The serendipity and synchronicity are undeniable: I'm being led on a quest. When Cynthia Sandberg at Love Apple Farm was looking for a baby goat, she called me to see if I could help. "Because you know everyone, girlfriend!" (I could probably get some testimonials to this effect, but they would be limited in their usefulness.)
Of course I called Jim Dunlop, networker extraordinaire, at TLC Ranch, because he's a rancher. "Call Jean Harrah out at Deep Roots Ranch. Here's her number." I called Jean, and got some information for Cynthia, and then asked a little more about her own operation, explaining that I write about farms. "We're raising heritage breeds of animals for meat and eggs, animals which take longer to mature." What kind of animals? Cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep, and most recently, some Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs.
While she talked, I Googled, and found a link to the breed. "The oldest spotted pedigree breed in the world" ... "Placid and easily managed - the most laidback pig"..."Producers of some of the best tasting pork and bacon." I don't know about you, but when I see words like "best tasting pork and bacon," I perk right up.
And so it came to pass that I arranged a visit to the ranch—and honestly, isn't "Deep Roots Ranch" such a beautiful name?—the following week. When she gave directions, Jean said, in her very melodious voice, "You'll know you're here because of all the chickens."
As is often the case these days, Justin Severino (chef-client-friend) asked if he could meet us there. I'd briefed him on what I knew: they sell every ounce of everything they produce on the ranch, and people come to them to get it. Most of their customers are from their Slow Food convivium, and some come from the Weston A. Price Foundation, as consumers who are deeply aware of the importance of healthy meat and dairy products, and who forego eating meat from animals who are loaded with antibiotics, and whose very flesh is permeated with the toxic air they breathe in their cramped living conditions.
I love the farmland and hills of Watsonville probably more than any single aspect of the topography of Santa Cruz county, which I think is one of the most beautiful places in the world. (Well, not if you think that skyscrapers constitute a necessity for a place to be considered beautiful. You kooky New Yorkers! Yes, indeed I do love your city but must you insist on being told every time I visit?) As I drove to the end of the road, I found myself gaping at my surroundings...the grass rippling in the breeze, the green and gold hillside, which faded to blue-green in the distance, and the clear blue sky. If this isn't what God's backyard looks like, I'll eat...a Hormel factory-farmed "Natural Choice" sandwich.
When I arrived, Jean and her partner, Bob Thorson, came out to meet me, and then that feeling dawned on me...that feeling of being led somewhere by the universe. Because I already knew them...I'd met Bob at Eco-Farm Conference back in January, when (who else?) Jim Dunlop introduced us. "You should go see their ranch, Tana." (I do what Jim tells me.) Bob hastily said, "Oh, but it's all mud right now. Come in the spring." And I wrote down contact information, got busy with life, and promptly forgot it. But it was a nice way to start the visit: with the comfort of familiar faces, knowing that a friendship was already possible because of the connections we share.
The rest of the greeting committee consisted of an enormous dog named Gort (think "Marmaduke on stilts") and two Bourbon Red turkey toms, a breed famous for its wonderful taste, along with two hens. Gort quickly had to be exiled to the house, as his enthusiasm for licking Logan, as well as his evident jealousy of the poultry I was photographing, led to his being An Impediment to Quality Time. (I love him, though: look at that face.)
After a little tame synchronized strutting and chuffing and gobbling, one of the toms mounted a hen in a brief but furious display of sexual prowess. "They only do that when company is here," Jean said. "It's uncanny." Bob laughed and intoned, "Turkey porn!" Luckily, Logan was busy making friends with the myriad chickens that roamed freely in the yard, road, and fields, but returned to proclaim of the birds: "Me wike dese big yickens!" (By the end of our visit, he knew they were "tohkeys.")
Note that the faces of the turkeys vary in coloration: they are red, white, and blue, but the percentage of each color fluctuates. They're like gigantic, feathered mood rings, I guess. And if you've seen the scene in Men in Black, where Will Smith is trying to name the aliens with the sagging bags of flesh under their mouths, these turkeys are, indeed, Ballchinians. Though relatively mild-mannered, the birds nevertheless terrorize Jean's poor mother, who is both petite and elderly...she wields her broom to keep them off her steps, and the turkeys take it personally.
And it is Jean's elderly mother and father who are responsible for the mid-life change that brought Jean and Bob to create Deep Roots Ranch. Jean had grown up on the property, which is sixty (60!) acres in Watsonville, and moved for 25 years to Michigan. She was supposed to be vacationing and visiting an aunt, but just stayed. There, she worked at world-famous Zingerman's as a "food development specialist," which meant she would develop recipes according to the owner's ideas. For example, one month Zingerman's highlighted the foods of Sephardic Jews, with the Mediterranean and Spanish influences, and it was Jean's job to create recipes that typified that cuisine. She then worked first as chef's assistant for several years, with a few months as head chef for several years in the University of Michigan's catering department.
Eighteen years ago, Jean met her partner, Bob Thorson, when she was a student in his t'ai chi chuan class. "If you had told me three years ago that I would be living here, and ranching, I'd have laughed in your face," she told me.
"Well, how did it come about?" I asked.
She told me her father had telephoned to let her know that he and her mother were considering what to do with the property, as they were getting old and couldn't manage it any more. "Don't sell it, whatever you do!" she exclaimed. "Bob and I will come out." Just like that, without consulting him at all, she said.
Bob grinned, "And I had to deliberate in about the time it takes you to blink your eyes."
"Because you wouldn't have to endure another Michigan winter, and you're not stupid?" I laughed.
He nodded. "Yep."
So Jean and Bob went off to take a three-day intensive workshop with Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms in Virginia, who is the personal hero of Jim Dunlop and a whole bunch of other people. (He's getting to be one of mine.) Every word I've heard about him is fascinating. He developed the Pastured Poultry movable pen that I've seen in use. (Go read "Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal" in his articles, and check out his recommended books.)
[An aside: Salatin figures prominently in the book I've been savoring...literally, I don't want to finish it because it's so tasty...Pig Perfect by Peter Kaminsky. Salatin refuses to ship his products anywhere, and so Kaminsky had to go to Virginia to see what Salatin is up to. And speaking of Kaminsky: you need to read this book. It's fabulous, if for no other reason than his description of a BBQ sandwich: "The bun—still soggy from the sauce and slaw—helps the barbecue slide down your gullet, in Howlin' Wolf's words, "like Baby Jesus in satin pants."]
Jean said, "You wake up at seven a.m., and the first thing you see is 120 chickens being slaughtered. You are just there to observe, but it's intense." These workshops are limited to thirty people, and are not for the faint of heart, clearly. I think Jean and Bob went to see if they could handle the bloody side of ranching.
"So you either get Jesus or you leave?" She understood what I meant and laughed.
"It's funny you say that because there is something very much like a preacher about him. He's very passionate, very clear."
We talked about all this while strolling around the fields and yard. They acquainted me with what I was seeing, such as the deep back of the glossy black Langshan hen, at right. "The Langshan is a Chinese breed," Bob told me, "And it is the name of the mountain village where they were raised." (Wikipedia says differently, but I believe Bob and the websites I Googled.)
They raise La Fleche, Marans, Buff Orpingtons, Salmon Favorelles, Speckled Sussexes, Golden Wyandottes (the beautiful brown and black hen pictured in the center of the photo at left), Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, Delawares, and possibly other breeds of chickens and roosters as well, both for meat and for egg production. They are eliminating the Delawares, though, as other birds are tastier. Currently, the Marans sell at $5/pound, being both incredibly tasty as well as slow to mature, and the Buff Orpingtons are $4/pound. Eggs are $4/dozen.
Beef, which is not yet available, will be sold by the side or split half. Lambs, from the pedestrian (read: not heritage) Suffolk sheep, are completely sold out until next year.
One amazing thing about Deep Roots Ranch is that they haven't need to advertise or sell at farmers markets. In this case, word of watering mouths has done all their marketing for Jean and Bob: people come from over the hill to pick up their eggs, chickens, and meat. For people who have never seen a farm or ranch, Deep Roots fills a hole—a kind of nostalgia that is probably in all of us who long for simpler, quieter times and ways. It's also educational, and families bring their children on pick-up days.
Here you see a picture of Nutmeg, whose milk and butter Jean has shared with friends, some of whom have never seen their bovine benefactor. She's really the most beautiful cow: the Normande markings can be downright giraffe-like in places. (She is Raymond's mother.) When I sent this photo to Jean, she quickly e-mailed it around to these friends, presumably to make them sick with jealousy that they didn't live on sixty halcyon acres near the Santa Cruz mountains with a gleaming cow whose udders are bursting with cream.
Bob and Jean told me that they are often asked questions as though they are some kind of experts, which they find amusing. "We did a lot of reading, but our experience is limited to our time here on the ranch," which could be measured still in months or baby-years. Surely their collective intelligence as contributed to their success: some of Bob's former occupations include being a geo-physicist and owning an automobile shop called Beyond Repair. (Yes, their wit is one of the things I'm enjoying most in our acquaintanceship.)
Recently Bob drove up to Oregon to pick up some Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs, including a couple for farmer friend, Jerry Thomas, who has been studying up on heritage pigs. The pigs, which are the very essence of piggyness, will grow to be about four hundred pounds (or so says Bob Thorson). When I asked, "When we they be that big," he laughed and said, "See? No idea. We haven't been there yet."
On a subsequent visit, when we stood gazing at the porcine beauties, he said, "But they might get bigger than four hundred pounds. They might get this big [and made his arms as big as a Volkswagen]. We just don't know."
I have been out to the ranch three or four times now, partly to get acquainted with them better so I can design a website. It isn't to generate sales for their business, as that's not needed, but to introduce Deep Roots Ranch to the world. I have found myself deeply intrigued and interested by everything going on at the ranch, and was triggered into a 180-degree reverse of my world view when Bob said these words: "We don't call ourselves ranchers. We call ourselves grass farmers, and the animals are helping us manage the grass." He pulled out a book that had been a gift from a friend, called Pasture and Range Plants, and which was produced (oh, the irony) by the Phillips Petroleum Company in 1963. Subsequent editions ran well into the Seventies, when presumably the oil people looked at the ravaged environment and said, "My work here is through!"
Pasture and Range Plants is an uncommonly handsome book inside. The uncredited illustrations are of individual grasses, legumes, and forbs ("A broad-leaved herb other than a grass, especially one growing in a field, prairie, or meadow"—from Dictionary.com), each set against a black background. Many have illustrations of the roots of the plants, and it was over this book that I came to understand even more about what constitutes a ranch.
You might think "terroir" applies only to wine and grapes, but let me tell you otherwise. On one visit, Bob had moved the cows to another pasture, and Nutmeg started giving milk of a different flavor. Think about that, and then think how difficult it is for a farmer or rancher to achieve any kind of consistency in producing a quart of milk for the larger market. Jean said, "Yesterday, she ate something that didn't please us. Today we tried to guide her to the clover, but she wasn't interested."
The names of the grasses growing at Deep Roots Ranch are evocative: Reed Canarygrass, Timothy, Birdsfoot Trefoil, California Burdock, Creeping Alfalfa, Red Clover, Subterranean Clover, Orchard Grass, Italian Ryegrass (pictured above), and Blue Panicum. Each serves a purpose: each contributes to the health of the animals, and the balance of the pastures. There is a cycle of grazing and mowing (if your herd isn't big enough), and managing chickens and cows and sheep and pigs and turkeys and, oh yes, guinea hens. (The guinea hens are relatively shy, and I have no photographs of them yet.)
On my most recent outing to Watsonville, I stopped by to drop off a copy of Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef, and a book new to me, by Jenny Kurzweil—Fields that Dream: A Journey to the Roots, of Our Food . I was pleased to be introducing Jean, a devout foodie, to Ruhlman, and equally delighted to loan her my copy of Jenny's book, which brings me to the next chapter in this piece.
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A couple of weeks ago, I received a lovely e-mail from Jenny, saying this (edited for relevance):
I have been meaning to write to you for a long time. I first learned about your blog from a poster outside of Gabriella Café, and have loved visiting your site ever since. It truly is a wonderful, wonderful site. I think you would be a great resource for a project I am working on.
I recently published a book, Fields that Dream: A Journey to the Roots of Our Food, (Fulcrum 2005) Here is the publisher’s blurb:
Fields That Dream explores the lives of refugees, immigrants, former chefs, insurance brokers, and union organizers who are now small-scale sustainable farmers. Each chapter of the book combines the story of a farmer who sells at a successful farmers market with a social/cultural history of agriculture in the United States. Although based in Seattle, the farmer's stories resonate on a national level as they speak about expansion and conventional agriculture. Ultimately, Fields That Dream is a celebration of community and shows how small-scale farmers work to bridge the ever-widening gap between rural and urban areas.
I am scheduled to give a book talk at the Capitola Book Café on Thursday, July 6th at 7:30 PM. Rather than go at it alone, I thought this would be a great opportunity to create a community event—a celebration of local food and farmers at the height of the summer. This could also be a great opportunity to let the folks know about work that is being done in the local sustainable agriculture community e.g., your blog and beautiful photography.
I would love to speak with you further about how we might collaborate on this. I have also contacted [some other people about participating, too]. It would be an honor for you to consider participation. I would also love to hear some ideas you might have about this event.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Jenny's book is focused on Seattle farmers and growers, as that's where she was living when she wrote it. She has since moved to Santa Cruz. (I skimmed the books at our first meeting, which took place in a downtown restaurant near where Jenny works.) She is a singular young woman (yeah, I can call someone in their thirties young), about whom ace food blogger Derrick Schneider (ObsessionWithFood.com) told me:
I'm sure you'll like Jenny. She's one of those people who strike you immediately as warm and sensitive. I'm sure you'll love the book, since it's similar in tone to Small Farms. I heard that Jenny is the daughter of Bettina Aptheker and Jack Kurzweil (divorced now), both of whom were pivotal figures in the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. It's odd because I'm reading about that time period right now since I'm writing a piece about the context of the Berkeley Food Movement, and the political movements are key factors.
He was right: I did like Jenny. I'm a sucker, always, for a pretty voice, and Jenny's is so soothing and beautiful. And so, despite my odd conflict of being shy and being a loudmouth (the shy outweighs the loudmouth in certain circumstances, like if I'm in a room with people who are more interested in fashion and "see and be seen" posturing), I found myself wanting to contribute something to Jenny's reading.
On July 6 (the calendar is wrong: it says Thom Broz is appearing, but he had a conflict), you can meet Jenny Kurzweil and my farming friend, Jasmine Roohani, as well as "grass farmers," Jean Harrah and Bob Thorson (that's him in his great hat, at left). I suggested them all as people who never ever thought they'd grow up to work a farm or ranch. Along with them, I roped the chef from Gabriella Café to produce some food for the reading, which truly will be a celebration of food and farms. I'm contributing a slideshow, myself.
So there will be more in these pages about Deep Roots Ranch. I'm smitten with the whole business...you'll see. Every visit contains nuggets and tidbits...the La Fleche rooster, when he runs, looks like the very arrow he's named for.
Jean and I were talking about good restaurants around here, and she said, "We don't often get off the ranch. There's so much work...but it doesn't feel like work." Watching her swing the bucket of chicken feed into their feeder, and the economy of movement used to accomplish her tasks, I got the lightbulb over the head: "You're doing t'ai chi with chickens!"
And we both laughed because it was so true. And it's why she and Bob are so suited to their new lives.
Deep Roots Ranch. So much to say, so much to tell. It is just beginning. You'll love their story.
I'm visiting again very soon: Justin delivered some lamb sausage unto me that is (and I mostly always cannot stand the very dead taste of lamb) the best sausage I have ever had. The boy has a gift. (Yes, I can call a twenty-seven-year-old a boy.) He wants to give some to Jean and Bob, and we're apparently scheduled for a freakin' dawn-to-dusk tour of farms next week.
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THOUGHT(S) FOR THE DAY: “I see too deep and too much.” — Henri Barbusse
Hey, by the same guy, ya gotta love these. (No, you don't. But I do. They speak to me.)
“It is not a woman I want—it is all women.” — Henri Barbusse
“Two armies that fight each other is like one large army that commits suicide.” — Henri Barbusse
And this, from the uncle of the Other White John Astin, both of whom are brilliant: “We are running ourselves into a damaged earth. But I am optimistic. I believe that we can change; we must change. As a human race, we are very young and quite primitive. The sooner we learn the greatness of humanity the better off we will all be.” —John Astin
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Thanks for visiting. I'm off to Reno for a couple of days to meet with a client, Chef Natalie Keller, at Fourth Street Bistro. I'm not renting a car, but maybe I can still get to a farm. (She has two farms growing for her.)
P.S. You can find multiple mentions of Deep Roots Ranch, with some photos by clicking the Google button. Here. Jean and Bob remain two of my personal heroes. I've been there more times than I can count, and it's one of the most beautiful farms in the world. All they need on those hills is a castle, and you'd be in Italy.