Posts in Farm Life
Primal Pastures :: What We Learned on the Farm
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Do you know where baby chickens come from? Have you ever seen a chicken eat grass? How about a chicken house on the move?


Primal Pastures is doing everything right in order to raise chickens that are among the purest, healthiest, highest quality chickens raised in SoCal, and I have so much to tell you about it!

That said, this could easily become the longest article ever, and I'd be giving you important information that already exists… on the Primal Pastures website and in “The Omnivore's Dilemma” by Michael Pollen – both of which we strongly urge you to read.

Instead, I've decided to give you the highlights of the trip. The info, images, and video-worthy moments that made me say, “Wow!” and “I’ve never seen that before!” because odds are if I hadn’t seen it, you may not have seen it either.

Where Do Baby Chicks Come From?

Baby chicks arrive to Primal Pastures each Wednesday at just two days old, and believe it or not, they are shipped from Iowa via the United States Postal Service! And it’s totally normal.

The tiny chicks are packed carefully into a ventilated box just like this one, with a soft tray and padding on the bottom. There are roughly 20 teeny tiny chicks per square that stay huddled together for warmth, mimicking how they would spend their first days with their mother.

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It’s uncommon for chicken farms of any size to hatch their own birds so they work with hatcheries that raise the breed of chicken they are looking for.  In the case of Primal Pastures, it's heritage birds that have not been bred for quick growth, or large breasts, or any of the other weird stuff that industrial farmers look for in a chicken.

Upon arrival to the farm the chicks are placed in the brooder; a small barn-like structure with indoor/outdoor access, heat lamps, food and water.  Chicks need one another and lots of heat to stay warm and healthy in their few days of life. Once they are strong enough, they move outside to live on pasture until they are 11 weeks old. Nearly 5 weeks longer than an industrially raised bird.

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Chickens Really Do Eat Grass!

Given the chance to live free in the wild, chickens would choose to eat grass, bugs and worms. They would be following their primal instincts… see where I’m going with this?  At Primal Pastures the goal is for chickens to live as closely as possible to how they would in the wild, but without the risk of predatory animals and with the end goal of feeding humans who choose to eat meat.

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I had read and been told about chickens eating grass and bugs but I'd never actually seen it until I visited Primal Pastures for the first time.

Check out this video I captured of chickens who have just been moved to fresh pasture, chowing down on grass and bugs! (hint: when it looks like they’re eating but you can’t see anything, they’re eating tiny bugs!)
 

(A Wes Anderson Worthy) Chicken House on the Move

Primal Pastures follows the Joel Salatin method of raising chickens.  75-90 heritage breed birds live in several “chicken tractors” and upwards of 520 chickens live in a large coop on the farm.

Both styles of housing allow for the same amount of ‘personal’ space and room to move around for each bird, and has a supply of fresh water and certified organic feed that is free of soy and antibiotics of any kind. In fact, if there are signs of a cold or illness going around apple cider vinegar is added to the water supply to help keep the birds healthy.

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The tractors and coops are moved every morning, even Christmas day, to ensure fresh pasture for the chickens and proper manure deposit to each plot of land. (read Omnivore's Dilemma… manure is very important)

I scored this Wes Anderson worthy video of one of the larger chicken houses on the move during my visit.


Pasture-raised, Beyond Organic, Meats for Sale

Paul Greive and his family are raising 7,000 chickens, six pigs, two cows and a small herd of sheep all on pasture in Murrieta, CA. They do it so that we have a resource, a farm, a company, to spend our money with and to cast our votes with.

Those of us who purchase their meats, and meats from similar farms, do so to let big ag and huge corporations know that we are demanding something better than what they have to offer, and that we know it’s possible to achieve.

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Primal Pastures is a quiet, peaceful, really beautiful farm. There are no smells other than fresh air, there is a lot of open space, and they welcome visitors. From what I know, and all that I've read, this is just what a great farm should be like.

If you’re a Home Cook and would like to support Primal Pastures and purchase their pasture-raised, beyond organic meats, visit their Farm Shop.  Delivery is currently available in CA, AZ and NV.

Chefs, Restaurants + Retail businesses in California can purchase Pasture Bird chickens, Primal Pasture's sister company, direct from a distributor.  You can Contact Sarah for more info and to be connected with a representative. 

Rancho San Julian :: Doing more than Raising Cattle
Rancho San Julian Cattle

The current drought in Southern California is the longest in recorded history. What does a rancher do when she has 50% less cattle to raise and sell?

Elizabeth Poette is a sustainable, pastured cattle rancher in Lompoc, CA where on this October day, the heat and sun are intense, and the earth is very dry and brown. Because of the drought, Elizabeth had to make the difficult decision to cut the amount of cattle she is raising at Rancho San Julian in half. HALF!

It was important to keep as many mother cows as possible - that is Rancho San Julian's genetics and part of the equation for producing high quality, 100% grass-fed beef - but that meant that a lot of the beef program cattle had to be let go, sold to other farms, because there is not enough food on the hills to feed them all. With less cattle on the pastures, there is less beef to sell to customers.

It’s so hard to do the right thing in food, and make money. Here I am running out of beef. That’s not the best business plan… that’s not cool. But we have standards, and we stick to them, and that’s that. And so, we make other things work, and have other projects. — Elizabeth Poett

What does a rancher do when she's got 50% less cattle to raise and sell? She makes other things work, and has other projects. One such project is the Rancho San Julian farm.

Rancho San Julian

Rancho San Julian is one of the last great Spanish-Mexican land grants that remains in the family of the original grantee. Established in 1817 under the management of the Presidio of Santa Barbara as a source of meat and income for the presidio soldiers, Elizabeth is the 7th generation of ranchers who have lived and raised cattle on this land.

We are greeted by Elizabeth along the old stage coach road that runs right through the ranch, then joined her son Hank in the front yard of the old adobe house built in the early 1800s. Our tour begins in the house, in the cowboy's dining room. Now used for meetings and weddings, this is the room where cowboys working on the ranch would dine on food grown in the garden and prepared by their chef.

We walk from the dining room through the rest of the house. The rooms seem untouched by time, all beautiful and containing little historical treasures like a grocery bill from 1896 that hangs on the wall in the kitchen. We exit through a side door and are lead toward the garden.

Managed by biodynamic farmer Chris Thompson, this year’s garden was a bit smaller than usual due to the lack of water, but produced wonderful produce including tomatoes, kale, red and yellow watermelon, onions, garlic, eggplant, squash, figs, table grapes, apricots, and strawberries. Much of what is grown in the garden is sold at local farmers markets and to CSAs, and Elizabeth and her sons often come to the garden to gather produce for their meals.

Farmer Chris also creates biodynamic compost from the vegetable scraps and manure the farm produces. It is sold and delivered to other farms and wineries throughout Santa Barbara County.

Elizabeth Poette
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Freshly picked strawberries to enjoy as we walked through the garden.

Costada Romanesco Squash

Costada Romanesco Squash

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Table grapes growing on the ranch for the first time this year.

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A short walk from the vegetable patches, we find the apricot orchard and a small field of bright pink roses that have the most beautiful smell!

The roses are a project started by a Frenchman who planned to create perfume, but subsequently turned out to be not such a great farmer. Elizabeth's father purchased the plants from the gentleman and now plans to care for them and distill them, along with the fields of lavender he's been growing and distilling for many years.

From the garden we ascend down the dirt road that brought us into the ranch, past a pond, and to a large field of dry-farmed heirloom melons. Jerry, a retired farmer who use to manage Rancho San Julian's Lima Bean crop now grows these melons for fun, and for Elizabeth to sell at local markets.

The melon seeds came from Japan after World War II, are saved every year, and amazingly need no real human intervention other than the hand that plants them. Elizabeth seems genuinely amazed at how Jerry, or rather these seeds, are able to produce such delicious melons year after year.

He plants the seeds in the field, and they grow. There is absolutely no water used, and they are really spectacular!

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Across the road from the melon field is a large, beautiful, white barn full of hay and some farm equipment. Farmer Chris Volla grows the hay on the ranch in order to feed Elizabeth's herd when there is no fresh grass on the pastures.

In addition to the hay, Chris grows and processes a large crop of Lima Beans for Rancho San Julian. We stopped in the barn to feel the enormity of the piles of hay Chris has produced, then hopped into Elizabeth's pickup truck and took a short drive to the bean field.

Rancho San Julian Hay
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Just a few days before our visit the lima beans had been harvested and were awaiting transport to the bean mill. The machinery, and beans were still in the field, and Elizabeth filled us in on how the whole process works.

This giant machine on the left is called a harvester. The harvester is pulled through the field by a tractor and grabs each individual plant from the ground as it goes. The plant is sent upward within the machine where it is separated from the bean pod, then the beans are shelled and sent into the large trailer being pulled behind the harvester. It's like a rather short, rather loud, very efficient farm train.

We climbed to the top of the harvester to get a first hand look at the huge mounds of beans. From here, the beans will be taken to the mill where they are sorted to remove dirt, rocks, bad beans, and beans that aren’t the 'right size'.


All of this, is what a rancher does...

in addition to raising cattle according to her very high standards, to help ensure the ranch survives drought and other unforeseen issues with its primary business.

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Her family and their team grows and sells a diverse mix of crops at farmers markets, to CSAs and to packing houses; they produce and sell compost; they grow and distill lavender and roses; they grow and store hay to ensure the cattle that remain on the ranch are well fed; they keep the grounds beautiful for visitors, weddings and events.

Each of these small businesses within Rancho San Julian help to keep it alive and enable Elizabeth's family to continue to raise cattle on the land that was granted to them centuries ago.

These projects aren't new to the ranch. Some, like the garden, have been working since the 1800s and will continue to be part of the daily ranch life in years of drought and years of abundant rain to help ensure its longevity.

If we desire high quality, sustainably raised, grass-fed beef from Elizabeth and others like her we must ask: How can I help? If I can't buy her beef, what can I do to support her and to help ensure that there will be beef come next Spring?

The answer is to support her other endeavors, and to be there at the markets, ready to purchase when she returns in the Spring.

Photos by: Aliza J. Sokolow