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Erickson Ranch is a peach of a farm
of the most wonderful things about Erickson Ranch is that you can buy peaches
from early July to October. The 20 types of peaches and nectarines they offer
are grown for flavor, not shipping and storing, and picked at optimum ripeness
to go from their farm to your table. That means that the juice from the fruit
runs down your chin just as it should.
"Everybody loves peaches,"
says farmer Ray Erickson, Jr., who began growing peaches when he took over the
family farm on Cordelia Road in Suisun Valley. His father grew Bartlett pears,
but after the local cannery closed the pear orchards no longer made economic
sense. "A farm is an economic entity driven by cost," he says.
"I like a variety of peaches because my customers like a variety of
peaches, and it has worked out well."
Ray Erickson, Jr., is a third
generation farmer. His mother's parents, Augusto Toselli and Annie Boitano,
bought the first 20 acres in the 1920s. Their daughter Rose married Ray
Erickson, and they bought an additional 13 acres and built a house on the land.
Their son, Ray, Jr., married Victoria, and they raised two children, Ross and
Kristen. They farm land that has been in production for
over 100 years.
When Erickson Ranch opens to the public
on June 22, Ray is nearly certain that the Blenheim apricots will be ripe, and
he knows you'll be able to pick your own dahlias. Within a few weeks the parade
of peaches will begin with Flavorcrest and Regina. Suncrest, Sugar Ladies, and
Diamond Princess will follow in mid-July. The list goes on through summer with
Sweet Dream, Elberta, CalRed, and Lacy. Make peach pies and cobbler (and
consequently friends) all summer long, and in early October say good-bye to the
peach season as Autumn Sun gives a farewell wink to Indian summer when the farm
is decorated to the hilt with pumpkins, gourds, and corn.
You can also get nectarines and apples
throughout the summer and into fall. Ray likes the Akane apple, ready in late
July. "It's a beautiful apple," he says. "It's good to eat and
makes a beautiful white apple sauce." If you see Ray, be sure to ask him
about the breeding history of the fruit you are buying. "It puts a
personality on the fruit," says Ray.
In addition to peaches, nectarines, and
apples, Erickson grows watermelon, cantaloupe, and persimmons. In beds opposite
the fruit-stand barn, you can pick your own carrots, beets, lettuce, herbs,
peppers, and flowers. "Erickson Ranch is always generous in providing
produce, flowers, and gift baskets for our events," says Deanna Mott,
associate director at Solano Land Trust. "They are a real Solano County
Erickson Ranch begins to plant tomatoes
in mid-April and continues through mid-July, which means they have tomatoes until
Halloween. Look for heirloom tomatoes this year, too. Ross Erickson, 26, is
leasing an adjacent eight-acre field from PG&E to grow them. Kristen Erickson is not
farming by profession, but lives in Vacaville and helps on farm projects. She
is a registered nurse like Victoria, who has always contributed a full-time
income to the household. "You can't do farming without a second income,
that's for sure," says Victoria.
Victoria makes the Erickson Ranch jams
and jellies, and remembers the satisfaction of canning on her own for the first
time. She was 26, dating Ray, and living in Old Town Suisun while going to
school. Victoria grew up in a military family and had never done anything like
canning before. Rosie Erickson, the matriarch of the family, had shown Victoria
how to can whole fruit, and Victoria decided to try it. "The best part of
canning is that little popping noise," she says. "Then you know it's
Now she's a seasoned pro, and you can
buy her homemade jams and jellies at their farm and at other agriculture
businesses throughout Suisun Valley.
Next time you visit the farm bring your
binoculars. "Erickson Ranch is a bird-friendly farm," says local
birding expert Robin Leong. "They have allowed us to bird on their
property for the Christmas Bird Count for years." Ray Erickson has installed
many birdhouses, and enjoys watching the birds during nesting season. Does he
carry binoculars in his jeep? "No, but I should," he says. Then
again, maybe he's too busy growing fruit for us.
Erickson Ranch is located at 2482
Cordelia Road in Suisun Valley. Learn more at www.ericksonranch.com. For up-to-date
information on farm events and what's growing, follow them on Facebook.
Fall at Erickson Ranch, Tracy Ellison
Ray in the fava bean field, Katie Zaboy, www.katiezaboy.com
Ray, Jr. and Victoria Erickson, Finch and Fox Photography
All other photos by Victoria Erickson
Quick Peach Cobbler
5 cups sliced fresh Erickson Ranch peaches
- 1 cup flour (white or wheat)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 beaten egg
- 4 tablespoons melted butter
peaches in a deep baking dish. Mix dry ingredients, and then add beaten egg.
Mix with fork until crumbly. Sprinkle over fruit. Pour melted butter over crumb
mixture. Bake at 375 deg F for 35 to 45 minutes or until crusty and brown.
and Ann Sievers: Il Fiorello is not your run of the mill olive oil business
people sleep in on federal holidays, but not Mark and Ann Sievers, owners of Il
Fiorello Olive Oil Company in Suisun Valley. They milled 8,000 pounds of olives
by 11 a.m. this past Veterans Day.
olives don't wait. They need to be picked when they are ready, and once picked
their oils should be extracted as soon as possible. "My olives are in the
mill within four hours," says Ann of the olives they grow themselves and
go into their single-varietal, award-winning extra virgin olive oils. The
Sievers grow a variety of cultivars including mission olives, which Ann
describes as "big, fat, and stunningly beautiful." According to Slow
Food USA, mission olives came to California's Jesuit and Franciscan missions in
the late 1700s.
says there are only 50 olive mills in California, and most of these are small
home mills. The Sievers, who have been milling for seven years, recently
upgraded to a larger mill. Their old one milled about 1,500-pounds an hour, but
their new mill is capable of milling three tons an hour! "Nobody makes
better designs than the Italians," says Ann, proud of her custom-made
Pieralisi mill, "and nobody in the US is making olive oil like this."
She declined to tell me the cost of the mill.
how the mill works: First you pour a load of freshly picked olives into the
hopper, a four-by-four foot pit. Then the olives are transported up a conveyor
belt to a blower that knocks away any large debris. The olives are washed in an
industrial washing machine and poured into a second hopper that dries them.
From there, the fruit goes to a grinder where "olive pasta" is made.
That pasta is folded into a sleek green malaxer, where it is kneaded for 45
minutes until oil droplets pull away from the paste and agglomerate. The
glistening malaxed paste is pushed into a horizontal centrifuge that spins at
3,100 revolutions per minute to separate the paste from the oil. The oil goes
into a second centrifuge, this one vertical, and spins at 6,400 rpms. The waste
that is separated in the first centrifuge is slopped into bins outside and
whisked away for animal feed or compost. The ratio of waste to oil is 85 to 15.
Fiorello's mission is more than milling olives; it's also educational.
"Olive oil is a fundamental part of our civilization," says Mark.
"It's an ancient food that needs to be part of our contemporary
whole family is fully engaged in today's world, and all the Sievers are
achievers (yes, it rhymes!). Ann is a clinical nurse specialist, advanced
practice in head and neck surgical oncology at U.C. Davis. Mark is owner and a
founding principal at Epsilon Financial Group, where he has worked for thirty
years. As a young man he flew for the United States Air Force in Viet Nam, and
was a flight instructor for supersonic planes. He earned an MBA from UC
Berkeley in finance. Their daughters, Elizabeth, 27, and Katherine, 25, are
already in graduate programs. Elizabeth, who speaks four languages, is in Bra,
Italy at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, and Katherine is in the marine
ecology program at San Diego State University. They are both headed for PhDs.
asked why she and Mark started this business on top of their full time jobs,
Anne says, "I didn't want to make bad wine." Her family has always
grown food, she elaborates, and she wanted to grow something, too. Olives
seemed ripe for the picking. The olive industry is young in California, and in
thinking about how to play a role in Suisun Valley, she wanted to be
collaborative and not competitive. Their mill, tasting room, and gift shop
compliment the local wineries and farm stands, and each
year they do a "Community Crush" when you can bring your own small
lot of olives and leave with the equivalent in oil.
the oil spins in the last centrifuge, the viscous greenish-gold liquid pours
out of the spigot and into large labeled containers.
pure heaven," says Anne, encouraging me to taste it. "This is why we
do what we do."
taste or buy premium olive oil at their visitor's center, learn more about next
year's community milling day, or take a cooking class, visit www.ilfiorello.com.
Photos: by Aleta George.
Milling Day Lemon Pasta
a few tablespoons of Il Fiorello olive oil* in a frying pan.
- Add the zest of
one lemon and let the zest infuse the oil by cooking it on low heat for a few
- Boil bucatini pasta** in salted boiling water until al dente.
and save a cup of pasta water to add as needed to loosen up the pasta after
adding the lemon infused oil. "You can add some Parmesan if you want,"
* She uses oil milled that day, but you can
use any premium olive oil.
** Thick, hollow spaghetti that can be special ordered from the Internet.
Meet the Cooleys: The farmers behind Cool Patch Pumpkins
and one of the largest corn mazes in the world
A few years ago, a friend in New York phoned Matt and Mark Cooley at Cool Patch Pumpkins to tell them to turn on Jeopardy when it aired in California. Three hours later, all the workers at the Dixon pumpkin patch gathered around the TV.
"Dixon, California, has the biggest one of these to get lost in," said Alex Trebek as he read the clue.
"What is a corn maze Alex," answered the correct contestant. Matt, Mark, and the workers (who are mostly family and friends) erupted with hoots and screams.
Matt Cooley—a George Clooney look-alike with a ready laugh—told me this story at his office on Sievers Road in Dixon, where trucks filled with 26 tons of tomatoes thundered by about every five minutes. "We were a question on Jeopardy!" he bellowed.
The Cooley brothers are celebrating the ten-year anniversary of their corn maze this year. In 2007, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized their 40-acre maze as the largest in the world. This year the maze stretches to 50 acres.
The anniversary is an emotional time for the brothers, who are also marking the ten-year anniversary of their father's death. When Jim Cooley was still alive and the active head of the farm at 70, the brothers came up with the idea for a maze to attract people to their new pumpkin patch. Jim helped with the 10-acre maze, the design of which they took from a child's coloring book.
That same October, Jim and his wife Dolores left the farm for a rare camping trip at Lone Pine, California. Their RV was two years old. At four a.m. on October 25, Dolores called Matt to tell him his dad had had a heart attack.
"I went to bed a 42-year-old boy, and by the end of the next day I was a 42-year-old man," says Matt. Jim Cooley's death hit all three brothers hard, including Paul who chose not to stay on the farm. For Matt and Mark, their father's death meant that the success or failure of the family business was up to them. Matt and Mark had worked on the farm since they were 12, and had always loved it.
Each year, by the time they open the pumpkin patch in mid-September, they have already harvested their primary crops of tomatoes, wheat, and sunflowers. Solano Land Trust holds a conservation agreement on a 254-acre parcel owned by the Cooley brothers and June Nishikawa, a long-time local farmer.
To commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the corn maze and to honor their father, the brothers have expanded the pumpkin patch and corn maze to 50 acres each. On average it takes about 90 minutes to complete the corn maze, and people do get lost. "That's the point," says Matt.
The pumpkin patch and corn maze give them a chance to exercise their humor and playfulness. Each year they grow a giant pumpkin and devise ways to destroy it. They have dropped 1,000-pound pumpkins from a crane to smash an old Volkswagen or an outhouse with a plastic person inside. They have blown up giant pumpkins at Travis AFB while filming it. One year a TV reporter carved it up on live television. When the pregnant reporter arrived she asked how she was supposed to carve it. "Chainsaw," they said. Her producers said, "You are not going to touch a chainsaw!" Her reply? She fired it up with cameras rolling. "REEEEEEEEE," says Matt, in imitation of the sound. "It was hilarious."
The pumpkin patch is a family affair. Matt's wife, Michelle Cooley, a schoolteacher in Vacaville, is out everyday picking up trash and yelling at kids, says Matt, and their mom, Dolores, also comes out. Matt's kids, Seth and Natalie, help, as do Mark's daughters, Corinne, Kendra, and Tara. Even the repeat customers have come to feel like family. When Matt sees the Benicia Boy Scout troop leader or the parents who bring their developmentally disabled adult child every year, Matt roars, "Hey! You're back!" and helps them pick out a pumpkin.
At the First Baptist Church of Davis on a recent Sunday, pastor Glen Snyder used a cornfield as an analogy to talk about faith. Matt approached him after the sermon and said, "Dude, no one has more faith than a farmer."
"When I was younger I got upset when things happened," says Matt, "but as you get older you start to realize you're not in control of very much. As a farmer, you're in control of nothing. The weather. You can't stop it."
One year the entire corn maze was flattened by a storm that brought four inches of rain and 40 mile-per-hour winds. The next morning a news helicopter flew over the maze. The brothers hadn't realized the extent of the damage until they watched the footage in the news van.
"How do you feel?" said the reporter while sticking a microphone in Matt's face.
"Uh, well, that's life. We're farmers. It happens all the time."
Later that same morning, they got a call from Georgia. "This is the Weather Channel. We heard your maze fell over!"
"When we started this patch he never would have guessed that one day we'd be on the Weather Channel and a question on Jeopardy!" says Matt. "My dad would be so proud of us, the town, and the county. He lived to be a farmer."
"As a kid, I often wondered why my dad made me do stuff. But now it's like…I wish I could call him on the phone and say, "Hey!"
It's a special year for the Cooley brothers, a year to remember how much they loved their dad and how much they appreciate the gift he gave them: Farming (and apparently a good sense of humor).
Linda and Steve Tenbrink: Slow food does not equal a leisurely family farmer!
On Chadbourne Road, a white picket fence surrounds a yard and a two-story house with a wide porch. In front of the fence, an old California pepper tree has a fence of its own. Linda Tenbrink is protecting that tree. When she and her husband, Steve, moved to Suisun Valley in 1982—with one baby in the cradle and another on the way—they sold fruit from a table beneath that tree at a time when all small Suisun Valley farmers sold produce in front of their farms. "That was really fun," she said.
Most of us like to think that family farmers still function at that pace. They are attuned to the rising and setting of the sun, the turning of the soil, and a ripening peach, so they must be immune from modern day stressors, right? A recent visit to Steve and Linda Tenbrink's Suisun Valley farm cured me of that notion. In addition to growing produce for top chefs in San Francisco and a Napa farmers market, they are gearing up to deliver tons of tomatoes to the Fairfield Tomato Festival!
Linda and Steve grew up in El Cerrito, went to the same grammar school, and attended the same church. While still in high school, Steve saw his future on the Suisun Valley farms he drove by while on his way to swim at Lake Berryessa. While he was courting Linda, he told her he wanted to retire in Suisun Valley on a gentleman's farm. He didn't wait to retire.
In 1982 they bought five acres on Chadbourne Road, tore down the existing house, and built a new one on weekends while Steve commuted to his job as a grocery store manager in Berkeley. They raised four kids in that house. In 1984 they took over the Pioneer Fruit Stand, and grew most of the produce on land leased from Magnus "Ben" Bennedsen on Gordon Valley Road. When Ben's wife died, he donated a 52-acre conservation easement to Solano Land Trust (their first), and asked the Tenbrinks if they wanted to purchase the land made more affordable by the easement.
For 30 years, the Tenbrinks have grown row crops, walnuts, and fruit on those 52 acres. They do it all with help from their kids and two full-time workers, Enrique Guzman and Leandro Chavez, who have been with them since the beginning.
On a sunny summer day, Linda drove me around their Gordon Valley farm. The tranquility I felt while looking across the rows of heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, squash, cucumbers, borage, chrysanthemum leaf, and quinoa belied the work it took to get it looking so tidy and vigorous. As we inched along, I reached out of the car window and plucked a mission fig. Her old dog lay in the shade of a large oak near the creek tangled with grape ivy, buckeye, blackberries, elderberry, and coyote bush. Quail, red fox, bobcats, mountain lions, and birds frequent the wild creek and propagated fields.
Some of the tomato plants were taller than me and some were just getting started. In order to provide the tomatoes needed for the 21st Annual Tomato Festival on August 18 and 19 (when a full ton is needed just for tasting!), they plant more than they need, and plant them successively. They planted 180 types this year, though not all will make it to the festival. "It's a good year for tomatoes," she says, "much better than the last two years."
Linda sells produce at the Napa Farmers Market two days a week, and hauls it to chefs in San Francisco, Napa, Fairfield and Suisun. "I love to cook, which is very helpful in working with the chefs," she says. "I'm able to speak their language."
The Tenbrinks also grow wine grapes on 60 acres of leased land, and make fine wines with winemaker Abe Schoener. Linda does her own canning and cooks large dinners every night. Steve drinks wine with dinner but Linda doesn't. "After dinner I do bookwork," she says. "There's no letting down the guard."
When I asked if her kids were poised to take over the family business when she and Steve retired, she said, "Retire is not a word. You don't understand. This is a vocation, not a job. My husband has to do this. Does an artist retire? They don't retire."
And she's supporting his artistic bent. "We're married," she said. "It's part of the deal."
Look for Tenbrink Farms fruits and vegetables on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 7:30 a.m. to noon at the Napa Farmers Market on First Street near the Oxbow Public Market.
Linda Tenbrink's oven-dried tomatoes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Spread olive oil on a cookie sheet.
Place like-sized tomatoes (sliced, quartered, halved, or cherry) on the cookie sheet.
Sprinkle with garlic salt.
Put tomatoes in oven and turn oven down as low as it will go.
When they feel like a wet tennis shoe (sorry, she couldn't think of another description!), arrange a row of dried tomatoes on parchment paper, fold paper over tomatoes, and repeat.
Put layered tomatoes separated by parchment in zip lock bags and freeze.
Jeanne McCormack and Al Medvitz: Sheep shearing day at McCormack Ranch
Each spring a centuries-old tradition takes place on sheep farms in the Montezuma Hills and across the West. This year, Jeanne McCormack and Al Medvitz, operators of the historic McCormack Ranch in the Montezuma Hills, invited Solano Land Trust staff to observe the annual ritual of sheep shearing. Solano Land Trust holds a conservation agreement on the McCormack Ranch.
Under blue skies, I joined Anne DeLozier, office manager and stewardship coordinator; Tracy Ellison, conservation project coordinator; and Clay, Tracy's 11-year-old son for the drive on CA Highway 12 along low, rolling hills green with winter wheat. Darrin Berardi, board president, would meet us at the ranch later.
Jeanne McCormack greeted us as we arrived. Sheep husbandry runs in her Scottish family. Her grandfather, Dan McCormack, founded the ranch in 1896, and she and Medvitz use the same sustainable practices established by her grandfather and continued by Wallace, her father. McCormack Ranch has the distinction of being the first providers of lamb to Neiman Ranch distributors.
While the shearers were on a mid-morning break, Jeanne introduced us to Vernon Fairchild, Jr., owner and operator of Idaho-based Fairchild Shearers. His family business has sheared sheep at McCormack Ranch for over a decade. His crews also shear for Ian Anderson, sheep farmer and Solano Land Trust's past board president, and Burrows Hamilton, who runs sheep at Jepson Prairie. Fairchild Shearers runs three crews across five Western states between January and June. In all, they shear around 300,000 heads of sheep annually. Each ten-member crew is self-sufficient with a seven-station shearing trailer with its own generator, and a RV where the crew cooks, eats, and sleeps.
Vernon brings his shearing crews from Uruguay, which is about the same size of Florida but with about twice the sheep as the entire United States. "There are lots of sheep shearers in Uruguay," he said. "They are humble and do a good job." The fastest worker can shear a sheep in two and a half minutes, which equals about 200 sheep in eight hours. On average, a crew can shear about 1,200 sheep a day. Vernon can't find domestic labor to do the work. He brought in shearers from New Zealand and Australia for thirty years, but that help dried up, too.
Once the shearing begins again, the sheep in the corral are coaxed into a single-file chute with a click of the tongue and a tap on their backside with an empty plastic water bottle. The chute leads to a ramp that takes them into the shearing trailer. Inside, the shearers grab a sheep off the line and lay it on the floor in one expert move. It looks brutal to the uninitiated, but McCormack says the sheep are "tough old girls." While holding the sheep firmly by its legs, the shearer shaves the fleece in long swaths. When finished, he pushes the bare-skinned animal out a swinging door that leads to a yard of other shorn sheep that bleat in sympathy. The naked sheep have bloody nicks like a man's shaved face. On the other side of the trailer, the fleece is placed on a spinning metal table where a classer runs his fingers through the wool to determine its quality based on length and fineness. It is sorted in bins and baled according to grade.
McCormack says that sheep shearing is an important event in sheep management. "You can make larger decisions when they're in the chute," she said. A sheep in the chute allows McCormack and Medvitz to look at sheep individually, a luxury they don't normally have with 1,500 ewes on 3,700 acres. It's a time to adjust breeding, get a count, and look at nutrition. It's also a time to be closer to the sheep.
"I can't imagine liking sheep more than I do," she says. "They are really, really, good mothers. They have no way of defending themselves, and yet they protect their babies. Think of all the paintings with sheep. Clearly people have loved sheep for a long time."
She was attracted to ranching as a child, but didn't consider it as a career because women weren't farmers back then. "That role model wasn't there for me, but it is now," she says. Both McCormack and Medvitz have advanced degrees from Harvard. They met in the Peace Corps, married, and came back to work McCormack Ranch. As a team, they have operated the ranch for 25 years.
Jeanne suggested that we visit the birthing barn before leaving for the day. In the barn we found hundreds of baby goats in straw-filled stalls, some with embryonic cords still attached to their mothers. The Boer goats will eventually go to high-end restaurants in San Francisco and Berkeley.
"That's the only thing I don't like in this business," said McCormack. "At some point they all have to go away in a truck."
Photos: all by Anne DeLozier.
Tim and Roxanne Wellman: A life made in the movies
In January, a representative from Paramount Pictures invited Tim and Roxanne Wellman, the cattle grazers at Rush Ranch, to Hollywood. The studio was screening a restored version of Wings to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The film’s director, William A. Wellman, was the first director to win an Academy Award; he was also Tim’s father.
Tim grew up near Hollywood in a ranch house at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains, a place much different than today. Alfalfa from Our Gang was a close friend of the family’s. When “Alfie” was in his twenties, he took Tim bear hunting and from then on Tim was interested in hound dogs.
Around the same time, the studio heads asked William to direct Across the Wide Missouri. William, who had already fulfilled his contract quota for the year, said he’d go only if he could bring his wife (a former Busby Berkeley girl) and seven children. Off the family went to Durango, Colorado, with Clark Gable! Tim, who loved the outdoors, was in heaven because he got to ride horses every day. When it came time to film the last shot of Gable riding off into the sunset with his half-Indian son riding after him, Wellman discovered that the kid who played the boy couldn’t ride. But Tim, who was around the same age, could. William put a wig on Tim who rode as the stunt double. If you see the movie today, it’s Tim in the closing scene chasing after Gable.
Roxanne also knew from an early age that she wanted a ranch life, even though she grew up in San Francisco. To be around horses, she walked the polo ponies in Golden Gate Park and managed the stables when people still rented horses and rode them on Ocean Beach. She moved to Gordon Valley in 1987 and met Tim through 4-H. She did a little “cowboying” for him before they were married.
Today they are a team. They run about 500 grass-fed cattle on pasture until the Brahma-Angus cows reach about 800 pounds. They drive the cattle between pastures on their horses Peach, Spike, Gabilan, and Franny and Ollie. (No four-wheelers in their operation.) A typical day might include a cattle drive, branding, sorting out heavy cattle, culling the weak, and, of course, fixing fences. Ranch life in the 21st century isn’t like it is in the movies. People drive like maniacs on Grizzly Island Road, and they often miss turns, knock down fences, and occasionally hit a wayward calf.
Tim and Roxanne were unable to go to the special screening of Wings because of the extended drought. They wanted to be close to home in case they had to move cattle. “It was almost a disaster, but the rain that we got in late January saved us,” said Tim.
In the real world, cattle grazing doesn’t have much in common with the movies, except that Tim and Roxanne really do get to ride into the sunset most days.
Photos. Top: Tim Wellman, photo by Tom Muehleisen. Middle: Tim and his siblings on horseback (Tim is the middle child), with their dad. William A. Wellman standing. Bottom: Roxanne Wellman.
Alexis and Eric Koefoed: Soul Food Farm
In the late 1990s, Alexis and Eric Koefoed stood at the top of the driveway with their three children, suitcases in hand. In front of them was the 55-acre piece of land that they had just purchased on Pleasants Valley Road in Vacaville. It had no house, no electricity, and no running water—just an old barn where local kids partied.
Prior to stepping into their new lives on the land now known as Soul Food Farm, Alexis and Eric lived with their children in Vallejo where Alexis grew a beautiful garden on her quarter acre of land. On one of her frequent visits to Morningsun Herb Farm she saw a “For Sale” sign at the McCory Ranch.
“I felt obsessed about this place, about living here,” she said when asked why she uprooted her family. “My first impulse was selfish. Like many women, I was asking myself, ‘Is this all I’m going to do in life, have kids and do housework?’ I saw the property as an opportunity to do something creative, new, and exciting—but I never knew that we were going to be known for chickens.”
Their new life hasn’t been easy. At first they lived in a tent, then a trailer, and then a cabin. It took five years to build the house where they live now, and which features a large open kitchen with cement floors, restaurant-quality gas range and refrigerator, and walls of windows. Now her kitchen is used for cooking classes led by top Bay Area chefs.
Alexis feels a connection to the history of the land, especially in spring and summer when she can visualize the flower garden planted by Ruth McCory, a descendant of the McCory family who homesteaded the land in 1880. The freesias and pink ladies continue to pop up, and on the back end of the property a few of the old trees still produce small yellow plums.
While having coffee at her long, wooden kitchen table in late June, she pulled out her smart phone to show me a picture that she had taken the day before, an old plum tree with a brilliant blue sky in the background. Since she had taken the photo, the weather had turned; it was raining and she was worried about her chickens.
In answer to the proverbial question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, in her case it was the egg. When they were still selling only eggs, Alice Waters, the Chez Panisse chef who helped to revolutionize the food scene in the San Francisco Bay Area, called Alexis to ask if she would raise meat birds for the restaurant.
Today, Soul Food Farm raises over 6,000 meat birds and has about 1,000 laying hens. All are “pastured birds.” Language is important, said Alexis—and confusing to customers. Small farms once used the term “cage free” for their eggs, but industrial chicken farms co-opted the phrase. “They got rid of the cages but it didn’t mean that hundreds of thousands of chickens weren’t still crammed into big warehouses,” she said. “Free range” was the next phrase co-opted by industrial chicken farms, where the “free rangers” can still be stuffed into a large warehouse as long as there’s a little door for them to get out to a small courtyard. “Certified organic” simply means that the chickens eat organic grains.
“’Pastured’ chickens means that the they are out and roaming about. It’s a powerful and significant phrase,” Alexis said.
Eric Koefoed, a civil engineer for thirty years, is currently playing a bigger role on the farm since being laid off during the recession. “Now he’s my slave,” she said with a grin, but quickly turned to a more serious note. His not working and bringing in an income is probably unsustainable, a truism for most family farmers. Two-thirds of all farms in the U.S. rely on off-farm incomes to subsidize their farms.
“No small farmer has enough capital to make their farm what they envision it to be. I realized a long time ago that social media would make ours a modern farm, and from a marketing point of view, we are successful. But after 11 years we are still struggling to pay the bills and figure out how best to sell our products. We are up every morning at 6 a.m. and work until 10 or 11 p.m.,” she said. “But we believe in what we are doing. Small farms are on the cusp of changing the food landscape, and we just need to hold on.”
When asked what kind of help small farmers need, she said there should be more support for small farmers, and it has to be more than people attending farmers’ markets. Farms need to be more accessible to the public, and receive state and federal support. There should also be a tax break for transporting animals, feed, and vegetables. The closest slaughterhouse that can fulfill their needs is Grimaud Farms in Stockton, where Alexis and Eric drive their meat chickens to slaughter once a week. It takes them 90 minutes to get there, but it takes other farmers much longer. She knows a farmer in Santa Barbara whose only slaughterhouse option is in Stockton. “That’s hard on the birds and expensive for the farmer,” she said. One of the reasons that local food can be so expensive is that California has lost its farming support industries, from canning to feed supplies to slaughterhouses.
Knowing that Alexis had eggs to wash, I reluctantly left her kitchen table. On the way to my car, I picked up a dozen eggs from the self-serve cooler, placing my money in the tin. The cooler sits on the edge of the olive tree orchard that she and Eric planted. Under the trees, at least a dozen Freedom Ranger chickens had found shelter from the rain under their own volition.
From April to November you can stop by the farm at 6046 Pleasants Valley Road, Vacaville, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for fresh eggs purchased on the honor system. You can also join Soul Food Farm’s CSA program for chicken and eggs. For more information visit Soul Food Farm.
Soul Food Farm closed its doors this summer. For nearly a decade they have
raised pastured chickens for eggs and meat, which were sold to restaurants and
locals through special orders, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program,
and an on-site egg box. In her letter to CSA customers, owner Alexis Koefoed
cited the rising cost of chicken feed ($13,000 a month) as a primary reason. In
my interview with her last summer, she also cited the expense of their weekly
drives to Stockton, where the only available slaughterhouse is located. She had
a few other ideas how the public can help small farmers succeed. According to
an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the next step for these
passionate farmers is uncertain, though they do hope to continue farming.)
Rich Collins, California Vegetable Specialties
Say on-deev! That’s how you pronounce endive, the slightly bitter, crunchy prized vegetable that is not only healthy, but beautiful and fascinating, as well. This Solano Grown crop manages to find its way around the world and is the flagship of Rich Collins’ California Vegetable Specialties of Rio Vista.
The partnership between Rich Collins and Solano Land Trust goes back to the ‘80’s when both parties were looking at property in Suisun Valley. Rich eventually ended up buying 195 acres from Solano Land Trust in 2006 which had a conservation easement on it. This isn’t typically the way things work with land purchases and conservation easements, so it was a unique situation to be sure. Since that time, Rich has become a business partner, both financially and in-kind. When asked Rich why he supports the land trust, he said, “it’s just the right thing to do.” Rich could have put his operation anywhere; it doesn’t take much space to produce endive. But he chose to keep it here in Solano County and chose Rio Vista because of its proximity to both I80 and I5. The fact that we are both actively trying to keep agriculture alive and well for current and future generations seems to align CVS and Solano Land Trust.
Traditionally a winter vegetable, endive is available year round through a two part controlled dormancy and growing process. Rich and his French partner have been working on perfecting the process for over 25 years. CVS is the largest producer of California Pearl (the blanched greenish-white variety) in North America, and the largest producer of Belles Rouges in the world; however they have a very small footprint. The very clean, very efficient farm production facility is only about 26,000 square feet. By September, Rich plans to have his new state-of-the-art cold storage facility up and running on his current property in Rio Vista. This model will be the most energy efficient cold storage facility in California. Recycling is a way of doing business for Rich. Not only do they have a strict recycling policy for their employee-generated trash, but there is no waste with the crop either. The root that is separated from the edible part of the endive is feed to cattle by area farmers.
Endive isn’t the only crop Rich is passionate about. He has plans to develop a non-confinement pasture-based dairy farm on the Dixon property where he lives. Bridgeway Farms will be a mid-sized operation that is sustainable in the future yet bridges the gap to the holistic way of farming from the past. The vision for this operation will incorporate an educational element to encourage and teach young farmers how to operate a successful farming business in the 21st Century. This will be an exciting endeavor to watch unfold!
For more information on California Vegetable Specialties, visit www.endive.com. We are lucky to have Rich Collins as a business partner in conservation and look forward to our continued partnership.