#206 – Regenerative farming benefits the planet and our bodies | Molly Chester & Dr. Casey Means
Regenerative farming harnesses a farm’s entire ecosystem to grow and raise food via natural processes. In turn, foods raised on regenerative farms benefit our bodies more so than those raised conventionally. Molly Chester of Apricot Lane Farms and Dr. Casey Means discuss the philosophies of regenerative farming, how the practice has parallels with functional medicine, and how regenerative farming is a merging of the tried-and-true methods of our ancestors with scientific knowledge.
- Molly Chester, Apricot Lane Farms: https://www.apricotlanefarms.com
- The Apricot Lane Farms Cookbook: https://www.apricotlanefarms.com/cookbook/
- The Biggest Little Farm documentary: https://www.apricotlanefarms.com/biggest-little-farm/
- The Biggest Little School (on Apricot Lane Farms): https://www.apricotlanefarms.com/farm-school/
- Apricot Lane Farms on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/apricotlanefarms/
- Apricot Lane Farms on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apricotlanefarm
5:28 — Polycystic ovarian syndrome has links to metabolic health
Molly Chester of Apricot Lane Farms (in Moorpark, California, just 40 miles north of Los Angeles) shares her experience of changing her diet to help control PCOS symptoms. She attended culinary school at the Natural Gourmet Institute of Health and Culinary Arts, where she learned more about how diet can affect hormones and the impact on how foods are farmed.
I was taught about sugars—and not just natural sugars—but fruit, anything that’s like affecting that blood sugar cycle. So I got real committed to it. I learned I had a soy allergy, which was really, really affecting my hormones. And through then returning to these traditional ways of eating, I was able to completely restore the PCOS symptoms and provide the beginnings for understanding that it wasn’t just the choices that I was making in the kitchen, but it was actually tied into the choices that the farmer was making in the field. From there I started seeking out food that was of the quality that I wanted to feed my clients. I had become a private chef then.
6:58 — Diet impacts inflammatory pathways that can drive symptoms
Dr. Casey Means discusses learning more about the inflammatory processes of conditions that affect the ear, nose, and throat.
I’m working on a book right now about metabolic health, and I trained as an ear, nose, and throat surgeon. And so one of the conditions that really actually pushed me towards 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 and everything, but it’s just not talked about in the ENT world—how nutrition affects that inflammatory predisposition; we just reached for our prescription pad.
10:27 – Farming practices exist on a spectrum
Conventional farming uses synthetic means (i.e. pesticides and herbicides). Organic farming avoids synthetics. Biodynamic farming taps into the ecosystem of the land. And regenerative farming employs biodynamic farming practices with some added philosophies.
At the time when we started, the only kind of certification that was out there that did address those things was biodynamic certification, which does talk 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 obviously shipping things in and pulling extractive methods is not as sustainable or regenerative, which is the next word that we’re going to talk about. Because, then a decade later, they started really developing this word “regenerative,” which is all of those concepts that 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 just really special in that it has a lot of philosophy to it. But the basis of the ecosystem part of it—which is the predominance of what that certification is—is very similar to what regenerative is. So yeah, you’re just looking to solve problems with the means that you have readily available. And The Biggest Little Farm, the film that my husband did, talks a lot about that with things like the ducks who eat the snails, and you’re just looking for where’s your problem and where is your solution and how do they naturally kind of feed one another.
18:24 — Regenerative farming merges historical ways with progress
Although regenerative farming may sound like a return to historical ways of cultivating the land and raising animals, it is really a merging of successful age-old methods with what we know now from science. Dr. Casey Means draws similar parallels with functional medicine as opposed to conventional.
There’s been almost a forgetting of the body’s healing capacity and the body’s intuition because we have amazing, miraculous technological advances happen in healthcare. And so, like you said, it’s swinging so far in one direction that there’s almost a forgetting. And in a sense, there’s like a merger that can happen. And I think functional medicine actually really helps bring this together. Precision medicine, which is: There are amazing diagnostic tools that can be used like stool testing and metabolomics testing and all these things, but that’s to help understand what the function is. Go and diagnose things, but then leaning on some of the more natural ways to actually address those imbalances within the body is where you can really generate true vitality and healing versus if we just reach for the hammer of a medication or whatnot—it doesn’t necessarily actually restore true function. Hearing you talk was like—oh my gosh—this feels really similar to that perspective that I think permeates something like functional medicine—getting to the root cause and then gently coaxing the whole system back to function.
26:05 — What we do to the land affects our health
If we use toxic products on the land or don’t let animals live their healthiest lives, that affects our health via the foods we consume.
In a lot of ways, plants are detoxifiers. So if you’re not focused on the environment in which those plants live, which is the soil essentially and the air, then you’re going to be creating toxic plants that then you’re going to be eating. And that’s the same thing with animals. When we’re growing grass, we’re growing food for our animals. And if our animals don’t have what they need to be able 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.
28:12 — Regenerative farming takes the cosmos into consideration
The moon, as well as the sun, play a role in fostering the ecosystem. Both are paramount to regenerative practices.
On a very simple foundational point, the moon affects our tides and it affects the water in all of our land, including I would argue to say inside of our body. And so those water substances get affected by whether the moon is full or at noon. So it’s going to pull those resources up into the leaves during times when it’s full moon and it’s bright expression. So if you were to, say, trim that plant, whenever you’re in full moon, you’re knowing that you’re getting a lot of those resources up in the plant and maybe that’s what you want at that moment.
34:17 — A healthy ecosystem has limits on what it can produce, but that can be beneficial
Conventional farming methods aim for quantity, while regenerative farming focuses on quality. Growing and raising quality plants and animals can limit quantity, but that limiting factor can help dictate a well-rounded and balanced diet.
I had to realize in coming back to eating animals, for me, it was about the way those animals were raised. And when you’re going to be raising them in a way that is humane, it becomes like limiting. Your land can only handle a certain amount of animals. And then it turns out that that amount of animals is a wonderful fertilization of what you have. So for example, our sheep will go through our lemon orchards. They’re eating the cover crop that’s in there. They’re pulling the leaves from the low trees, which actually have antiseptic properties to them in those antiseptic properties in the lemon leaves… It’s making it so that they can’t get as many parasites. So it’s helping the animal. Then they are pooping and peeing and bringing the nutrients back into the soil, and then they’re eating their cover crop for their nourishment. So it’s those kind of systems that you find wherever. And people are always saying, “We want more eggs. We want more eggs,” but the land can only support so many more eggs. So 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 which is going to be plant-based when you’re living close in proximity to your land.
37:44 — Cover crops are crucial for maintaining a healthy farming ecosystem
Spaces without cover crops face problems with erosion and moisture loss, whereas cover crops help keep soil moist and healthy.
On land then, as much as you can, you want to be growing something everywhere—because that, over time, is what Mother Nature would do. But it may take a lot longer of a timeframe. But with the human shepherding of the land, if you can then nurture these different open spaces to have plant life, then when it rains, it’s going to be acting 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, but then it’s also going to trickle down into our aquifers, which then we are able to use to then maintain water in these areas that are more arid. So cover crops also then 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 some of these bigger animals keep the smaller animals in check and everybody works together like that.
42:37 — A return to farming has become a trend
Should more people be flocking to small-scale farming? Molly Chester says yes, but only people who are truly interested in the practice.
There’s always going t be a global food chain, and that serves a role, too. But on this local scale, we need to have a million people doing all of these small-scale food systems to feed our local communities. And so overall, I looked at as very, very positive as far as like someone that wants to, you know, get in touch with the land. I mean, I always tell people, “Jump off your own cliff. Don’t jump off somebody else’s.” So meaning: if that 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. You know it’s going to figure itself out, and that’s where you just want to listen to like that little voice to make sure that’s your cliff.”
53:45 — A regenerative farm can be educational for children
Molly Chester discusses the school on Apricot Lane Farms and the potential benefits for kids.
Mother Nature is the source of creativity, and whenever the children have this natural inclination to lean into those rhythms that we’ve been talking about this whole time, they are developing the ability to think, the ability to problem solve. And it’s just to see the results of these kids that come out the other side so incredibly vibrant. It’s shown me that, you know, we’re perhaps missing something in our school systems right now and that it’s important to get those kids out from under fluorescent lights when we can and have them learn in connection with Mother Nature. So it’s a small program here. We are actually recruiting for next year, so if anyone lives in the Southern California area that’s interested, they can certainly go to our website, which has more information about the program.
56:38 — Regenerative farming can foster a fresh perspective
Molly Chester describes how regenerative farming has given her a new outlook on life.
My understanding of the natural world has broadened substantially and it has, in turn, affected my entire life, because those cycles of grief and just any kind natural disaster-type experiences that you can get when you’re with Mother Nature, they affect you in a way that brings humility, that brings perspective, and ultimately brings a lot of the sweet appreciation for life itself.
Molly Chester (00:06):
If you’re not focused on the environment in which those plants live, which is the soil essentially and the air, then you’re going to be creating toxic plants that then you’re going to be eating. And that’s the same thing with animals. Like when we’re growing grass, we’re growing food for our animals. And if our animals don’t have what they need to be able to have proper food, proper space to move around, proper companionship, all of these things, you’re creating inflamed animals. And we’re blaming so many issues on conventionally raised animals that are unhealthy when we’re putting those in their body.
Ben Grynol (00:52):
I’m Ben Grynol, part of the early startup team here at Levels, we’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health. And along the way we have conversations with thought leaders about research backed information, so you can take your health into your own hands. This is A Whole New Level.
Dr. Casey Means (01:21):
Welcome to A Whole New Level. This is Dr. Casey Means, co-founder and chief medical officer of Levels. I could not be more excited about our episode today. I am here with Molly Chester, who 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 large regenerative farms in America. And I’ve had the honor of visiting it before and it was truly one of the most spectacular days and educational days of my entire life. So we are going to be talking all about regenerative agriculture today.
And 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, which is just about 40 miles north of LA. And it’s just an incredible story. They took a 234 acre plot with dirt that was as hard as concrete in places and turned it into this flourishing, lush, verdant paradise of growth that it is today. So we’ll talk through a bit of that journey.
And Molly just released the incredible cookbook, the Apricot Lane Farms Cookbook. And it really is such an incredible book because, not only is it a primer on regenerative agriculture, but really shows you how to coax the magic out of foods and really helps you appreciate the importance of high quality, fresh ingredients to nourish your body. And as you’ve heard me talk about in some of my newsletters and on the podcast, I am such a believer, have become a believer over the past couple years in the idea that we cannot have human health until we fix soil health because it’s one big interrelated ecosystem. And that is really one I want to talk with Molly about today. And something that I really feel like is going to be the future of healthcare is everyone understanding that you don’t have healthcare without soil care. So if you are interested in soil health and metabolic disease, this is really an episode for you. So Molly, welcome to the podcast. So excited to have you.
Molly Chester (03:56):
Thank you so much for having me. It was great to meet you at the farm and it’s great to be here.
Dr. Casey Means (04:02):
Well, thank you for making the time. I know things are busy on the farm, and you wear a lot of hats, but I thought we’d just jump right into talking about your personal story actually. In the cookbook, you talk about how you actually had a health journey of your own and you had been dealing with PCOS and some gut issues and some joint pain. And you are a classically trained chef. And 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 (04:42):
Sure. Yeah. 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, much to what my brother thought was crazy. But then I also 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. And I would ask to go in and kind of chop up my own little salads and things like that because I could just tell that what I ate was affecting how I felt.
It then went on from there where I watched my mom turn to a diet called the Body Ecology Diet, which is a very kind of whole foods based diet that has fermentation in it, and heal some sinus issues that she’d had her whole life. And then in my 20s, as I started not feeling well, I just had a natural turn to say, what am I eating and how is that affecting how I feel? And I just got more and more drawn to health food stores and understanding of these concepts.
And from there I ended up going to a culinary school that taught these principals, the Natural Gourmet Institute of Health and Culinary Arts. And I learned about nourishing traditions and traditional foods to really go to those foundations of where healing begins. For me, it was PCOS and different blood sugar because PCOS is essentially a blood sugar imbalance. And it was all of those kind of threads that were in my body. And I was taught about sugars, and not just natural sugars where I was, but truly just fruit, anything that’s affecting that blood sugar cycle.
And so I got real committed to it. I learned I had a soy allergy, which was really, really affecting my hormones. And through then returning to these traditional ways of eating, I was able to completely restore the PCOS symptoms and really just provide the beginnings for understanding that it wasn’t just the choices that I was making in the kitchen, but it was actually tied into the choices that the farmer was making in the field.
And from there, I started seeking out food that was of the quality that I wanted to feed the clients, I had become a private chef then, that I wanted to cook with. And I couldn’t find all of them. I was looking for really great eggs, and I couldn’t find really great eggs. So my husband and I started talking about what if we start raising chickens. And we thought about 10 acres, but then we met our partners and it became something bigger than we could have imagined. But we do have the food we want to cook with now.
Dr. Casey Means (07:31):
That’s incredible. And something that I know is going to be so interesting to people listening because so many of the people in our audience are so interested in that blood sugar balance question. And 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. And so one of the conditions that really actually pushed me towards realizing we need to have a more foundational root cause approach to health was sinusitis. Because it’s an inflammatory condition, and we know how much food affects our inflammatory pathways and everything, but it’s just not talked about in the ENT world, how nutrition affects the inflammatory predisposition. We just reach for our prescription pad. So that’s really fascinating that your mom had that experience, and that it seems like it impacted you. So is she someone who inspired you in the food journey, or were there other people in your life that really helped you understand this connection?
Molly Chester (08:32):
Our relationship has so developed over the years. And one of the pieces that was always this common thread is that we both always had this desire to kind of figure it out. It wasn’t enough that it was just like, oh, here, just take this pill, or here. It was like, what, why? Why, whatever, I’m 25 years old 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. And for her, I am grateful that she chose to go deeper. She was being told that, first she had a sinus surgery and that didn’t solve it. And it got to the point where the doctors just said, “We can’t do anything. There’s nothing else that we have.” And that’s when she turned to diet and it did completely fix the circumstances.
And I’ve been thinking about it recently because I had my tonsils out as a kid because I always had the bronchitis and the ear infections and all the thing. And now I’m thinking about it, knowing this is one of the primary glands for immune, and I’m like, I don’t have my tonsils. What? And nobody’s talking about that. Nobody’s saying what you do if you don’t have tonsils. We know you take biosalts if you don’t have a gallbladder. But what is helping?
And so whenever I still have congestion in some of my ear pathways, you wonder if that had a part to play in it. And I just think those doctors like yourself that are looking into that and asking those questions, it’s the same type of curiosity that we do to understand Mother Nature. I mean it’s like you look at it and you observe it and you get curious about what it is, and then process what’s going on so that you then have different solutions that are brought to you by Mother Nature sharing that with you. And hope to someday learn what the heck to do because I don’t have tonsils.
Dr. Casey Means (10:24):
Well, I think you’re doing all the right things, which is essentially supporting your body’s resilience with nutritious food, and really helping to balance that inflammatory spectrum within one’s own body with the power of food, which I’m sure we’ll talk about more in this episode. But I am imagining there are people who are listening who may have actually never heard the word regenerative farming before. I know I had not heard of it about four years ago, and now it takes up such 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. But would you be able to just walk us through the overview of what does regenerative and biodynamic farming mean, and how is it different from organic farming, and of course, just conventional farming?
Molly Chester (11:15):
Sure. So conventional farming is that you do use synthetic means to control pests, to add nutrients to your soil, things like that. Then organic is that there is boundaries around what types, but there are no synthetics, and then what types of less toxic natural materials you’re allowed or not allowed to use on your land. But it doesn’t necessarily talk at all about building an ecosystem or the concept of an ecosystem.
Then at the time when we started, the only kind of certification that was out there that did address those things was biodynamic certification, which does talk 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 obviously shipping things in and pulling extractive methods is not as sustainable or regenerative, which is the next word that we’re going to talk about. Because then a decade later they started really fully developing this word regenerative, which is all of those concepts that 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 just really special in that and has a lot of philosophy to it. But the basis of the ecosystem part of it, which is the predominance of what that certification is, is very similar to what regenerative is. So yeah, you’re just looking to solve problems with the means that you have readily available. And the Biggest Little Farm, the film that my husband did, talks a lot about that with things like the ducks who eat the snails. And you’re just looking for where is your problem and where is your solution, and how do they naturally kind of feed one another?
Dr. Casey Means (13:16):
Incredible. So just to reflect back what I’m hearing, conventional is really how a lot of our farming’s done today. And that’s about managing with synthetics and sort of a very heavy hammer, like killing pests. And then you’ve got organic, which is there’s some boundaries around that. You’re taking away some of that synthetic, but it’s not necessarily as focused on the next step, which is regenerative, which is actually putting good things into the soil. Actually building soil and allowing for this ecosystem to be really functional. And so is it kind of a spectrum like that, would you say, from conventional to organic regenerative in terms of how much there’s a focus on truly creating a thriving functional ecosystem?
Molly Chester (14:04):
So yes. To answer your question, it is definitely just a spectrum, and that’s where synthetics are over here in the center is maybe the lack of synthetics. And then over here is that you’re building that fertility with the different diversity that you’re building within your farm. Philosophically, it’s kind of looking that there’s not bad and good. You’re kind of looking at that it’s all, when you look in animals, the coyote could be perceived as bad, but in a regenerative system, you aren’t really looking at that as bad. You’re saying what role does it play and what else needs to be there so that it doesn’t need to be as dominant as what it’s doing?
So whenever you walk out into the fields and you might see that like, oh gosh, this certain weed is taking over. Well, instead of saying, oh my gosh, we got to get chemicals, we got to eradicate this. It’s like, whoa, what is that trying to teach us? What role does that play? And then you might get scientific about it, which is the beauty. I feel like where the progressive nature of where we are is that there’s so many more tools to get the information to understand the intuition. And so when you’re standing there, you might be like, whoa, what is this doing? Well, you might want to do a soil test because you might want to understand what’s going on in your soil. And then you might learn through studies that individual weed actually has more potassium fixer, and so then you’re deficient in potassium. So then you’re like, oh wait, it’s actually there to try to help us, but it’s taking over things in its helpful efforts, so how do we bring something else in there so that it doesn’t have to be as loud as it is?
Dr. Casey Means (15:54):
Oh, that is so interesting. I love what you just said around, I think someone could imagine, oh, regenerative farming, it’s going back to traditional ways, or it’s kind of almost like going backwards in time, but I love what you’re saying, which is it actually can be very scientific and technical and testing your intuition, and then still working with natural ways to address that. But actually there can be some interesting technology and testing to help you understand what some of those relationships are. I’d love to hear a little bit more about how that balance between traditional wisdom and methods, and then maybe more modern advances in testing and technology work together.
Molly Chester (16:37):
Returning to kind of traditional ways is it’s definitely not going backwards. It’s just not forgetting things that were working. Because if you were to go and speak to an indigenous culture that has maintained its connection to Mother Nature, that culture deserves to be honored for not forgetting. They are in connection to Mother Nature on a daily basis and learning from the source of life in that way. And so we then, who maybe had forgotten and had turned to more synthetic ways as a baseline for doing things, as we remember, we want to then honor the cultures that didn’t forget.
But we also need to remember that those cultures are in connection with Mother Nature. So we aren’t in conflict by going to the source to just start to learn from Mother Nature. And in doing so, that means that it’s not about also forgetting the progress that 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 that direction that we’ve lost track of the fact that there’s infinite numbers of things that just work, that have been working for millennia. And so we just want to just remember those things.
And I think that’s kind of the nature of, I came into this world being really, really drawn and passionate about that. It just makes sense to me. As soon as I start to bring in something more synthetic, not that there’s not a time and a place in this world to be able to have the access to those things too. That’s where it’s important. It’s kind of 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. And that’s a very scary place for me to be. I’m much more terrified by being there than I am to be dropped in the middle of my land in the middle of the night. Because I’ve got my instincts in there. I’ll figure that out.
Dr. Casey Means (18:54):
Oh, that resonates so deeply as a parallel to the healthcare system and the healthcare crisis that we’re in right now. Because it’s almost like you could just take everything you just said, and if I just interchanged the word healthcare rather than soil, it’s very similar. I think that there’s been a almost forgetting of the body’s healing capacity and the body’s intuition. Because we have amazing, miraculous technological advances happen in healthcare. And so like you said, it’s swinging so far in one direction that there’s almost a forgetting.
And in a sense there’s like a merger that can happen. And I think functional medicine actually really helps bring this together, precision medicine, which is that there are amazing diagnostic tools that can be used like stool testing and metabolomics testing and all these things, but that’s to help understand what the function is and diagnose things. But then leaning on some of the more natural ways to actually address those imbalances within the body is where you can really generate true vitality and healing versus if we just reach for the hammer of a medication or whatnot, it doesn’t necessarily actually restore true function.
And so it’s just hearing you talk was like, oh my gosh, this feels really similar to that perspective that I think permeates something like functional medicine, getting to the root cause and then gently the whole system back to function. Which I think is probably why so much of your messaging resonates so much with me and the movie really felt like just a true awakening watching that. And I’d love for you to maybe just tell the audience what is happening over at Apricot Lane Farms. What is the lay of the land? What are guys have going on the incredible farm over there?
Molly Chester (20:44):
Yeah, so we’re now up to about 243 acres. We just took on another little piece of land that kind of closes an easement for us, but it is totally dilapidated. So it’s fun because now, 11 years in, we’re able to start back where it’s in a similar place that this mainland was whenever we first got it. So we’re able to listen with the ears that have the understandings of the last 11 years.
But what’s here is 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 do have cow, sheep, chicken, pigs, ducks, layers and roasters. There’s Guinea hens running around. We have a horse. I mean we’re across the gamut there. And then we have a little over a two acre market garden plot, and we have a large percentage of our land is orchard trees. So we do have some large areas of lemons and avocados, which are very common in our region, and we inherited a lot of those.
And then we have put in 22-ish acres of over 75 different varieties went in originally. 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 do have an area that’s an avocado conservation area where we have over 15 or 16 different varieties of avocados because. There’s so much beauty in the world of avocado, and we mainly know Hass in the grocery store. So this enables you to learn of those other varieties. And those go very predominantly to our farmer’s markets.
And we’ve now recently started both a beautiful lemonade line, which is able to get a lot of our large amounts of lemons direct to consumer. And then 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 that you would get from it, but there’s nothing for regenerative or biodynamic. So 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 (23:09):
And then you also have this state of the art fertility and worm center. Can you speak to a little bit about what you guys are doing with the worms?
Molly Chester (23:18):
Yeah, yeah, totally. For 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 really super large worm bin. It’s like a 40 foot worm bin where there’s a bunch of red wigglers in there passing compost through their bodies to become vermicast, which is filled with microbially rich materials. And so we then use that in these huge tanks that we’re able to brew compost tea. We use that anywhere from a root dip for when we’re putting in new plants to spraying foliarly on the leaves to create more diversity on the leaf, to other different sprays that we’ll do both in the garden and the orchard.
And then we have this one area called the workshop, that’s really like the kitchen because it’s we’re just taking different materials, and either brewing them or we’re drying different herbs. And there’s a big herb dryer in there. And then we’re making different sprays, or we make a tree paste that goes and spreads on the trunks of the trees. That’s good for anything from sunburn, but then also to build the immunity of the tree. It’s got tons of amazing materials in it. So we do that throughout the winter to keep different pest and disease pressures that we get in the spring and summer under control.
So it’s both traditional and progressive. Because that’s our team that will be studying very scientifically different things that we’re doing. But then it’s also the area that 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 because that’s like with the people that do eat animals, I mean, that’s the whole nose to tail thing is that so much nutrition is in those things that 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 (25:25):
Hearing you talk about the immunity of trees, and the way this can really help with the resilience of the trees, it’s almost like it’s a little pharmacy that is creating these substances that then go on and naturally protect other things. That’s incredible. On the topic of health, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on, for someone out there who cares about preventing illness or maybe healing an illness or really wants to improve their metabolic health, blood sugar, why should they care about soil?
Molly Chester (26:04):
Well, essentially, whenever you are improving the diversity in that 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. So it’s vitally important that that soil has what it needs to thrive because the tree is just providing sugars basically down into those microbes in exchange for the nutrients that it needs. So you want that exchange to be very, very vibrant and alive so that then you’re getting the nutrition that you need.
And so many challenges. I mean, that big chocolate study just came out about all the different heavy metals and things in the trees. I mean, in a lot of ways plants are detoxifiers. So if you’re not focused on the environment in which those plants live, which is the soil essentially and the air, then you’re going to be creating toxic plants that then you’re going to be eating. And that’s the same thing with animals. When we’re growing grass, we’re growing food for our animals. And if our animals don’t have what they need to be able 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.
And we’re blaming so many issues on conventionally raised animals that are unhealthy when we’re putting those in their body. I always think about, I mean, and this is me, I am not a doctor in any way, but just the practical mind of me, whenever I used to get allergy testings and things, I’d think, what egg did they just put under my skin? Is that a pastured egg? Or are they putting some lab developed substance that resembles an egg under my… And there’s a huge world of energetics that is in tandem with our physical world. And so if we aren’t considering how those energetic properties are affecting the things that we’re using, we’re getting very skewed results to it.
Dr. Casey Means (28:19):
Yeah, I mean that’s so interesting that you used the word energetics. And I also wanted to circle back on, you’d mentioned something about biodynamic farming, and incorporating the cosmos and some understanding of the cosmos in that. Can you speak to some of these themes a little bit more, and what your perspective is on how some of these things are interconnected in the food and the animals that we’re eating and raising?
Molly Chester (28:46):
The cosmos element is difficult because, if a person doesn’t really have an openness to really consider or think about those facts, it’s really hard to convince somebody that there is anything to it. But what I would say is that, on a very simple foundational point, that the moon affects our tides and it affects the water in all of our land, including I would argue to say, inside of our body. And so those water substances get affected by whether the moon is full or at noon. So it’s going to pull those resources up into the leaves during times when it’s full moon, and it’s very bright expression. So if you were to say, trim that plant whenever you’re in full moon, you’re knowing that you’re getting a lot of those resources up in the plant. And maybe that’s what you want at that moment, or maybe that’s not what you want because maybe you want to be pushing those resources down into the root.
So a lot of people, much smarter than I, have studied the planets as a whole beyond the moon to say that there is different days in our calendar year that are more beneficial to say plant something, to do things that are associated with the roots of the plant, or to do things that are associated with the fruit of the plant, or the leaf of the plant. So we actually look to these calendars to say, okay, today is the day that we should plant our new saplings, or today is the day that we would want to prune. And we have found just from trial and error of planting something on one day that was not when we were supposed to, and planting something on another day when it was, how drastically different it is in what happens with the plant.
So it’s not something just like astrology, following astrology, it’s not something that you can hit every mark because it’s so incredibly complex. You might go a little bit nuts in that way rather than following just your intuition. But it’s something that we turn to as a tool and a resource to guide the rhythm of when we do things. Because a lot of I feel healing when it comes to land, healing when it comes to our own bodies, is about getting in a cycle of a rhythm that is most natural for whatever it is that you’re working with. And it’s like those circadian rhythms, and we’re doing that with the land as a whole.
So I do that in management. That’s pretty much all of the way that I work with teams is kind of looking for that alignment. My team probably gets so tired of hearing the word alignment, but whenever you can get something in an alignment, everything flows so much better. And so when you consider that we aren’t an island, we’re inside of a galaxy, then there’s pressure, there’s rhythms that extend beyond us. So the more that we can come into alignment with those, the more effect that we can have on these simple things like planting a tree.
Dr. Casey Means (31:55):
That is so powerful, and it reminds me of something that’s happening, thank God, in the health space a little bit more now, which is a lot of these female precision medicine physicians, people like Sara Gottfried, Jolene Brighten, Carrie Jones, Stephanie Estima, who are finally getting a voice really through platforms and books, are talking a lot more about how women can utilize an understanding of their cycle to basically come into alignment with their lives more. So what is the sort of energetics of the pre-ovulatory phase versus post-ovulatory, follicular, luteal, all these things. And there’s actually different ways we might be interacting with our work or other people. And we’ve just sort of ignored that and considered, thought the whole month was the same thing. And how do you really actually feel your best by thinking through the cyclical patterns of the land or the body?
And it’s amazing to me that this is starting for the first time, I’m 35, coming to my attention. And all throughout my medical training, I never once thought about that type of thing. And it feels really empowering. And it’s just like you’re saying, it’s like we are living in the midst of cycles and fighting against them or ignoring them just doesn’t really help us. We’re a part of it. So I love the way you talk about that with the waves and the water. That’s really fascinating.
And the energetic side too, I think something I’ve thought a lot about with just animals is you think about these concentrated animal feeding operations, these CAFOs, where animals are packed together, they’re bodies are probably surging cortisol, they’re separated from their babies, all these things are happening to them. And it’s inconceivable to think that does not affect the meat or the food or the animal that is in some way then being transferred to you, even if it’s just… I mean 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. So I guess that might be a springboard to asking you the next question, which is around how animals play a part in regenerative agriculture, and what that relationship between the animals and the plants and the soil is on the farm.
Molly Chester (34:11):
Yeah, so animals become a very vital part of a system once you kind of come to the realization that there are really two ways to bring fertilization to your plants, and those are petroleum based fertilizers or animal based fertilizers. There’s certainly things that you can do with composting green waste too. But in my experience and my understanding, both with my body and with the land, though there’s absolutely such a detoxifying importance of, say, a vegan and a vegetarian diet, which can be incredibly powerful, when you’re talking about true building blocks, then I found that that animal-based system, having them 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. So I had to realize in coming back to eating animals, for me it was about the way those animals were raised. And when you’re going to be raising them in a way that is humane, it becomes your land can only handle a certain amount of animals. And then it turns out that that amount of animals is a wonderful fertilization of what you have.
So for example, our sheep will go through our lemon orchards. They’re eating the cover crop that’s in there, they’re pulling the leaves from the low trees, which actually have anti-worming properties to them in those antiseptic properties in the lemon leaves. And so that… Is antiseptic the right word?
Dr. Casey Means (35:57):
Molly Chester (35:57):
But basically making it so that they can’t get as many parasites, so it’s helping the animal. It’s then they are pooping and peeing and bringing the nutrients back into the soil, and then they’re eating their cover crop for their nourishment. So it’s those kind of systems that you find wherever. And people are always saying, “We want more eggs. We want more eggs.” But the land can only support so many more eggs. So 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 which is going to be plant-based when you’re living close in proximity to your land because there’s limiting factors to what it is. And that you need that nutrient value of those animals to be able to then nourish your plants. So nature’s like, I’ll tell you in California how much animal and how much vegetable you should be eating.
Dr. Casey Means (36:55):
That is one of the most fascinating things I think I’ve ever heard. You just blew my mind. Because basically, yeah, what you’re saying I think is that there’s some balance that just makes it all work of a certain number of animals and a certain number of plants, so that everything’s just working together in the right sort of amounts. I’m not saying this properly. But whatever that amount is is ultimately what the people on the farm, or the community eating from that farm, is the ratio of plants and animals. So it’s like that is so fascinating. And I mean you have to imagine that since we’ve co-evolved with plants and animals for literally millions of years, there’s some beautiful harmony here that nature’s kind of just putting on a silver platter saying this is what works. So that is really fascinating. One quick just definition thing, would you explain the concept of a cover crop?
Molly Chester (37:53):
Sure. Yeah. So a cover crop, basically anywhere where you have bare dirt, you’re in a place where you might end up dealing with erosion. And erosion is just whenever it’s rain comes down and it’s just going to wash your top soil off because it’s that top 10 to 12 inches of soil where the magic happens. That’s where it alchemizes death back into life. And so you want that to be as fertile as yo. Possibly can, and that’s what the United States came with is a lot of very fertile land in Middle America. And unfortunately that got washed away. And now we’ll have to be in the process of rebuilding these things.
But on land then, as much as you can, you want to be growing something everywhere. Because that over time is what Mother Nature would do, but it may take a lot longer of a timeframe. But with the human shepherding of the land, if you can then nurture these different open spaces to have plant life, then when it rains, it’s going to be acting 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. But then it’s also going to trickle down into our aquifers, which then we are able to use to then maintain water in these areas that are more arid.
So cover crops also then 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. So yeah. And then you can specify, your cover crops can become infinitely more inspiring to then be specific needs to your individual plants that you’re growing. Because you might want to plant more nitrogen fixing plants if the larger trees that you’re growing need more nitrogen, or whatever it may be.
Dr. Casey Means (39:58):
So when we fly over the United States, and you look down and there’s the huge circles of farms, these industrial farms that are brown, I’m assuming that’s basically barren dirt that does not have a cover crop that’s currently not planted. That’s basically just, if it rains, it’s going to just kind of wash off that top soil. Is that what you’re looking at when you look down on those brown fields or circles in these farms?
Molly Chester (40:27):
Yeah, that can be really tricky. And it also can be that the way carbon sequestration works is that you’re trying to get some of that organic matter down into your soil. And so whenever these lands are tilled like that, it’s literally releasing that carbon into the atmosphere. So there’s time. There’s permaculture, which is a certain type of farming, and they are like very no till. You never mess with your soil whatsoever. And we’re maybe a little bit more moderate than that because, having learned a lot from our biodynamic consultant, Alan York, in the early days, his approach was you will disrupt the soil for the first couple years. You’ll plant some cover. You’ll turn that cover crop under to get that organic matter down into your soil, but then you’ll hit a point where you stop.
And that’s the nature of the relationship of farmer and land that can fast track healing, much like a functional medicine doctor can do,. If you just leave the human to their own devices, they might not be able to get there, but when you can provide support and relationship to that, then it can advance much further. So we do disrupt the soil to a certain degree at the beginning, but consciously, and with making sure that you are covering it as absolutely much as possible so that you aren’t having erosion.
Dr. Casey Means (41:53):
Incredible. Okay. So one trend I’m noticing, you probably get a lot of this too, where everyone, there’s this movement where everyone wants to move to a farm right now. And it’s like I think all the young professionals are like, I want to get out of the cities and I want to get my hands dirty, and I 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 I want to get back to nature. And I think it’s a very interesting trend that’s happening right now. And 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. And we’ve kind of moved far away from that. But I’d be so curious, you having done it, and we obviously see the challenges of it in the documentary, what is your response when you hear people talking like that? And what are some either words of advice or words of caution or just general feelings on this sentiment that seems to be happening?
Molly Chester (42:54):
Yeah. Well, I mean I love it. Definitely the Biggest Little Farm was a wonderful thing because now when I got our Saturday Farmstand, people come and they’ll 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.” And I mean, I’m thrilled by that. Because 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 all of these small scale food systems to feed our local communities. And so overall, I look at that as very, very positive.
As far as someone that wants to get in touch with the land, I mean, I always tell people, “Jump off your own cliff. Don’t jump off somebody else’s.” So meaning if that 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. And that’s where you just want to listen to that little voice to make sure that’s your cliff. Because are you meant to go farm? Because farming is hard. But so is cooking, what I was doing before, and so is filmmaking, 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 where you’re never going to walk away from that child. It’s just something that you just keep walking through the challenges.
But 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 just the industry of healing is that there is no competition, man. I mean, we need everybody to be doing this to be able to get where we want to go. And 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. And so yeah, I encourage it.
Dr. Casey Means (45:00):
I love that. Do you think there’s a way to do it, not so much jumping full in, and more something that could be balanced, let’s say, with another career, or maybe not on five to 10 acres, but on a smaller amount? Is there a world in which there’s a lower barrier to entry to create your own very tiny, even in a backyard kind of almost regenerative mini, mini, mini farm? Is that something that’s possible, do you think?
Molly Chester (45:31):
Yeah, I mean, think the concepts that we practice here are actually just universal principles that can be applied. I mean, I apply them as a mother and as a businesswoman and as a farmer. And so it is just about a lens of curiosity in that way. But then as far as looking as an ecosystem, I mean, 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 roof garden up above, and I had convinced him to let me put a freezer in our joint parking garage so that I could have all my meat so I could buy a whole cow. And I just was driven because I wanted, I had dehydrators in my guest room and all that kind of stuff.
And so I think that wherever you are, whether it be just how you want to choose to raise your child, do you want to look at that child and be like, wait, this is presenting. Why is this challenge presenting right now? Or whether it be with your own health. I mean, whenever my son is talking not good to himself, I’m like, “Hey man, you’re the manager of your microbes. You got to talk good to your microbes.” And if all of us just look at that we’re farmers of our internal community and how do we approach that, you can take these principles and apply them no matter what profession you’re doing anywhere.
Dr. Casey Means (46:58):
Actually, I would love to dig even deeper into that because this is something that, aside from the impact on health and the environment, there’s this impact I think on what you’re doing, the philosophy of it, that I think could really broadly, positively impact the world and the way people think. And so I’d love to talk a little bit about that. And several things, just taking some notes while you were talking about really the philosophy around regenerative farming. You’ve mentioned it’s going away from a black and white paradigm of bad and good. It’s a lot about asking why. There’s a curiosity to things happening and digging into what role is something playing in a particular situation.
And when I was at the farm, Nathan gave us a tour. And he made a comment that really stuck with me, which was something about really what regenerative farming is about is observation, close observation, followed by critical thinking. And I remember thinking, gosh, if we all just did that, observation and then critical thinking, the world would be a more functional place, and this is reiterated in your book. I remember listening to Joe Rogan’s episode with Will Harris from White Oak Pastures. He mentioned something about this, about complex problem solving versus linear problem solving. Conventional agriculture is linear thinking versus complex thinking. So there really feels like there’s actually such a deep philosophy around what you’re doing that the world needs more broadly and generally. So I’d love for you to speak to how these things intersect, the philosophy, and then the practice, and how it maybe feeds into other aspects of your life.
Molly Chester (48:40):
Yeah, I mean Nathan was spot on, which I love my team. That’s what we’re always doing is really trying to share with each other and inspire with each other that lens that we’re looking through. So it really is just every problem that you’re seeing, you’re just getting curious first about what that is, and just spending some time watching it. Fear is so much it just makes us incredibly reactive. And instead, if we can recognize that our fear actually is a desire for information, and the more that we spend looking for that information then, that’s the process of the curiosity. And then through that curiosity, we’ve given the time that is allowed to be able to live into a more inspired solution. And so that’s basically what we do here. And then once you kind of practice that with the land, you realize that that’s like your human ecosystem is just another part of this animal ecosystem, the plant ecosystem, the soil web, and then it’s your human ecosystem.
So we apply those very same principles to our teams. So we have different core values where it’s harmonious intent. And harmonious intent doesn’t mean not talking about hard things. It means that you’re actually going into any problem with an assertiveness and with a benefit of the doubt and leading with curiosity. Those things we talk about so that we know how to communicate with one another. Because unfortunately, those are things that I would like to say that generationally we’ve missed them a lot, but have we ever had them? I don’t know if they’ve been here. And so having those communication skills are everything. And that’s the human signaling to each other that then can enhance the animal signaling because we’re then in the rhythms of the animal and then the plant signaling. And so the land truly reflects the health of its stewards.
So it always, I remember Allan Savory talking about something about with the land as only as healthy as the two people, the husband and wife, or wife and wife, or whatever it is that are running the farm. And that’s where we are is that we work on this human ecosystem and building health in there. Because plants are two things. They want to be appreciated and they want to be living in a healthy environment. That’s what is important to plants in a lot of ways. And being appreciated, they get the things that they need of water and sunlight and whatever it is, and just love from you as their stewards. And then they’re living in a non-toxic environment, which is so what’s in the soil, what’s there, and then what’s in that human ecosystem that surrounds them? So yeah, I think these principles are very transferable.
Dr. Casey Means (51:41):
No, truly. I mean, it’s like, gosh, this is the microcosm for what we need broadly. It’s really amazing. And I know there’s been a lot of research showing about plants, they do actually react to human emotion in some way. And if you have bad energy around a plant, it will change. And this has been reproduced, I believe, in several studies. What has been your experience on the farm? I mean, I think you were just getting at this about how the psychological, which is of course broader than that, but the psychological or emotional dynamics on the farm actually impact the plants. Is that something that you do observe and you feel like it’s a part of the farm world and the farm ecosystem that we need to take into account?
Molly Chester (52:30):
Oh, for sure. I mean, you can see, during different parts of the farm, we had a period when the film first came out where it got really stressed. We needed to become better leaders. We didn’t have the communication skills ourselves. And you could just see both the human ecosystem and the plant ecosystem suffering from that. And we’re very open about the fact that we got couples counselors, personal counselors, business coaches, life coach, anything we needed to to be able to get the tools that we needed to begin to thrive.
But I can see it. I can almost tell whenever there’s a change in our team that’s going to end up happening because you start to see a suffering, and that it’s literally the plants are kind of asking for different leadership, or they’re asking for whatever that they might need. And it’s this way of farming has just a whole lot of really deep listening and surrendering. Yeah. It’s definitely-
Dr. Casey Means (53:36):
It gives me chills. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. Jumping back to this concept of the philosophy of farming, and really the asking of why and getting to the root cause and curiosity, it really doesn’t feel like a huge stretch then to sort of understand maybe why you started a school on the farm. So there’s actually a school for young people on the farm. Can you tell me about why you started this school and what really the core principles of it are?
Molly Chester (54:06):
Yeah. So the school started as kind of a means to the end of the fact that I wanted to educate our son Beaudie differently. However, it’s grown into something that is I hold with an equal passion of what we’re doing here at the farm because I’ve watched what happens whenever children are raised and educated in connection with Mother Nature. Because it’s just incredibly profound. Mother Nature is the source of creativity. And whenever the children have this natural inclination to lean into those rhythms that we’ve been talking about this whole time, they are developing the ability to think, the ability to problem solve.
And it’s just, to see the results of these kids that come out the other side.,So incredibly vibrant. It’s shown me that we’re perhaps missing something in our school systems right now. And that it’s important to get those kids out from under fluorescent lights when we can and have them learn in connection with Mother Nature. So it’s a small program here. We are actually recruiting for next year. So if anyone lives in the Southern California area that’s interested, they can certainly go to our website, which has more information about the program. But it is led by two wonderful educators. And yeah, they’re just learning everything that they do is kind of a springboard off of their natural surroundings.
Dr. Casey Means (55:42):
Well, spoiler alert, 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. So hopefully, I can’t wait to see it just grow and thrive. It’s incredible what you’re doing.
Molly Chester (55:59):
Dr. Casey Means (56:00):
And last question for you, Molly. Thank you so much for your generous time here today. But I’d just be curious, it’s been about more than 10 years, I think, since you started Apricot Lane Farms. How has your relationship with nature really evolved over that time? What’s your framework now, and how is it different than it was 10 years ago?
Molly Chester (56:22):
Yeah. I mean, I grew up kind of in suburbia, and my parents weren’t overly connected with the natural world. My dad loved national parks and things, but we weren’t campers. We’d lived just in a suburbian house. But all of my very distinct memories were from the land my grandma lived on. And I remember a blueberry bush in my other grandma’s backyard. And it was just always about the land.
But then when I got older, because I didn’t have that innate understanding of the wild side of the natural world, that when we started the farm, I just kind of knew what direction I wanted to head in with regards to what food we wanted to create. But I really didn’t fully understand what that 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.
And my husband had just a more innate understanding of those wild spaces, like the coyotes and the different animals that you’ll come in to interface with. So I would say that my understanding of the natural world has broadened substantially, and it has in turn affected my entire life. Because those cycles of grief, and just any kind of natural disaster type experiences that you can get when you’re with Mother Nature, they affect you in way that brings humility, that brings perspective, and ultimately brings a lot of the sweet appreciation for life itself. So that’s kind of what’s changed, I guess.