering New Outlooks

Dr. Casey Means: It gives me chills. It’s beautiful. It doesn’t feel like a huge stretch, then, to understand why you started a school on the farm. Can you tell me about why you started this school and what its core principles are?

Molly Chester: The school grew from an original desire to educate our son Beaudie differently. It’s grown into something I hold with an equal passion of what we’re doing at the farm, because I’ve watched what happens when children are raised and educated in connection with Mother Nature. It’s incredibly profound. Mother Nature is the source of creativity. Whenever children have this natural inclination to lean into those rhythms we’ve been talking about, they develop the ability to think and problem-solve.

It’s incredible to see the results of these kids who come out on the other side. It’s shown me that we’re perhaps missing something in our school systems right now. It’s important to get those kids out from under fluorescent lights when we can, and have them learn in connection with Mother Nature.

It’s a small program here. We are actually recruiting for next year. If anyone living in the Southern California area is interested, they can certainly go to our website, which has more information about the program. It is led by two wonderful educators. The kids learn how everything they do is an extension of their natural surroundings.

Dr. Casey Means: It’s my absolute dream to send my future hypothetical children there. Truly, I am plotting my move to LA just so I can make this happen one day. I can’t wait to see it grow and thrive. It’s incredible what you’re doing.

Molly Chester: Thank you.

Dr. Casey Means: It’s been more than 10 years since you started Apricot Lane Farms. How has your relationship with nature evolved over that time? What’s your framework now, and how is it different than it was 10 years ago?

Molly Chester: I grew up in suburbia, and my parents weren’t very connected with the natural world. My dad loved national parks and things, but we weren’t campers. We lived in a suburban house. But all of my distinct memories are from the land my grandma lived on. I remember a blueberry bush in my other grandma’s backyard. It was always about the land.

When I got older, because I didn’t have that innate understanding of the wild side of the natural world, when we started the farm, I just kind of knew what direction I wanted to head in. I knew what food we wanted to create. But I didn’t fully understand what it meant to be ecosystem farming. Even though I might have been drawn to it, I didn’t understand how much grief you have to face whenever you are really open to the workings of Mother Nature.

My husband had a more innate understanding of those wild spaces, like the coyotes and the different animals you’ll interface with. My understanding of the natural world has broadened substantially, and it has in turn affected my entire life. Those cycles of grief, and any kind of natural-disaster-type experiences you get when you’re with Mother Nature, affect you in a way that brings humility, perspective, and, ultimately, a lot of the sweet appreciation for life itself. That’s kind of what’s changed.