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  • HOME
    • LOCAL EATS IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA’S CENTRAL VALLEY

    • LOCAL LIBATIONS INCLUDING BEER, WINE, MILK & COFFEE

    • FOOD FOR THOUGHT

    • GARDENING. EVENTS. TRAVEL. SHOPPING. MEET YOUR MAKERS.

    • FIND STORIES ABOUT LOCAL FOOD, FARMS, CHEFS, ARTISANS AND MORE IN OUR PAST ISSUE ARCHIVE.

    • FRESH, LOCAL, SEASONAL RECIPES AND KITCHEN INSPIRATION.

    • SUBSCRIBE TO THE MAGAZINE AND NEVER MISS AN ISSUE.

    • WHO WE ARE – HOW TO ADVERTISE – CONTACT US

A SENSE OF PLACE

HARVESTS ON BRUSH ARBOR FARMSTEAD

Heritage breeds like Red Wattle, Tamworth, and Berkshire thrive on the Cottonwood farmstead. Photos courtesy of Brush Arbor Farmstead.

The sun, waking a little later each morning, waits until after the sixth hour to light the sky and warm the ground. Blue oak leaves have long since begun to slip into their sepia tones, trading the heights of the canopy for their annual tumble to the floor below. The acorns aren’t far behind, raining from the treetops with each gusty breeze and rolling beneath the boots with every step.

The little black-tailed buck, the one that was just a lone spike last year, reemerges from the trees with a couple more points in his rack and his sights set on the doe grazing the creek bottom. Digger pine branches flex and flutter as ponderous wild turkeys descend from their twilight perches. In the distance, piercing yips and barks of adolescent coyote pups bid a final farewell to the night and call the livestock guardian dogs into instant pursuit.

A faint nip in the air at the breaking of the dawn confirms previous perceptions: the season has turned. Fall has fallen upon this wild Northern California woodland and this feral little farmstead nestled within it.

Guineafowl rest on a fallen tree, but appearances are deceiving. The birds raise a ruckus if a predator approaches.

A faint nip in the air at the breaking of the dawn confirms previous perceptions: the season has turned. Fall has fallen upon this wild Northern California woodland and this feral little farmstead nestled within it.

HOW WE GOT HERE

This time of year in the north valley has never ceased to be my favorite. I was raised a farm kid right here, growing up in Palo Cedro with Cow Creek as the eastern border of my family’s property. You name it, we farmed it: from sheep and cattle to oats and row crops. I had an affinity for the livestock, spending many a night in the barn during lambing season and rarely missing a chance to ride after cows with my dad.

Meanwhile my husband, Tim, was growing up in a different world entirely. With his earliest years spent in New York City and his family then settling down in Pasadena, urban life characterized his childhood. Tim’s mother, however, had strong ties to the agrarian central coast of California, and he found himself spending summers on a working cattle ranch in Arroyo Grande. Those summers evolved into a ranch management position that he relished and maintained throughout college at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

Cal Poly, Beef Production class to be exact, was where Tim and I met and eventually became inseparable. The next six years would result in marriage, a move to Colorado, my completion of veterinary school, our first child, and a return to California to plant our roots in Cottonwood.

Soon after, we bought our first home, looking quite successful on our quarter-acre lot with both of us working full time, Tim as a financial advisor and me as a veterinarian. However, the demands of a driven, corporate life were noxious, and we found our growing family paying the price in peace and health. Searching for change and overhauling our intentions, we found our shared passion for agriculture and love of nature reignited. We immersed ourselves in books about permaculture, regenerative farming, self-sufficiency, and traditional butchery. Authors like Joel Salatin and Wendell Berry filled our minds, and their books piled up on our coffee table.

We first visited the west Cottonwood land we’d later name Brush Arbor Farmstead in November, 2014. The entry gate to the property precisely marked a transition from curated homescapes to wild native beauty. The arching shelter of the oak canopy bore a likeness to an 18th century brush arbor in an untamed countryside.

We’d been looking for a place to farm and were captivated by a forest—in search of a home, but awakening to dreams of a homestead. Thus, the seeds of regenerative agriculture were planted and a farmstead sprouted among the timber.

Little people on Brush Arbor Farmstead like big boots and tiny chicks.

The magic of small scale, hand-hewn, artisanal farming is most fully experienced in the eating. Not a pasture is rotated, nor a feeding change made, nor an animal handled, without careful consideration of how those decisions will affect the food that reaches the table.

WHAT WE DO HERE

The past several years of sowing, growing, and gleaning have wrought a natural satisfaction in living according to the seasons, appreciating each for its unique bounties and challenges. So here we are today starting down our path through the year in the most splendid season of them all, autumn. The harvest. Where it all begins, really.

And how is it that we begin at the end, at the ingathering of the fruits of spring and summer labor? The answer is found beyond the harvest at the harvest’s encore, the table. The magic of small scale, hand-hewn, artisanal farming is most fully experienced in the eating. Not a pasture is rotated, nor a feeding change made, nor an animal handled, without careful consideration of how those decisions will affect the food that reaches the table.

As farmers who sell directly to patrons whom we invite to our farmstead, whose hands we shake and friendships we cultivate, we sow and grow with family kitchens ever present in our minds. With each progressive day of cultivation throughout the warmer months, the goal of the harvest and the experience at the table dictate the habits of our husbandry: shaping every grazing pattern of the flocks, directing every fence post driven, and brightening every egg packed.

Thus, it is perfectly fitting to set out on this little sojourn during these bustling, autumnal months. Because several of our meats are optimally harvested in the fall, these are by far patrons who’ve pre-ordered their meats, but for our own family. A local abattoir custom butchers for our customers, delivering meats cut, cured, and packaged to individual specifications. For the pork that fills our own larder and freezer, we commit three to four days to nothing but preserving the harvest, immersing ourselves in tradition: lard and pounds upon pounds of salt. This labor of love begets slabs of skin-on bacon and smoked ham-hocks, headcheese and sausage, and a larder ceiling decked with hanging prosciuttos and coppas. The fresh meats are frozen and the alchemy of pork + salt + time begins.

If the grasses are dry, the chef brings a tray of greens to the chickens.

Eat homegrown chicken once, and you’ll soon discover it is something special, beyond compare to anything on a grocery store shelf.

CHICKENS

Fall yields another harvest on our farm, one that is perhaps even more difficult to find at a small market farm: chicken. Eat homegrown chicken once, and you’ll discover something beyond compare to anything on a grocery store shelf.

Because our meat birds are raised outdoors, foraging and rotating through the trees, we grow them during very specific times of year to minimize their stress, maximize their nutrition, and optimize their benefit to the land. Avoiding the wet winter and scorching summer months, we grow our birds for two harvests, early summer and mid- to late-fall. Each flock reflects the nuances of the different forages of the seasons, the weather, and the location of the birds during their rotation.

The chicks arrive at the post office a day old and spend their first three weeks in our farm’s protected and climatecontrolled brooder. From three to eight weeks, they travel daily to new pasture in field pens we call “chicken tractors.”

At eight weeks old, they are finished and processed right here on the farm by hand. Tim and I pluck, eviscerate, clean, chill, and package each chicken individually for distribution to patrons who have pre-ordered them. When something goes awry in the scalder or plucker, causing a wing to break or skin to tear, well, that chicken gets marked with a “B” (for “Bork”) and is designated for our dinner table. They certainly don’t have to look pretty to be delicious!

Brush Arbor Farmstead turkeys make a summer-long feasting journey through the canyon before they arrive at the Thanksgiving table.

TURKEY

The pinnacle of fall, the summit of the year’s work, is the celebratory expression of gratitude and culinary delight, Thanksgiving. While the intense weeks leading up to it are anything but a holiday, we look forward to this final and most anticipated harvest.

Reservations for turkeys begin to trickle in around April, bursting into a flood of requests by October. We have to order turkeys poults in the spring for delivery to the farm in July, which allows for eighteen or twenty weeks of turkeys growing, grazing, flying, and foraging.

A foundational element of multi-speciated, regenerative farming is animal movement. A few acres of land can be productively and beneficially grazed by hundreds of animals multiple times over the course of a year, provided that those animals are of differing species and don’t stop moving.

Our most successful test of this phenomenon thus far has been in our canyon area, where soil is hard, red, and rocky. Left alone, nature produces grasses here that are sparse and spindly, but the grass now growing on the few acres in our little canyon can feed forty sheep (as well as our resident deer herd) for a few weeks in the early spring.

By May, when we feel the sward has been munched down to a reasonable height by the herbivores, we run 200–300 chickens in tractors across the same area. The birds clean up after the hoof stock, loosen the top layer of soil, and deposit their amazing fertilizer.

By August, the grasses, vetch, velvet plant, and volunteers from produce fed to the spring chickens are growing strong. Enter the big birds, a hundred plus turkeys. Zealous foragers, turkeys waste no time transforming those greens into the soil’s top dressing that will nourish the following spring’s grasses.

Once they are large enough to be outdoors (approximately four to five weeks of age), the turkeys start their grazing rotation across the canyon. Using electric netting to protect them from predators and to control their impact on the soil, we move them weekly to fresh paddocks. Once they’ve crossed the gully area, we start moving them up the hill toward the farmyard. We will process thirty to forty birds per day leading up to Thanksgiving, which allows most of our customers to come to the farmstead to pick up their fresh, never frozen bird right off the ice.

Raising a bird destined for a family’s holiday feast carries with it contradictory emotions for me. On one hand, it is a bit terrifying to take on the responsibility of delivering the centerpiece of a once-a-year meal. It causes us to be hyper-vigilant over the birds for the five months they are here, hovering over them even more so than we do the other enterprises. Growing birds for one specific, important meal would be an exercise in exhaustion if it weren’t for the brilliant flip side of the feather, the joy and pleasure wrought in those who then are able to serve a turkey like none other to their loved ones. It does my heart good to help our dear patrons savor those exceptional moments each year.

I can’t think of a more fitting conclusion to the farming calendar than the Thanksgiving celebration. My heart explodes with gratitude as our family and friends crowd into our little farmhouse, little hands holding frail hands holding calloused hands, around a feast we were blessed to be able to grow right here on this land. Heads bowed before our Creator, giving thanks for his marvelous bounty and mercy, I am humbled to live this life and reap this abundance of grace.

Kind of like putting on a flashy necktie, this tom turkey swells his wattle to impress the ladies.

Growing birds for one, specific, important meal would be an exercise in exhaustion if it weren’t for the brilliant flip side of the feather, the joy and pleasure wrought in those who serve their loved ones a turkey like none other.

THE END OF HARVEST

It’s at this pinnacle of the harvest—the table—that all of the beginnings, the sowing and the growing, make the most sense. Flavor profiles, texture qualities, and aromatic nuances of the meats, paired with plate-side commentaries and expressions of holiday epicureans, provide abundant insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the husbandry decisions we made throughout the year and help us formulate our approach to the next. Forks in hand, Tim and I muse upon how fat color was affected by the fall forage quickened by the late rains, and we mull over the depth of flavor developed by allowing an additional week of growth. Our aching backs will most assuredly lament the corpulence of the birds at butcher time, while our appetites rejoice at the prospect of leftovers. And so it goes on the farm. The seeds saved today are the harvests of tomorrow, dreams and plans tucked into their beds, to overwinter and bear their fruit in seasons to come.

The weather has turned winter-festive as customers come for their Thanksgiving turkeys.

This is the first in a series of four articles in which Amanda Bork tells readers about each season on Brush Arbor Farmstead in Cottonwood, California.