A documentary film about a California farm and the lives of the plants, animals and humans which comprise it is racking up awards at major film festivals and a local woman was part of the Emmy Award-winning storytelling team who produced it. “The Biggest Little Farm” is showing tonight at Maiden Alley Cinema in Paducah and currently showing in theaters great and small both nationally and internationally.
Mallory Cunningham, 31, was a small-town girl with big dreams who, when fate presented her with a chance for adventure, jumped at the opportunity, changed her direction and landed in the path that led to three Emmy Awards, which currently adorn her mother’s fireplace mantle.
Cunningham grew up in Murray, with family close-by in Marshall County, and after high school graduation headed to Lexington where she earned a degree in telecommunications and business at the University of Kentucky. During her time at UK, she worked for the athletic department, creating videos while she attained the closest thing to a film major the college offered. At that time, she wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do, but said she had an affinity for cameras in-hand and storytelling. She was interested in the film industry but didn’t think it was realistic for a small-town girl whose reach was likely going to take her into the news industry, a path that didn’t interest her.
After graduating from UK in 2010 she headed straight to California to stay with a friend’s family for a “reset phase.” When she came back to Kentucky, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in sports administration and landed a full ride at Belmont University. But as the date drew nearer, she was feeling pulled back to California where she could spend some time outdoors before being trapped in a classroom for the next several years.
While in California she learned about WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) which offered a flexible and temporary opportunity to volunteer on a farm in exchange for room and board. That search led her to Apricot Lane Farms owned by John and Molly Chester.
“I didn’t know at the time he and his wife had just taken over the farm a few months prior. I had to send him a resume so he knew I had photography experience and he was a documentary filmmaker, looking back that was the seed being planted for The Biggest Little Farm,” she said. “I went in Dec. 2011 and I never came back, really. They offered me a full-time job and I initially turned it down because I was supposed to go to grad school, but I backed out. Ten days before it was supposed to start I called admissions and cancelled my spot.”
Cunningham was one of five people working the farm, including the Chesters, when she first arrived and she was performing a multitude of roles. She recalled the nights spent with a baby monitor next to her bed listening for the ewes who were expected to go into labor at any moment and checking on them at 3 a.m. She was also helping with the crops, harvesting avocados, all while also managing the website and taking charge of sales and marketing for the farm, building customer relationships. She said their customer base included prominent chefs and the best markets in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Cunningham and John were filming. Her first day at the farm, she helped move guinea hens to a pen and John said they should film it, so they did. Every day they filmed more and more and improved the equipment over time. Approximately three years into the process, Kyle Romanek joined the farm bringing with him filming experience and became her creative partner. Now that there were three on the farm, they were able to film even more, she recalled, whether it was an animal giving birth or shots of peaches coming in for the season.
Previous to purchasing the farm, the Chesters lived in LA and John was an established and award-winning filmmaker, but traded the city life for farming. Their goal was to create a well-balanced eco-system that would produce nutrient-rich foods while treating the animals and environment with respect. They purchased 200 acres of barren farmland and brought in pigs, goats, sheep, ducks, guinea hens, horses, highland cattle and one brown swiss dairy cow named “Maggie.” The farm also includes Biodynamic Certified avocado and lemon orchards, a vegetable garden, pastures and more than 75 varieties of stone fruit.
So he was hesitant, Cunningham recalled, when the Oprah Winfrey Network called and asked him to create an updated piece on the subjects from his documentary they aired seven years prior and told them he was a farmer now. But those discussions resulted in the documentary requested as well as requests from OWN for a number of documentaries about the farm.
Cunningham won her first Emmy Award in 2016 for producing the short film, “Saving Emma,” which was about a pig on the farm who suffered a difficult delivery. Cunningham said it was the first birth and they were expecting maybe eight piglets—Emma delivered 17. Then, Emma grew ill so they took the piglets for a while to care for them while Emma fought for her life but ended up giving the piglets back to her, which “gave her reason to pick back up.”
In 2017, Cunningham won her second and third Emmys for production and cinematography for the short film, “Worry for Maggie,” which features a cow on the farm and the lesson she taught her humans.
“Life has worked out very serendipitously. I never expected to be able to do this,” she said. “When I grew up I didn’t see a place for film other than the news and that never appealed to me. I’m more drawn to storytelling and cinematography. I had all but completely gone a different direction and then I go to work on a farm and it happens to be on a documentary filmmaker’s farm.”
While there are several short films they produced and released about the adventures at Apricot Lane Farms, Cunningham said “The Biggest Little Farm” invites the world in a big way into the whole space she describes as “special.”
“We always knew what a special place it is and now we’re letting other people in. There are still people who are there and we all realize how lucky we were to be part of it and now we’re letting people into that space. It’s a cool thing to be able to let in the world and let them have that feeling about Apricot Lane that we were having for so long,” she said. “John and Molly brought in a lot of volunteers and it was this great community of people, younger and older, who came together and supported each other and developed this beautiful oasis an hour north of LA.”
The film, which released last year, has won several awards and earned recognition at some of the largest film festivals including Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival and DOC NYC Film Festival. Cunningham said it’s currently the highest-grossing documentary, getting rave reviews and has a push for an Oscar. When people ask her if she had any idea it would get this huge she says, “Yes.”
“I didn’t know when we would finally have it done but I knew when it was done, it would be very special,” she said. “John is just incredibly talented and it’s very real, and the story is palpable and genuine and it’s just such an amazing group of human beings involved as a whole, so it’s not surprising to me that it’s doing well and people are relating to it.”
The film is currently showing at both national and international theaters and Cunningham’s name is featured in the credits as producer and cinematographer. She said the film is also scheduled to stream on Hulu.
Cunningham no longer resides on the farm but she’s not keeping still, either. Since pulling out of the Apricot Lane Farms driveway in Oct. 2016, she’s not spent more than two weeks in the same place, essentially living out of her backpack. In the last three weeks she’s been in Philadelphia, New York, Colorado, Los Angeles, Seattle, Nashville, Murray and Louisville. She’s the media director for the nonprofit organization Kiss the Ground, which is based in LA and working on a number of projects with her creative partners Ben Sollee and Kyle Romanek.