Have you ever wanted to see where your food is grown? Or how a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm manages all those different crops?
Last spring we visited Eatwell Farm near Dixon, California, about seventy-five miles northeast of San Francisco.
Eatwell is a CSA that provides organic produce, free-range eggs and chicken to its members.
Through its online store, the farm sells honey, essential oils, beverages, herb-infused salts and sugars, sauces, herbal infusions, home-grown wheat berries and fresh-ground wheat.
It’s also a farm with a heart.
Meet Emily, our guide
Driving on country roads lined with orchards on one side and flat fields on the other, we found the farm easily, and turned up the lane.
Before we unbuckled our seat belts, Emily came toward us with the biggest, happiest greeting on her face.
Emily is the farm’s CSA manager and event coordinator. She posed for photos at the end of our tour, and I got this shot of her fabulous smile, which we saw throughout our stay.
Emily graciously and patiently let us photograph every aspect of the farm we saw, with the understanding I planned to share pics from our tour on my blogs. Here, she’s holding a bag of their freshly milled heirloom Sonora whole wheat flour, which she generously gifted me as we were leaving. I can tell you, it made tasty sourdough loaves.
A family owned farm whose workers are part of its extended family
We didn’t get to meet the owners, Nigel and Lorraine Walker, who were away for the day. Another time! The Walkers run the farm with the help of their foreman Jose, who manages a crew of seventeen long-term, full-time employees.
How many farmers have you met who provide full-time, year-round employment, a living wage, and health benefits? I can tell you that every farmer with whom I’ve ever had that conversation explained to me in no uncertain terms it wasn’t possible to break even, let alone make a profit, if they broke with accepted practice. That is, to use workers seasonally, part-time, at the lowest allowed wage (which in some states is below minimum wage) and without benefits.
Providing benefits and living wages is part of the Eatwell Farm philosophy and mission that gives it both heart and soul. That’s not all. As a young man, Nigel, as Emily referred to him throughout our visit, set out to learn the best organic, low-water-use farming practices possible.
We soon discovered just how far he’d taken those youthful aspirations. With its earth-packed farmhouse and outbuildings, its pond from which they channel drip irrigation, and chickens scratching in the fields, Eatwell is well on its way to becoming a full-on permaculture holding.
Come along. Take a look around the place, and see for yourself.
An uncommon farmhouse–heart of the property
The Walkers live in an amazing house they built–sculpted is a better term–of reinforced concrete, which they then covered with two and a half–or more–feet of dirt from the farm.
The farmhouse, with its living roof and curvaceous walls, is in the shape of a Maltese cross, or nearly so, with four vaults, each an arm of the cross, two of which you see here.
A skylight (see the little cupola on the roof) over the grand main room helps illuminate the interior. Emily graciously invited us in at the end of our tour.
The moment we stepped inside the glass doors, we felt the coolness. Insulated with soil excavated from the front acreage, the house stays fairly cool in summer and warm when the winds turn nippy.
Surprisingly light, the interior revealed first the great room, lit by the cupola skylight and windows from the front entry. Taking up a good half of that space–a huge kitchen/dining room with wonderful reclaimed cabinetry and every appliance and pot this little cook would love to have, plus the space to use them.
While Emily graciously permitted us to take photographs of that marvelous kitchen, I won’t share them, in deference to the family’s privacy. It is their home, after all.
Let’s step outside and cross the lane, to the pond. But first, take a look at the house and pond from the air.
Designed as part of the landscape, the house is barely discernible on Google maps. You can just make it out, north of the pond, surrounded entirely by the lane. Note its four crescent-shaped openings and barely visible cupola.
Roaming the pond
Khaki Campbell ducks, guard geese, chickens and various wild fowl enjoy a free range of the pond and its surrounds. Emily tells us that they also sometimes see assorted small, wild waterfowl, as well as egrets and the Great Blue Heron.
Can you guess where the pond came from? It’s the hole left after the Walkers built their house. Working to convert their land to a permaculture farm, the Walkers planned the pond when they planned their home. (Learn more about the benefits of a permaculture pond at Freshwater Ecosystems.)
In permaculture, every part of the land meshes with the whole and has multiple purposes. Small reservoirs, like the pond, provide a source of food and water to crops and animals.
Not only does the pond supply water to crops through feeder lines to the fields, it changes the micro-climate as well, cooling the air.
No doubt about it, Eatwell is a working farm
Evidence that this is a working farm abounds. Near the pond, just off the lane, stands a tall stack of used burlap sacks.
The coffee grounds help nourish the soil under the farm’s citrus trees. The cocoa husks carpet the greenhouse floor. Like the sacks, which are 100 percent biodegradable, the cocoa husks also mulch plants and trees, helping to keep weeds down.
In the warm sun, the husks smelled wonderfully of chocolate. Visions of Fair Trade mocha lattes danced in our heads, soon to be forgotten as we headed to greet some of the domestic farm animals.
Farm animals and wildlife aplenty
Right away, as we pulled into the property, we noticed a beautiful white goose swimming on the pond, which she (or he) shared with wild ducks and other wildlife.
Here, behind the pond, you see one of several portable chicken coops we found throughout the property. The farm hands build all the structures housing the animals, chickens and food processing activities on the farm.
Two cows and a beautiful horse
In addition to plenty of free-roaming fowl, the farm boasts assorted farmyard animals, including the heavily pregnant Guernsey cow, Helen May and her daughter Maybelle, along with their companion, the Belgian mare, Stella.
Emily took us right up close and personal to these darlings, which were curious enough of the visitors gawking and cooing. When we moved in to take pictures, though, the girls let us know they weren’t here just for show and turned their backs on the camera. I respect that. Don’t you?
Cluck, cluck, cluck
The farm raises heritage chickens, most of whom have free-range of the property. The hens were as curious to look us over as we were to see them. This is one of the laying hens, a hybrid of Rhode Island red and white rock cross, a breed especially adapted to cage-free living.
Some of the chickens begin their lives in cages. Below, you see Black Australorps, valued for their egg production as well as their meat.
The farm does a fair amount of research with its breeding stock. Cages house the Black Australorps for their first year, so the researchers can monitor their feed and production.
At the end of the year, high layers go out to pasture, with free rein of the farm. Low breeders, as well as the roosters, go into the stock pot. Emily tells us that Lorraine’s chicken stock is world-famous, and that, when it’s cooking, she just wants to dip a spoon into the pot and eat it straight. It’s that good.
A small cave-like shed houses the chick incubators, where newly hatched chickens spend the first few weeks of their lives. Workers used industrial balloons to build these structures. First, they inflated the balloons. Next, they built the re-bar and concrete structure around the balloon, which they then deflated and removed. Neat, eh?
We got to hold the chicks! Emily showed us how to pick them up and hold them to calm them. This one had a lot to say about the matter. Can you see its little tongue?
I was so afraid I’d drop this one, that I held it cupped ever so lightly in my hands. It’s little wings flapping against my palms felt almost like feathers fluttering against them–surprisingly strong feathers!
You can see how displeased she is. Downright grumpy, I’d say. Not wanting to cause her more distress, I soon put her back with her sisters and brothers, thanking her for letting me hold her. I doubt she would have said “You’re welcome.”
On to the fields!
Throughout our tour, on this bright, hot morning, we enjoyed wildflower sightings, like this gorgeous thistle.
And a few domestic blooms, like these hollyhocks.
Unlike the hollyhocks of my youth, usually found growing six feet high against the sun-washed southern exposure of a shed, long-ago bleached of all paint and varnish, these grow in what appears to be a carefully controlled plot in a small, straw-strewn bed whose purpose we never quite learned.
As we headed for the fields, we could almost feel the farmhouse beating, heart of the property that it is.
Everywhere, we spied chickens scratching and clucking, and always nearby, a wind break of Lombardi poplars, just as we had on the farms of my childhood.
Fruit trees planted in short rows
Interspersed between rows of lavender and other herbs, strawberry plants, and grape vines, we found occasional short rows of fruit trees.
As the farm gradually converts to a permaculture holding, typical orchards and row crops give way to companion planting.
The Walkers began converting from a conventional organic farm to a permaculture holding about six years ago. At that time, Nigel stopped laying compost, relying instead on the hooves and offal of animals, such as the chickens and sheep.
The full conversion should be complete in ten to fifteen years. We look forward to returning to the farm in a year or two to view the progress. I’ve never seen a full-on permaculture holding. Have you? If you have, tell us a bit about it in the comments won’t you?
Near the dirt lane running between the fields, we came upon this tree with peaches ripening, not quite ready to pluck, and these odd things, which looked like they might be nectarines, but none of us could be sure.
Nearby, this tree, whose fruit I did not recognize, either. Plums perhaps? But that one is so large!
As we peppered Emily with questions, she explained that typically farm owner Nigel would have been our guide and could have named every plant and critter on the property. Fortunately for us, she took his place with cheery aplomb. We thoroughly enjoyed our stroll about the place under her guidance.
By now, the white-hot sun beat relentlessly on our heads. Thank goodness for coastal breezes making their way over the hills!
Right away, as we came upon these rows of grape vines, we noticed a slight change in the air, a little welcome coolness. I wanted to sit down in the shade of those vines and rest a bit, but with so much left to see, how could we? Excitement and anticipation won out.
Long variegated rows stretch far and away
You won’t find mono-crops in the large-scale on a CSA. We stopped to pluck a sprig of lavender in one row, various herbs in another, and strawberries. Emily encouraged us. “Eat your fill!”
Meandering through the strawberry rows, mostly spent for the season, we nibbled the sweetest, vine ripe berries we’d tasted in a long time, pausing now and then to take in the view.
Just look at that sky, and those sleepy mountains in the background. They are one of the many coastal ranges that separate California’s Big Valley from the Pacific Ocean. I looked at half a dozen different online maps, but could not discern for certain the name of that range. Pretty though, yes?
Lazy sheep and a friendly goat
Stooping now and then to check out unusual bugs, plants and scat, we headed across the field, toward the mountains, where we came upon a paddock of sheep and goats, owned by another farmer.
He pastures his critters here on Eatwell farm. In return, the ruminants drop fertilizer on the ground, grinding it in with their hooves and aerating the soil as they go.
The fence you see here is temporary, easily rolled up and moved to another part of the field. After a harvest, the sheep and their guard goat come in and muck about the field, leaving dabs of hair and wool, gobbling up the edible remains of the crops, and generally nurturing the soil.
Here’s a patch of wool, which Ma Nature eventually works into the soil as she does everything else.
We saw scat too, though none of us could say for sure what animal left it behind. It looked a little like rabbit to me, but it’s been way too many decades since I last saw rabbit doo to be sure.
In keeping with their organic and permaculture philosophy, the Walkers encourage wildlife.
“We really want hawks and other predators, like owls,” Emily said, “because it means we have ground squirrels and other animals that belong here.”
Here you see a raptor nesting box on a power pole, and maybe, just maybe, a little beak poking out.
Of course, raptors like chickens, too.
Chicken houses on wheels keep the girls safe at night
We came upon the remains of a chicken, plunder for a hungry animal or bird of prey with whom the Walkers and their charges share the farm. Don’t worry. I didn’t photograph that one, though I have to admit I thought about it. I spent enough of my childhood on and near farms to have developed a relatively healthy outlook on the cycle of life.
The chickens enjoy a free-roaming life on the farm, scratching in the fields and grasses, gobbling up bugs and seeds, and aerating the soil with their clawed feet. To keep them safe, the farm builds coops on wheels, like the ones you see here.
Between the ceiling and the top of the wall, lies a good foot of space, I reckon, covered in mesh wire so the hens are safe at night, but allowing plenty of fresh air flow. When it’s time to move the chickens to a new field, or part of a field, the farm hands take down the portable fences and hook a tractor up to the houses. Easy peasy.
The tank on the trailer to the left of the photograph holds some of the supplemental feed–a mixture of organic wheat and soy. Until recently, Emily told us, the Walkers purchased organic soy from a China-based grower. Just now, in keeping with their mission to lower their carbon footprint, they’ve contracted with a local grower. The local farmer isn’t certified organic yet, but grows non-GMO soy using organic practices.
I don’t remember even my grandmother’s chickens being as happy as these cluckers. Here are a few in the doorway to their mobile home.
These chickens seemed to be giving what-for to the outsider, especially the one third from the right, who is leaning down and gabbling with her mouth wide open. While we watched, they all took a turn, having their say.
Here you see a couple, up close and personal. Just look how strong their legs are, how bright and colorful their feathers. Their combs stick up, perky and strong, too, a sure sign these are happy, healthy birds.
Taking leave with full hearts and a box of goodies
Our two and a half hour tour energized us more, despite the heat, than it wore our old bodies out. Emily’s love and knowledge of the farm shone through in her pride and enthusiasm for all the Walkers and their crew have accomplished, as well as their plans for the future.
Not surprisingly she admitted, as she opened the door to a refrigerated storage container, that she is fortunate to have found her dream job. Climbing inside, she flashed that delightful grin and handed down a box filled with fresh-picked farm goodies.
In addition to the tour, the nominal fee we paid for today’s adventure afforded us, as it does all tour visitors, a sample CSA box. Filled to the brim with romaines and kale, cucumbers, assorted root vegetables, some early tomatoes and more, our box fed us goodies for two weeks.
Everywhere, we saw evidence of the hard work that goes into keeping a multi-crop farm going. The work there, quite literally, is never done. We look forward to returning one day and seeing how the permaculture aspect is evolving.
Would you like to know more?
If you’d like to learn more about Eatwell Farm, check out their website, where you can order some of the homemade goodies they produce there, including their fresh-ground Sonora wheat. If you plan to be in the Sacramento/San Francisco Bay Area, sign up for a tour or plan to attend one of their events.
How does Eatwell Farm compare to farms you’ve known? How does it differ? Would you like to take an in-person tour?