Archive for the ‘Farm Tours’ Category

Farm Tour: Harley Farms

April 29, 2014

The time to visit Harley Farms, a goat dairy in Pescadero, is spring — not for the beauty (although the coast and the farm are particularly gorgeous in the springtime), but for the baby goats.

harley-babygoat

The farm’s herd of 200 ladies deliver their kids in the spring, typically starting in March and running through the first part of May. You can simply stop by the farm (as many people seem to do) to see some of the baby goats in their pens, but if you take one of the paid farm tours, as my sister and I did last Sunday, you’ll get to hold an adorable, week-old baby goat in your arms.

The two-hour, $20 tour isn’t only about baby goats, of course. Harley’s primary business is goat cheese and the whole process — from raising and milking the goats to making and selling the cheese — is all done right on the farm. The tour covers nearly every part of the process: it starts in the fields with the goats and ends in a 100-year-old hayloft eating cheese made from the goats’ milk.

harleygoat106

I loved being in the pasture with the adult goats and their llama protectors (the llamas have punny names, like Dalai and Lorenzo). I avoided the llamas because I have a strong aversion to llamas (or worse alpacas!), but the goats were unbelievably friendly, which the farm says is because they’ve been handled by people since they were born. They came right up to us for a pet or to happily rub their heads against our legs, and they followed us as we walked through the pasture. (I loved the caravan of goats in the picture below.)

harley-goatsinline
The baby goats are kept in separate pens based on their age (some were just days old!). One of the farm workers showed us how to support their legs when we held them. The babies seemed happy to be held, but they moved around so much I could hardly get a clear picture of them. (The one pictured above kept trying to eat my sister’s jacket).

Milking the goats used to be part of the farm’s tours, but it became too stressful for the goats. Now the tour simply goes through the milking parlor, where the goats are milked twice a day at 5am and 5pm. Each goat produces about a gallon of goat milk a day which is enough for about a pound of cheese, but currently some of the goat milk is going to feed the babies. The remaining milk is piped directly from the milking parlor into the commercial-grade cheese-making facility next door.

Harley’s goat cheeses are often decorated with edible flowers, which are grown right outside the cheese-making room. In the cheese-making room, we decorated a chevre with borage, calendula and johnny jump-up, and then headed up to the hayloft to taste our concoction along with the farm’s chive chevre and cranberry chevre.

harleyfarmsgarden

The farm store, which is right beneath the hayloft, sells additional cheeses, like goats milk ricotta, feta, and fromage blanc, as well as goats milk soaps and a variety of skincare products. But there’s no hard sell on the tour. Instead, the tour ends with a push for visitors to explore more of Pescadero. Our guide, who’d worked for the farm and the Pescadero school system for many years, suggested a few places to eat and things to do in the area.

On past trips to Pescadero, I’d never been wowed by Duarte’s pies or the town’s taqueria-in-a-gas-station, but I’d return to Harley Farms in a heartbeat — to see some goats, buy some cheese, and spend a little more time on this lovely piece of land.

To Kill a Turkey

December 13, 2011

I killed my own Thanksgiving turkey this year. I wasn’t sure that I could do it, but it was something I’d long wanted to try.

This not to say that I took the idea of killing a turkey lightly (I didn’t) or that I was excited about killing an animal (I wasn’t). But I do want know as much as possible about where my food comes from and while I’ve gone on farm tours to see how animals are raised, it’s rare to get the opportunity to see how an animal goes from the pasture to the plate.  So when a local farm offered the chance to participate in a turkey ‘harvest’, I signed up.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, an animal dies in order for us to eat meat. It can be easy to ignore that trade-off since so few of us have to do or even see the kill, but the trade-off exists and I wanted to see for myself if I was really comfortable with it. I assumed I could kill the turkey — as a meat eater, I felt in a way like it was my duty to kill it — but I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about myself afterwards or how I’d feel about meat.

And the farm’s instructions were sobering: it said we should bring shoes that could get dirty and a sharp knife. But although I was wearing old shoes and I’d had Mr. WholeHog sharpen my knife, I was worried on that rainy Sunday morning as I drove out to Marin with my sister. I worried that my knife wasn’t sharp enough. I worried that I’d mess it up somehow and cause the bird to suffer unnecessarily. I worried that it would be violent, that the bird would be in distress.

But as it turned out, the bird was calm. It stood still when I draped the net over it to separate it from the other turkeys. It didn’t make any attempt to run away as the farmer showed me how to gently crouch on it, using my knees to keeping its wings close to its body. Although I was afraid of its beak, the turkey didn’t try to peck me when I reached for its head, and it didn’t resist at all when I exposed its neck. There was no discernible reaction from the turkey even when I made the first cut through the thick bumpy skin on the neck (the farmers said this cut blood to the brain and caused the bird to pass out) or the second, fatal cut.

I’d thought a lot about the actual killing, but I learned that the harder part was being there with the bird as its body shut down. Since I was sitting with the bird, essentially sitting on the bird, I could feel its muscles contract, its wings try to flap, and its whole body briefly convulse before it was still. It was an intense process to sit through it, especially knowing that I’d put this process in motion, but it felt right to be there. I’d taken the turkey’s life; the least I could do was be there with it as it died.

One of the two farmers was there with me, helping me at every stage of the process — showing me where to cut, even loaning me his knife, and checking to make sure my cuts were sufficient. Afterwards, he helped me pick up the bird by its feet. “It’s meat now,” he said.

But the bird didn’t start to look like meat until after it had been dipped in a vat of hot water and my sister and I started to take off the feathers.  It was surprisingly intimate to pluck the bird. We had to go over the bird’s whole, still-warm body, raising its wings in order to remove the soft, downy feathers underneath and turning it over carefully to remove the thicker feathers from its back.

We’d harvested the turkeys in in groups of two so a farmer could be there alongside each harvester, but we all gathered around one big table to pluck the birds. Despite the tedious work and the odd smell of cooked feathers, there was a communal feeling at the work table. As we talked and passed around the pliers necessary to remove the large, thick feathers from the birds’ wings, I thought about how there were likely people and small farms across the country who were spending this Sunday before Thanksgiving the same way I was, with wet feathers on their hands and a little blood on their jeans.

Without its feathers, our turkey began to look more like what you’d buy at the store, although our bird still had its head and its bloody neck, its brown, scaly feet, and its guts. My sister bravely took on the work of gutting our bird, removing the feet and head and then carefully separating the skin and the throat from the neck before cutting the neck off. Then she took out the crop, a balloon-like organ where turkeys store food, and the farmer showed us that we could still feel the grain and leaves the bird had eaten that morning. Finally, she pulled out the innards: gizzard, heart, liver, intestines and lungs. We washed the bird, weighed it, and we were done.

It had taken half of a day to transform the turkey from a living bird into the star of our Thanksgiving dinner. And the time, skill and attention it had taken to harvest the bird made me realize that the the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving meal is special — not because it was brined or rubbed with butter and herbs, but because someone raised the bird, killed it, and prepared it for us to cook. The experience made me think about how most of us devote practically a whole day to cooking our Thanksgiving turkey, but until the harvest, I’d spent very little time considering what it took to get that bird from its coop to our home. I had no idea what the process looked like, sounded like, felt like or smelled like; now those senses are what I remember most about the experience.

Some predicted that the experience of killing my own turkey would turn me into a vegetarian, but I thoroughly enjoyed my Thanksgiving turkey this year. Our bird had incredible flavor and texture (I’ve found that heritage birds tend not to have that dry, cotton-y texture.) But what has changed for me is that now when I see turkey or chicken on a menu, there’s a moment where I think about the bird. And I don’t think in terms of breasts, thighs or wings, instead I think about the odd smell of wet feathers, about the feel of its thick-skinned neck. These thoughts don’t make me reconsider ordering chicken or turkey, but they do make me feel more aware of the bird before it was meat.

I’ve chosen not to include the farm’s name here because I know there are people out there who don’t approve of any animal death, but contact me or leave a comment if you want the info. The farm took incredibly good care of us, loaning us rain gear and helping us with the emotional and physical work of the day.  They told us right off the bat that we didn’t have to do anything we weren’t comfortable with. The farm also took incredibly good care of the birds themselves. The turkeys had spent their lives outside with room to spread their wings and pasture to scratch around in.

Farm Tour: Gospel Flat Farm

September 30, 2011

It feels wrong to admit this, but I am not a big fan of Bolinas. It’s a pretty corner of Marin, but Bolinas is out there in a way that even Berkeley and Santa Cruz can’t touch. Bolinas is its own special kind of crazy.

But among with the dread-locked grandmas, surfers and celebrities in Bolinas, there are also farms. Bill Niman, formerly of Niman Ranch and now running BN Ranch, farms in Bolinas. Star Route Farms, which grows of my favorite artichokes, little gem lettuces and fava beans at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, is also in Bolinas (they farm in southern California, too). And a few fields over from Star Route is Gospel Flat.

Gospel Flat is a really beautiful piece of land that’s been in the Murch family for three generations. The name comes from its proximity to the churches in the area, as I learned at a tour of the farm earlier this month. (Farmer Mickey Murch says he thinks of the name as “bringing the good news.”)

Before the farm tour, I’d never heard of Gospel Flat, perhaps because rather than selling their produce at a farmers market or through distributors, Gospel Flat sells 95-98% of their produce via their honor-system farm stand.

The farm stand is part of Mickey’s belief that farming shouldn’t be so stressful. Mickey remembers that his dad was stressed when he farmed this land, selling his produce to middle men who then sold it to big market. So when Mickey came back to the farm after college, he wanted to do things differently.

He’d initially planned to sell his produce directly through a CSA, but that first year, he ended up with more produce than the 20 CSA members could handle. That extra produce ended up in the farm stand. Mickey said the farm stand satisfied his dad’s desire to grow and his own desire to avoid using a distributor and to feed people in his community.

People shopped around us as we toured the farm stand. They weighed their produce, noting the price on a legal pad and using the handy calculator nearby, if necessary. They dropped cash or checks into the locked payment box and often greeted Mickey by name. Some wandered into the small gallery space attached to the farm stand (the current exhibit shows photographs of the creation of the farm’s outdoor oven) or checked out the mobile kitchen Mickey made out of an old boat.

Most of the farm is devoted to growing produce and herbs, but there are also animals. A large mobile coop houses turkeys and chickens. The turkeys come from Bill Niman and are harvested every Thanksgiving. Eggs from the chickens are sold at the farm stand.

On the other side of the field, a family of goats and one giant pig that is raised for food shared a separate pasture. (“How long does it take to eat a pig?” one farm tour attendee asked. “About six months,” Mickey answered.)

As you might expect, I was pretty excited about the pig. (Although I felt lucky to be out of the way when the pig flicked it’s tail spraying people nearby with mud.) It let us scratch its snout and then rooted around in the mud — just like a happy pig should.

To visit the Gospel Flat farm stand, turn off Highway 1 on Olema/Bolinas Road. The stand is located just before the plant nursery and stop sign.

Finding Out about Farm Tours

June 19, 2010

As I’ve probably made clear by now, I’m a big fan of farm tours. I learn a lot from going to different farms and meeting farmers and food producers, and I think more people should go see how food is produced.

To help, I’ve compiled a list of some of the many ways you can find out about farm tours. This list is by no means comprehensive, and it is primarily SF Bay Area focused, but I’d guess that these three primary sources for learning about up-coming tours  — farms, food organizations, and the web — are probably relevant wherever you live.

Every farm tour is different. Some farms do just a tour of their property and discuss their practices, while others may offer a whole day events, u-picks, or include a meal. Costs vary, usually based on how elaborate the event is.

Farms
The easiest way to find out about a farm tour, of course, is simply to check in with a farm. You can ask the farmers at your local farmers market or many farms have websites with tours or events listed. Keep in mind that not all farm yours are open to everyone. Some farms only do tours for their CSA members.

Some of the many farms and ranches around San Francisco that offer tours include:

Meat & Cheese Producers

Fruit & Vegetable Growers

Farm-related Organizations
Food or agriculture-related organizations can also be a great resource. Check with whoever runs your local farmers market to see if they know about any farm tours. Examples of such organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area include:

Online Resources
The web can also help connect you with farms in your area. Some websites offer lists of farm tours and other events, such as:

Much to my chagrin, some farms are using Facebook to alert ‘fans’ (sigh) to their tours and events. Thankfully, you don’t need to be a Facebook member to access most of these pages. A few local examples are:

Farm Tour: Westview Dairy

June 17, 2010

My quest to learn more about where food comes from continued recently with a tour of Westview dairy.

I’d already looked into where much of my meat and eggs come from, thanks to a tours of Marin Sun Farms and Soul Food Farm. But there were two crucial parts of my diet that wanted to learn more about: dairy and pork.

California isn’t a large pork producing state, so pig farm tours are a little harder to come by, but California has many dairies.

I usually buy milk and butter from Straus, a local, organic creamery in West Marin, so when I saw that MALT, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, had a tour of one of the three dairies that supplies Straus, I jumped at the chance to see where my milk and butter comes from (and so did many families with small children. Unlike other farm tours I’ve been on, this tour was primarily families).

Westview raises about 100 Jersey cows right off Bodega Highway, on a beautiful pastoral stretch between Sebastopol and Bodega Bay. Jersey cows are known for producing milk that is high in butterfat, and this high-fat milk goes into Straus butter and ice cream.

Westview’s Richard Hughes prefers Jerseys to Holsteins, the black and white cows you often see in California. He likes that Jerseys are smaller than Holsteins, and says that the cows are friendly, curious animals, though he avoids Jersey bulls.

Waiting to be milked.

As you might expect on a dairy tour, we got to see the milking process, and everyone on the tour got to giving milking a try (it took more force than I’d expected).

What I didn’t expect was the chance to pet and feed two-day-old calves. They looked like little deer, with soft brown fur, gigantic brown eyes and ears. They nibbled on my knees. (I tried unsuccessfully to get a picture of them but they move so quickly that all my shots were blurry.) The slightly older calves — a few weeks old — had their own rooms: little plastic sheds full of hay to keep them warm and cozy.

I go on farm tours primarily to see for myself that the animals are healthy, that they live in clean spaces, and have plenty of room to roam (baby animal interactions are an obvious bonus), but I’ve found that the best part of a tour is often meeting the people who care for the animals, and Westview was no exception.

Getting milked.

Richard and his wife, Marilyn, have owned Westview dairy since 1976 and it’s clear they love what they do. They only recently transitioned to organic, but Richard says he’d never go back. “Even if I wasn’t selling to Straus, I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. He’d considered retiring, but going organic renewed his interest in the dairy business.

This surprised me because it seems common to hear about farmers who resist going organic – because they fear they won’t produce as much, or they believe animals need antibiotics to stay healthy, or that it’s just too time-consuming — but Richard is a complete convert. He said he had far more problems and illness when he was running a conventional dairy. He mentioned how the cows frequently had the stomach problems from corn-based feed (cows are ruminants and corn is not a natural part of their diet).

Now, his cows graze on 180 acres, and he says they’re healthier and he deals with far fewer problems. “All dairies should operate this way,” he said.

From what I saw, I’m inclined to agree. As well as providing ample pasture to the cows and going organic, they’re able to use all the manure the cows generate on their land  (this is not common in large operations). Richard also made sure to mention his two full time employees who’ve worked with him for 10 and 25 years, respectively. “They’re family to us,” he said. “We celebrate Christmas together, birthdays and other holidays.

Not every Straus dairy may be up to Westview’s standards, however. There are some recent questions about Straus, mostly about their larger dairies (Westview only provides about 10%). But I was very comfortable with what I saw at Westview. One might argue that a farmer who expects visitors has time to clean up the farm, that maybe a tour doesn’t show you the daily reality of a farm, but Richard encouraged us to come back any time, and to stop by if we were in the area.

Farm Tour: Soul Food Farm

April 21, 2010

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.

Mike D’s out Back and He’s Growing Onions

September 25, 2007

We could smell the garlic from the car as we turned off Highway 101 and onto the instantly more rural stretch of Highway 25.

Although I’d only been back in SF a week, I jumped at the chance to visit Mariquita Farm’s field in Hollister to take part in their tomato u-pick. Mariquita stopped coming to the Saturday farmers market this year — a serious blow to those of us who loved their produce — and their u-pick offered a rare chance to see their farm and get great deal on their produce ($0.50/lb for tomatoes).

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Is there a happier place to be than in a field of tomato plants in September, knowing that in a few months this seasonal crop will be gone? And, is there a better place to welcome Fall than standing in a pumpkin patch? At Mariquita, there was both, only a wide dirt path separating the two, and we could transition from Summer to Fall simply by walking through the farm.

Being at the farm made me feel like a kid again, like the world was a rich, growing, vibrant place and I was lucky to be in it.

Considering the price of most heirloom tomatoes, I felt a little like John Sutter must have felt when he discovered gold in California, standing there surrounded by vines of heirloom tomatoes. There were tomatoes as far as you could see — red, orange, and green zebra heirlooms — some so large and heavy that they’d dropped right off the vine and begun to rot in the soil.

I started tearing huge, orange tomatoes off their vines, as if the u-pick was a competition that I would win if I picked the biggest, the ripest and the most tomatoes from the field, before Mr. WholeHog reminded me of the real challenge ahead of us: we had to eat everything we picked. It was a sobering thought, but it didn’t slow us down much.

Heirlooms had to be eaten soon, but San Marzanos could be turned into tomato sauce and enjoyed through the winter. And the San Marzano field held more potential sauce than we could imagine. It was thick with tomatoes, and we filled our shirts with them, depositing them in our basket and committing the rest of our weekend to making sauce for the winter.

The final haul was 25 pounds of tomatoes (for $12.50).

tomhaul.jpg

At home, we set up a mini-assembly line, blanching the tomatoes, cooling them in ice water and then pulling the peels off.

By the time we cooked the tomatoes down, we had 5 pints of sauce which is probably headed to the freezer. I say probably because we had pasta Sunday night, with Fatted Calf sausage and a cup or so of the fresh tomato sauce. It was so delicious that I feel like having it again for dinner tonight. I’m afraid that our winter supply tomato sauce may not last into October.

Marin Sun Farms Tour

June 27, 2007

This past Sunday, we drove to Marin Sun Farms in Point Reyes for their farm tour. It was so clear that we could see the Pacific from the ranch. But the sunshine was deceptive: the day was a biting coastal combination of bright, sunny skies and bitterly cold winds.

David Evans is one of the family farmers at the Historic H Ranch in Point Reyes, and the founder of Marin Sun Farms. He knows just about all there is to know about West Marin and about ranching, particularly ranching on federal land. And he’s such a good communicator that he kept the attention of motley group of cold, wind-blown visitors. (Evans was in sandals the whole day while I shivered in my “windproof” REI jacket.)

A side note: It was a truly strange group. One of those experiences that Mr. WholeHog and I have had at concerts of bands that we like where we look around and think, we should have something in common with these people given that we are all here, but all interactions seem to point out our many differences.

Back on the Farm: “I don’t say we’re a sustainable farm,” Evans told is right off as he noted how often the term “sustainable” is thrown around these days and how few things are truly sustainable. “I say we’re working on creating sustainable models.”

Evans showed us some of the models they are using – such as their rotational grazing system for their cows, goats and chickens. We saw where the baby chicks and turkeys live for their first few weeks and then how they are protected when they are brought to pasture. We visited the free ranging laying hens that squawked in protest when we all peeked into their mobile coops. (I forgot to bring my camera but Marin Sun has some great pictures on their website).

And, this being a real farm tour of a farm that produces primarily meat, we also saw where the chickens are slaughtered, Joel-Salatin-style. This is one of the best aspects of buying locally and supporting local farms: you can literally see how these animals live before they end up on your plate.

The tour wraps up with lunch at Marin Sun Farms’ butcher store in Point Reyes Station and a peek at the butchering facilities and their meat refrigerator (where I happily spotted a whole hog!).

We left even more committed to Marin Sun and grateful that we can support someone like Evans who tends his animals and his family’s land with such thought and integrity. We left jealous of those in Berkeley who have access to a meat CSA from Marin Sun – a MEAT CSA! It’s such a good idea it deserves to be shouted out!! – and packed our little cooler with a dozen eggs and one whole chicken, feet and head still attached.

We were so tired that we were almost literally holding our eyes open across the bridge on our drive home and promptly crashed out for a lovely Sunday evening nap.