Meet Your Farmer – Castle Rock Farm

Our meet your farmer posts feature a small family farm that we feel exemplifies the type of food system we all need to support. They show passion and dedication to raising and growing food sustainably.

Andy & Sarah

Not all sustainable farmers sell food.

This month post is on Castle Rock Farm in Vacaville, California owned by Sarah Hawkins and Andy Pestana. Castle Rock Farm is well known for their high quality Nigerian Dwarf Goats and it’s where our girl Sedona is from.

But Castle Rock Farm is so much more than just Nigerian Dwarf Goats.

The Birthing Clip

When we pulled up there was a family there and on the grass were two very happy kids, of the four legged persuasion, bouncing around like popcorn. They really don’t get any cuter than that and I was starting to miss having kids around here. The family scooped them up and got in their car and left. Over on the stanchion stood a very pregnant doe who was getting a birthing clip from Andy. The clip is to help streamline the doe and keep all the goop from getting stuck in her fur when she kids. It also allows you to monitor the changes in her body that occur right before kidding.

The Bee Garden

Our tour began with the bees which were nestled back amongst the oak trees. The bees provide not only honey for the farm but also beeswax and propolis for Sarah’s main business, English Hills Soap Company – soaps and skin care products that utilize the goat milk that her goats provide. She’s currently working on rebranding to English Hills Naturals to include some new products. I’m a HUGE fan of handmade skin care products. They don’t contain all the chemicals that the drugstore stuff has and they are generally much easier on your skin and hair.

Surrounding her hives she has a California native garden, which is another passion she has. It was so much fun talking plants with her. It’s not something I get to do very often with people outside of my field. Their mission for the property is to only grow natives or edibles. Both of which open up more income possibilities. Sarah is also starting a native plant nursery and even possibly selling herbs and tea in the future.

One of the many birdhouses

Walking around the property we got to see the buffer she is creating around the edge with native trees and shrubs. There’s the greenhouse that contains cans and cans of native plants inside and out and a small fruit orchard. While caring for and revitalizing  the flora on their property, the are also providing homes for the local fauna as well, including multiple birdhouses.

Lazy Goats

Of course the goats have the biggest part at Castle Rock Farm. It was a beautiful warm afternoon between rainstorms when we were there and most of the goats were lazily laying in the shade for their siesta. The ones that weren’t sleeping were chasing each other and one doe was teasing the bucks on the other side of the fence. The blubbering was some of the best I’ve heard. There was even a “la la la la la” from one of the bucks (I think it was CRF Tanzanite).

A very pregnant Infinity

Seeing some of the pregnant does made me start to question Sedona’s status. She only had about 5 weeks left of her pregnancy and didn’t look pregnant at all while some of the does that weren’t that far were huge. After talking with Sarah and Andy separately about it, I felt reassured that she was pregnant (and now it’s quite clear). We talked a lot about goat health in general and I learned a lot from them.

It was fantastic spending most of the day out there. Before we knew it we realized we had to run. They were very gracious hosts and we thank them for being so generous with their time and knowledge. I meant to buy some of her products while we were there. I’ll just have to make sure I pick some up the next time we go over there.

If you’re interested in checking out what their skin care products, you can find them online or at the Davis Farmers Market. They may possibly also be at the Vacaville and Napa Farmers market in the future.

Guest Post – John & Paula’s Suburban Farm Story

One of the best things urban farming has done for us was meet a lot of amazing people that we are now so very lucky to call our friends. Today’s post comes from Paula and John, some of those amazing people.

 

Our dining room wall is painted with chalkboard paint; This is where we keep track of what’s growing.  It gives our dining room a not-too-serious, elementary-school vibe.

John grew up eating food from a box.  Food sticks, in particular, were one of his preferred childhood treats.  I grew up stubbornly refusing to eat anything green.  We are unlikely candidates for growing our own food.  We started with jasmine on our Las Vegas apartment balcony in the 90′s.  Later we grew basil and tomatoes in the driveway of our shotgun apartment in New Orleans.  We didn’t garden much in those cities, but developed a taste for good food.

In 2006 we were able to purchase a small home in Pleasant Hill on a quarter acre.  We started with some raised beds in the back of the yard.  In 2009 we got the victory garden itch and started removing sections of our front lawn. Lettuce and garlic were successful crops that boosted our gardening ego and encouraged us to keep at it.

In 2009 we got five chickens.  We love our chickens, and they have become the focus of our suburban farm.  One of those first five chicks turned out to be a rooster, and since roosters are not allowed in our city, we had to re-home the boy.  Quickly, we learned the chicken fact-of-life that roosters are not in high demand in the suburbs.  Our little cockerel was one of the lucky few. Not only did he elude the sex-sort at the hatchery (90% accurate), but he avoided the stew-pot, and ultimately got to live on 5 acres and protect a flock of pet chickens.

Worrying about the fate of one individual chicken made us ponder the lives of all the other chickens out there, more specifically, the ones we eat (we eat a lot of chicken!).   For years we had been hearing bad news about factory farms.   After studying websites like backyardchickens.com and honestmeat.com, we committed and bought seven “fast white broiler” chicks at the local feed store.  We wanted to give them a good life and learn how to process them humanely.  In fact, that’s how we met Tom and Rachel.  They were kind enough to guide us through our first chicken processing last year.  Book-learning and you-tube videos are good, but it helped us tremendously to have real people guide us through our first experience.  We don’t name our meat chickens, but we give them green grass, sunshine, love, and respect.

We live by a regional trail and we don’t have a privacy fence. Sometimes people comment on our yard as they pass by.  Some simply point and exclaim: “Chickens!”  One day, a girl and her mother were walking by. “Is that a farm, mommy?”, the girl asked.  “Is that a farm?” she asked again, “Is that a farm?” while her mother struggled for an answer. “Yes…..yes, it’s a farm.”, the mother finally said.  And there it was – clearly defined for us – we could finally acknowledge, that what we have here is a farm.  It wasn’t just US calling it a farm in a joking manner.  We decided that should be the name of our farm-blog:

http://yesitsafarm.blogspot.com/

We were reluctant to blog, because our schedule is very tight, but it is time to share with the on-line community that has shared so much with us.

We love growing food because it opens our minds to new ideas and old ways almost forgotten.  We still like to eat food from a box sometimes, but much less than we used to.  Vegetables are easier to appreciate when you invest time and effort into growing them.

Surplus from the garden has been a catalyst for meeting neighbors and building community.  We are meeting our neighbors through shared food and conversations – something which grounds us in our modern, suburban hood.

 

Meet Your Farmer – Sunny Slope Orchard

Our meet your farmer posts feature a small family farm that we feel exemplifies the type of food system we all need to support. They show passion and dedication to raising and growing food sustainably.

The Apricot Orchard

This month we got the opportunity to check out this awesome 4 acre certified organic orchard in Vacaville, California called Sunny Slope Orchard owned by Bill Spurlock and Fern Henry. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to meet Fern as she had a prior engagement, but Bill was an incredibly gracious host.

I had first learned about Sunny Slope Orchard from one of the episodes on the Perennial Plate (I’m hoping to do a feature on River Dog Farm in the future and as you might know, Esperanza of Pluck and Feather is a dear friend of ours..

The Perennial Plate Episode 63: Three Farms, One Dinner from Daniel Klein on Vimeo.

The majority of Sunny Slope Orchard is made up Royal apricots, Spring Crest Peaches, and three varieties of plum (Santa Rosa, Beauty, and Formosa). They also grow a variety of citrus, Fuyu persimmons, Black Mission figs, walnuts, and one pear tree.

Bill showing us a grafted sucker on an older tree

They moved to the property 40 years ago in the Back-to-the-Land movement. There were some very old fruit trees there and then they planted additional trees. The most amazing part though was that other than the citrus trees and persimmon trees, they didn’t purchase any other tree. Instead they would take suckers from the wild plum rootstock and graft scions to it to create new trees. This way, when the very old trees began to die they were able to revive them or replace them with the same tree.

Bill showing us the feeder roots

The other amazing part is that they grow all this fruit without having much available water. They have a few low output wells so instead of using all of their water on them they dry farm, which involves taking really good care of the soil. They plant a cover crop around the trees and then mow it down leaving an even mulch. There are a few drip emitters laid out and then covered with compost, which brings feeder roots to help nourish the trees. I have to say that his land management is quite amazing. We came right after a big rainstorm and were expecting to be tromping around in the mud. To the contrary, the soil was damp but definitely not saturated. All of the organic matter that he adds (25 tons a year of compost) just soaked up the rain like a sponge while his neighbor’s property was a river of water. You can read more about his soil management here. What this dry farming does to the fruit though is nothing short of phenomenal. It concentrates the flavor and sweetness because there is less water in the fruit. Bill was kind enough to send us home with a few Navel oranges that were to die for.

Valencia Orange Tree and part of their vegetable garden

Bill helped us figure out why our little orange tree that we brought back from the brink was always so sour. We had assumed that it was a Navel orange but when looking at his Valencia orange compared to his Navel orange it became clear that our tree was also a Valencia. He recommended that we leave the fruit on until June to allow it to sweeten up.

Sunny Slope Orchard primarily sells their fruit to restaurants – Chez Panisse being their biggest customer. The reason for this is because they, unlike big industrial orchards, allow the fruit to ripen on the tree and when it’s ripe it has to be picked and sold immediately. The fruit can’t sit and wait for a farmers’ market or CSA pick up.

To be honest, I’m not that well versed in fruit trees, but Bill got me really excited about them and we learned so much from him even in the short time we were there. I’m looking forward to learning more about fruit trees and experimenting with ours.

Meet Your Farmer – Foggy River Farm

Our meet your farmer posts feature a small family farm that we feel exemplifies the type of food system we all need to support. They show passion and dedication to raising and growing food sustainably.

Lynda and Emmett

This month we got a chance to go visit Foggy River Farm which is located in the Russian River Valley between Windsor and Healdsburg, CA. Lynda and Emmett Hopkins are two young farmers that grow produce on about 3 1/2 acres in between rows of wine grapes on a flood plain. Lynda recently had a book published called The Wisdom of the Radish which documents their journey becoming farmers, and you can also follow her blog with the same name. She’s also written a guest blog for me on how to milk stand train your goat. It’s hilarious like all of her writing, so go check it out!

Weekly CSA box contents

What amazed me is that Lynda had never grown anything before becoming a vegetable farmer. Emmett, on the other hand, grew up on the property that they now farm on. Now in their 4th year of farming they clearly know what they’re doing.

Beautiful Rooster

They have a very diversified operation. Besides growing vegetables they also raise Nigerian Dwarf goats (we recently brought home one of their does – Sedona), chickens, alpacas and sheep on the hillsides above their home. They just ordered their first flock of heritage turkeys, which I think they’ll be very pleased with. I’m sure they’ll love them as much we do.

Romanesco cauliflower starting to head

They are what I would call “beyond organic.” They don’t use any sprays on their crops, not even organic ones. They aren’t certified organic just because they would prefer not to drown in the paperwork. This is quite common for small family farms. They are truly organic in practice, but just not certified. It’s one of the reasons I think it’s so important to know your farmer. Organic has become industrialized and they can still spray food with toxins – organic toxins are still toxins.

Barn full of squash

They only grow Spring through Fall because they are on a floodplain. The barn that houses much of their equipment and is the staging area for their CSA will occasionally flood to the second level. They grow a great variety of produce. Currently they have chard, celery, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, carrots, and salad greens growing and a barn full of winter squash. We learned some tricks from them like when growing celery put a milk carton (but the top and bottom off) around the stalks when they are tall enough to just poke out. This will help keep the celery growing tall and straight and since it reduced the sunlight to the stalks they stay more tender. We also learned that we need to be more patient with our Brussels sprouts. Lynda loves the seasonal treats like snap peas and strawberries. Emmett prefers the earthy root vegetables like beets.

CSA welcom sign

During the growing season they sell at several farmers’ markets including Santa Rosa, Windsor and Healdsburg. They also run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Once a week their CSA members can come to the barn (or they have one pick up location in town) and choose the available produce. The CSA allows them to grow their business without adding more work, unlike farmers’ markets. Instead of scheduling another chunk of time to work a farmers’ market they can, instead, just add more members.

One of things I LOVE about doing these Meet Your Farmer interviews is that we get a chance to learn so much about farming. Right now we’re just urban farmers, but I hope in the not-so-distant future we can follow in their footsteps.

Meet Your Farmer – Soul Food Farm

Our meet your farmer posts feature a small family farm that we feel exemplifies the type of food system we all need to support. They show passion and dedication to raising and growing food sustainably.

This past weekend we got the amazing opportunity to visit with Alexis and Eric, owners of Soul Food Farm in Vacaville, California. They primarily raise chickens for eggs and meat along with having an olive orchard. We’ve visited their farm twice in the past for their Artisan Beef Butchery Event. While those events were fantastic, and I highly recommend them, we never really got a chance to talk to Alexis or Eric about their farm.

What was great about this visit was that we got to talk with them one-on-one. Alexis shared with us how they started and what trials they’ve endured along the way. Unlike other experiences we’ve had talking to farmers, we got a real good sense about what it takes mentally, physically and financially to become a sustainable farmer. Did it scare us from our dream? Not at all. I think having some insight about what we will be up against in the future when we decide to start farming will definitely help us.

Alexis, originally from Danville, was living in Vallejo (with a quarter acre lot like us) when she saw that the 54.5 acre property went up for sale. It took her two years to talk Eric into agreeing to purchase it. The first year they commuted from their Vallejo home to the property but realized they weren’t making the trip enough so they sold their home and moved onto the property. The farmhouse had long ago burned down so they spent their first years living in tents and trailers until they could build their house.

Their decision to raise poultry was rather serendipitous. They had chickens but it didn’t become an income generator until one of their workers decided to take some of their eggs to Chez Panisse in Oakland. That got the ball rolling and before they knew it they were supplying eggs to some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area. Eventually Chez Panisse asked them to branch out into raising meat birds saying that if they liked the birds they would buy them. Alexis expressed her reservations about taking meat chickens on. She would have to front all of the money to start the operation with no guarantee that she would have a buyer.

The profit margins are very thin on pastured birds, especially the meat birds. The increased cost of feed made it that much tougher. They also didn’t have summer irrigation (which they are currently installing) to help offset the costs of feed. After a tumultuous year, last year they decided to stop selling wholesale and focus their efforts on their CSA and farmers’ markets.

Eric gathering eggs

They raise a large variety of egg layers included Ameracaunas, Black Austrolorps, Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and Delawares. During the height of summer they produce 1,800 eggs a day. But unlike CAFOs, they do not force molt their hens so the eggs are seasonal and the number drops dramatically when the days become shorter. As their egg production goes down the amount of feed the chickens require goes up, which is why pastured eggs cost more than factory eggs.

The meat birds

Their meat birds consist of Freedom Rangers which are a slower growing meat bird. Instead of slaughtering at 8 weeks, they are processed at 10 weeks. They dress out at 3-4lbs each. The meat birds have the slimmest profit margin, which is making them rethink raising them.

It has definitely been a learning process for them. If they could have done it over again Alexis said she would have gone back to school for Agriculture and marketing, reached out to more women farmers (who tend to be more supportive of each other in her experience) and put in the irrigation right away. In the end though, while it’s hard work they love it and couldn’t think of doing anything else.

They are planning big things for next year including turning one pasture into an herb farm, planting more lavender and offering classes. They also hold events throughout the year like the ones we’ve attended. Definitely check them out. You can find them all over the Bay Area at Farmers’ markets and they have CSA pickups in San Francisco, Emeryville, Vacaville, Sacramento, and Napa. They are definitely a farm worth supporting.

Meet Your Farmer – How Farming Should Be

We’re going to now be going out and meeting the farmers that produce our food. I want to try and feature a farmer once a month that raises and grows our food in a way that sustainable and that we feel are doing what’s truly right. This first one is extra special to us.

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Standing in the pasture I look around at the incredible biodiversity. It’s hard to believe that this rich environment was more rock than pasture and woodland just 40 years ago. What amazes me further is that I’m standing next to a 10′x12′ chicken tractor packed with 75 broilers and all I can smell is grass.
“…farming should be aromatically, sensually, and romatically pleasing….” says the farmer talking to a group of about 50 of us. He’s wearing his signature cowboy hat that looks like a herd of cattle had trampled it and thick rimmed glasses.
We all rode into the chicken pasture on a hay wagon pulled by a tractor. Over a dozen of these chicken tractors are spaced out evenly across the pasture and none of them smell. A couple of the chickens in the tractor next to me cock their heads and look at me inquisitively then go about trimming the grass next to them. These are happy chickens. The farmer shows us how to move one of these tractors. One person can move one tractor in less than a minute.

We’re standing in one of the pastures at Polyface Farms outside of Swoope, Virginia. The farmer taking us on the “Lunatic Tour” is none other than Joel Salatin. The same Joel Salatin that has been featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma , and in documentaries including Food, Inc., Farmegeddon, Fresh: The Movie, and the upcoming American Meat. Ever since we saw Food, Inc. we’ve been wanting to not only meet him but to also visit his farm and when we got the chance we jumped at it. Last January we got the chance to meet him briefly when he gave a speech in Berkeley. It was a great speech but being there, being on his farm while listening to him wax poetic made it all that much better.

Joel is charming, funny, extremely happy and incredibly nice. You can tell that he is truly in love with what he does, and that is the most inspiring part. He says every day he wakes up he’s happy because he knows how many animals are happy because of him. He discusses an ex-CAFO pork farmer who gave it all up when he realized he was tired of waking up every morning dreading that day’s emergency.

While standing next to the broilers he discusses the problems he’s had recently with animal rights activists. Of all the farmers out there, Joel is the last person I would accuse of committing animal cruelty, but apparently cows waiting to make their daily move to new pasture amounts to Joel having to take two days out of his extremely busy schedule to fill out paperwork and take State and Federal veterinarians around his farm to explain his farming operation.

After the chickens we move on up the hill to the turkeys. We don’t spend much time with them due to the sheer noise. They are clearly excited to see us and their calls drown out Joel. It was great to see them though.

The pigs were my favorite. There’s one sow that’s collecting sticks and leaves and carrying it into a corner of their pasture that’s out of view. Others come up to the fence to greet us. Some of the kids got to pet a few of them through the wood access gate. Here’s a short video I took of him discussing pasture rotation.

The cattle, about 150 animals, were mostly under the shade structure as the day was beginning to heat up. Some are still grazing, but most of the pasture they’re confined in is already well mowed. Around 4pm they would be moved to the next section of pasture. Moving them in the afternoon allows them to graze comfortably as the day cools down and it avoids having them feed on dew covered pasture which can disrupt their rumens. The grazing is based off of the three Ms. Moving – they have a controlled move across the greater pasture. Mobbing – by having a higher number of cattle, they don’t just eat the tastiest plants, but everything so that they have a more varied diet meaning they get more nutrition. Mowing – by grazing, they actually rejuvenate the pasture, keeping it healthy and also building soil.

We moved back across the pasture past the Eggmobile which houses laying hens that clean up after the cattle. They go through the field eating fly larvae and other parasites, which help keep everyone healthy. Most of these hens were Rhode Island Reds, Black Austrolorps and a couple of Barred Rocks. We don’t stop at them as time is running short and we need to go visit the Millenium Feathernet. A scissor-truss structure with an electrified net fence that is moved daily, houses 1,000 Barred Rock laying hens. Joel steps on the net fence holding it down and the kids going running in. Chicken chasing ensues and a few lucky kids were able to hold a chicken they had caught.

Joel considers his farm “beyond organic.” He’s not certified organic because he can’t source local, organic supplemental feed. His reason behind this makes more environmental sense. Instead of shipping in organic food from far away he feels it’s much more important to purchase local non-GMO feed ingredients (they mix their own), from his surrounding neighbors. This keeps them in business making them less likely to sell their land to developers, and thus preserving they gorgeous Shenandoah Valley.

The biggest question that the anti-sustainable crowd has is whether this system can feed the world and still be profitable. While Joel’s neighbors earn around $300/acre he earns 10 times that with his system. He also explains the concept of “cow/days.” The Shenandoah Valley averages 80 cow/days which means an acre can support 80 cows for one day or one cow for 80 days. Joel’s system, however, has resulted in 400 cow/days, increasing the efficiency of his pasture by 5 times. Then the hens move in, thus increasing the pasture’s value even more. Polyface will pass $1M in sales this year.

After the tour we went into their farm store to purchase some beef and chicken. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t just efficient and profitable but it was affordable. His pastured chickens were $3.25/lb. The top round was $7.00/lb. Both prices were incredibly respectable and unlike what I usually see for pastured meat, which is usually twice that if not more, it didn’t make me flinch. Sure it wasn’t the $0.99/lb that most grocery stores pawn off Tyson chickens at, but these chickens from Polyface Farms aren’t subsidized by my tax dollars and I know that every cent I spent on that chicken went to the farmer. I know they were healthier and happier animals and I also know that in the grand scheme of things, artificially dirt cheap meat just isn’t sustainable and that I’m paying more for it with my health and with my tax dollars.

This is how farming should be. This is how we can remain sustainable while feeding the world. I left feeling incredibly inspired and with a feeling that this single tour will end up being extremely influential in my life.

He has a new book coming out on October 10th called Folks This Ain’t Normal. I’ll definitely be pre-ordering it!

Pluck and Feather Farm

Saturday we got to go hang out with our new friends Esperanza and Dipak of Pluck and Feather Farm in Oakland. We got to also meet Maya and Nevada, who are just starting their homesteading adventures in El Sobrante on 2 acres (Awesome!). And of course we can’t forget Kumar, Dipak’s father, and Marcel, their roommate.

Pluck and Feather Farm is near the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland. They have the most awesome chicken/turkey house ever! The yard is covered in vines so it’s perpetually in shade.  I want! The gardens are very free form and beautiful with beds lined in stone. In the little nooks and crannies hide the various rabbit hutches. They also have these really cool vegetable beds that kind of remind me of sharks teeth.

And the little door at one of the vegetable gardens? Now that’s my kind of garden art. Oh, and did I mention Esperanza is an amazing artist? She of course won’t call herself one, but I will!

Esperanza made an amazing meal including stewed chicken (which just so happened to be one of our old hens that we had traded for a rabbit with her – more on that later), the most amazing coleslaw, rice and beans. Maya and Nevada brought a wonderful goat cheese quiche that was to die for. We, of course, brought a lemon meringue pie, my signature dessert. The food was fantastic, the company was amazing, and the conversation was spectacular.

Esperanza is raising American rabbits. They are a rare rabbit breed that is on the critical list with the American Livestock Conservancy. She has some recently weened kits that we traded some chickens for. She also sent me the contact info for the breeder she got hers from so we can get it a mate. I think we got a buck, but now I’m not so sure. We’ll have to wait a bit longer before we know for sure. So, without further ado, here’s our new addition – Scooter!