Resort Festival To Feature Film By Decatur Grads; ‘The Biggest Little Farm’ Scores Early Rave Reviews

Resort Festival To Feature Film By Decatur Grads; ‘The Biggest Little Farm’ Scores Early Rave Reviews
"The Biggest Little Farm" tells the story of Apricot Lane Farms opened by John and Molly Chester. Submitted Image

OCEAN CITY — A highlight of the 3rd Annual Ocean City Film Festival is the Delmarva premiere of “The Biggest Little Farm,” a feature documentary directed and produced by two former locals — John Chester and Erica Cramer Messer.

The film will screen on Saturday, March 9 at 2 p.m. in a special showing at the Ocean City Performing Arts Center with the filmmakers in attendance.

Tickets to the premiere are part of the One-Day Saturday Film Pass, $20, or the 3-Day All-Access Pass, $79. These passes include access to many other films showing at the Film Festival and are available at

“The Biggest Little Farm,” which premiered to rave reviews at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival, was recently featured during sold-out showings at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and has been shown in numerous other festivals in the United States and Canada. Neon Distribution will begin distributing the film nationally in March.

As young adults, both Chester and Messer were active in the theater and communications departments at Stephen Decatur High School, leading them to award-winning careers in Hollywood.

John Chester

Chester is the director of The Biggest Little Farm, a film about his journey to establish and run a sustainable farm in California. The great-grandson of the late Dr. Francis Townsend, Chester spent his early childhood on Talbot Street in downtown Ocean City above what was Fishers Pharmacy. The quirky cast of real-life characters that surrounded him on the Ocean City Boardwalk sparked his story-telling interest, and he made short films about local icons like Boardwalk Elvis and Shorty The Blind Banjo Player, among others.

“For me, Ocean City was full of these lovable, bigger-than-life characters,” Chester said. “They made my childhood feel magical.”

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John Chester is pictured with former theater teacher Gwen Lehman, who is holding one of Chester’s Emmy Awards.

Chester graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 1990. Inspired by teachers Gwendolyn Lehman and Terry Sterner, he started the high school TV station and created a local weekly news show, OC Live, produced entirely by local teens, that developed a strong cult following. Lehman encouraged him to take psychology to better understand human behavior and develop his skills as a writer. She never had any doubt that Chester would do something great.

“John knew who he was from day one,” Lehman said. “He was very focused, very mature, very outgoing, very enterprising. He was an enormous help to me as a teacher.”

In his teens, Chester’s family moved to West Ocean City. He eventually lived and worked on two different farms in Berlin during his early 20s with his brother, Deeley Chester, who lives and works in West Ocean City, before moving into a career as an Emmy-award-winning filmmaker and television director in California for the last 25 years.

His recent short films for OWN’s Super Soul Sunday (including Saving Emma, Worry for Maggie and The Orphan) have won five Emmy Awards, for outstanding directing, writing, and cinematography, among others. Chester first reached a wide audience in 2006 with his primetime docu-series on A&E, Random 1. The series inspired his feature documentary, Lost in Woonsocket. Chester also directed Rock Prophecies about legendary rock photographer Robert Knight that won three audience awards and was distributed nationally on PBS in 2010.

The Biggest Little Farm is a feature-length film that chronicles the epic eight-year story of Apricot Lane Farms, the regenerative farm he and his wife Molly started in 2011. In 2018, Chester also landed a three-year book deal with publisher Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan for a spin-off children’s book series featuring characters from the film, of which the first installment, Saving Emma the Pig, will be released this spring.

Erica Cramer Messer

Messer is the executive producer of The Biggest Little Farm. Born and raised in Washington D.C., she spent her summers playing on the beach at 123rd Street in Ocean City until her parents, Jack and Karen Cramer, moved the family to the resort year-round. She and her brothers attended Ocean City Elementary, Berlin Middle School and Stephen Decatur High School.

In her sophomore year, Messer auditioned for Decatur’s famed Theatre Department and was part of every production until graduation. Messer credits Lehman as an inspiration for her career.

“Mrs. Lehman’s gift of storytelling and genuine encouragement have been a huge influence in my career,” Messer said.

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“Erica was always very mature and very responsible … much more interested in being behind the scenes than out in front,” Lehman said of Messer.

Lehman, who has known the Cramer family for years, began encouraging Messer at Decatur when she was still too young to join the theater department. Her brothers – and also John Chester and Messer’s future husband, Kenny Messer — were already involved, so she hung around and helped out, “holding the book” for the actors.

“She basically made herself my assistant,” Lehman said.  “Erica was always very mature and very responsible and has a quiet authority. She was always much more interested in being behind the scenes than out in front.”

Messer and Chester met in those awkward early days and both were involved in Decatur’s newly founded Communication Arts department. When summer rolled around, they provided on-camera content for OC Live that ran on the access channel from their school.

After graduating from Salisbury University, Messer and her husband, Kenny, relocated to Los Angeles to work in the entertainment industry. She started in current drama at FOX before joining the writers’ rooms of series like Party of Five, Alias, The OC, Charmed and Criminal Minds.

Messer is currently the showrunner/executive producer of Criminal Minds and is developing many projects for cable and streaming platforms. She has worked in the industry for over 20 years.

Messer and Chester reunited when he and his wife, Molly, moved to Los Angeles in 2006. The Messer family regularly visit Apricot Lane Farms and encouraged Chester to tell his story through film, even though he was loving life as a farmer. About five years ago, Chester and Messer teamed up on creating the film, The Biggest Little Farm.

Messer lives with her family in Los Angeles but they visit family and friends in Ocean City often.

To view a trailer for the film, click