Farm Tour: Soul Food Farm

In my continuing efforts to see firsthand where my food comes from, I went on a tour of Soul Food Farm, a producer of pasture-raised chickens and eggs in Vacaville, CA.

Before my visit to Soul Food, my exposure to Vacaville was mostly from car window, driving on Interstate 80. I think the last time I was out of the car in Vacaville was at the Wooz. (Don’t ask.) From the highway, Vacaville looks like any other brutally over-developed U.S. suburb: a steady stream of strip malls with acres of parking in front and the expected big box stores, fast food restaurants and gas stations. So I was surprised at the side of Vacaville I saw on my trip to Soul Food Farm.

There was no commercial development around the Cherry Glen/Lagoon Valley freeway exit. There was open space, not parking spaces, and olive groves instead of The Olive Garden. It was a pastoral side of Vacaville that I didn’t think still existed. (The crummy iphone picture, below, of the green, wildflower-covered hills around Soul Food Farm, doesn’t do it justice.)

At Soul Food, there were chickens, of course. Alexis Koefoed, who runs Soul Food Farm with her husband, Eric, said they have upwards of 5,000 chickens on the farm — which makes it sound like a pretty big operation, until you learn, as I did at a recent CUESA talk, that a ‘smaller’ factory chicken farm houses 200,000 birds.

Soul Food has 55 acres and perhaps because the chickens are spread out on so much land, it didn’t feel like a city of chickens. It felt like a family farm.

It smelled like one, too. The smell at the hen houses — not unpleasant, a smell of straw and feathers — was familiar to me. My parents always had chickens while I was growing up, and although my family only kept 5 or 6 chickens, Soul Food didn’t look or sound or smell that different than what I grew up with.

On the tour, we got to see nearly every stage of a Soul Food chicken’s life. We peeked in at fluffy little 5-day-old chicks, still too small to be completely outdoors. We saw the long-legged meat birds, some of whom would become dinner the coming weeks, and we collected lots of eggs from the laying hens, who buck-bucked gently at us from their nesting boxes.

If you’ve seen Food, Inc. (and you haven’t seen it, you should: it will be broadcast on PBS April 21st), the picture, above, of Soul Food’s meat birds enjoying the farm’s olive grove confirms just how differently Soul Food chickens are raised than most chickens.

Soul Food chickens are outside in the sunlight. They don’t spend their lives in tight cages or overcrowded, unsanitary buildings where they are susceptible to disease. Soul Food chickens aren’t fed a steady diet of antibiotics or hormones. They can scratch and peck for bugs on the farm.

Chickens that are outside are more vulnerable to predators, though. Soul Food deals with coyotes, bobcats, hawks, falcons and even a crow became a regular customer. Their three farm dogs help protect the chickens, two llamas keep coyotes out of the laying hen houses, and they keep the grass high to give the chickens cover, but Alexis and Eric also accept that they will lose some chickens to the animals who have long made this land their home.

But giving chickens a more chickeny life does take work. Hen houses are cleaned out twice a week. The hen houses are modular and are taken apart and moved around the farm. (In the summer, for example, the houses are set in amongst trees for shade.)

Collecting eggs is a full time job. (If eggs are left too long or are cracked, a chicken may develop a taste of an egg). In early April, eggs at Soul Food are collected every two hours. In the summer months when chickens lay more eggs? “It feels like we’re collecting eggs every 5 minutes,” Alexis said.

But the pay off for these efforts is a particularly delicious bird that was raised well. Soul Food raises a breed of chicken that is known for its taste, while most chicken in the U.S. is bred for its ability to develop abnormally large breast meat in a very short period of time. I can attest to the quality of the Soul Food chicken: after the tour, I bought a bird and I roasted it that night, dressed very simply with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and it was outstanding.

If you’d like to visit Soul Food Farm, more tours are planned — check the farm’s website for updates. You don’t need a tour to stop by the farm, where you can buy some eggs and perhaps a chicken (just put your money in the till).  You also can find Soul Food products at the following Bay Area locations.

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