When Samantha Zangrilli and Cheetah Tchudi saw smoke plumes rising into the sky, they didn’t immediately worry— until the sheriff came by to let them know they had two hours to evacuate. They spent the first hour trying to start an old school bus, hoping that due to its size they’d be able to transport more animals, but the old bus would not cooperate. They shifted into Plan B, forged in two previous evacuations, and began loading newly born lambs, pregnant ewes, and ducks. They hadn’t any room for the pigs nor for the grown sheep on pasture so Cheetah opened the pig enclosures and removed the sheep’s fencing so the pigs and sheep wouldn’t be trapped. While they were loading, the electricity went out, and they made a fast decision to load up their freezers too, freezers that held thousands of dollars of their Turkey Tail Farm lamb and pork.
Manzanita covered much of the property around their home and two hoop structures where Cheetah grew oyster mushrooms. The manzanita pretty much incinerated, yielding a view of Lake Oroville and Lime Saddle Marina never before visible.
The two hoop structures sit forlorn, their plastic covering melted, irrigation (for humidity inside) melted, sacks of the Lundberg rice straw growing substrate hanging in tatters or fallen, some mushrooms now green with mold. Their house burned to a pile of rubble, except for a partial wall of concrete blocks. If they rebuild, they will use only the concrete slab on which the house sat.
Fungi have a unique ability and enzymatic tools to break down carcinogenic compounds; certain species will even uptake heavy metals and concentrate them into the mushroom itself. Cheetah has been building a mobile mushroom lab in a box trailer to use for site visits and soil testing, allowing him to custom grow the correct species of mushroom to clean up a particular site.
Their sheep and ducks now live inside borrowed and donated electric fencing, the pigs in new smaller enclosures Cheetah fashioned. Cheetah credits their herding dog Haro for rounding up sheep and pigs and separating them once he was permitted back on the property. They’re paying for private debris removal in the hope that they can mitigate some of the time lost during this planting season. The farm is everything to them, as it has been since 2008 when they purchased the undeveloped land and built it up from scratch.
Before the fire they had just finished a mushroom workshop with Weaving Women’s Wisdom and were about to launch a series of workshops on local food systems with other local makers that would expose locals to mushrooms, bread, and cider. The Turkey Tail Farm meat subscription was a curated box including lamb, pork, chicken, duck eggs, and oyster mushrooms, rounded out with a bouquet from Samantha’s flower garden and herb products like salves and tinctures and art pieces or wreaths. The mushroom operation was expanding into shiitake and lion’s mane and they had just invested in infrastructure expansion.
So, what now? You can still find gorgeous nutritious duck eggs at the farmers market and Chico Natural Foods, and the mushroom operation has taken on a new task—soil revitalization. Fungi have a unique ability and enzymatic tools to break down carcinogenic compounds; certain species will even uptake heavy metals and concentrate them into the mushroom itself. Cheetah has been building a mobile mushroom lab in a box trailer to use for site visits and soil testing, allowing him to custom grow the correct species of mushroom to clean up a particular site. He will offer this service to people whose property contains toxins. Also according to Cheetah, “Our clay soils have baked, and the soil is hydrophobic now. Fungi can do a host of wonderful things for the soil: introduce porosity and water stable aggregates. Mushrooms secrete glomulin (mushroom snot) that will create pore space and return stability to the soil.”
Samantha and Cheetah agree that their business is going to have to makes some changes going forward, navigating, literally, a new landscape. They want to focus more on what they enjoy doing—ducks and mushrooms. To support Turkey Tail Farm, buy their products (they make deliveries into Chico) or contribute to the GoFundMe page Zangrilli’s sister set up (search Samantha Zangrilli on gofundme.com). The couple also plans a Tool-luck potluck the first weekend in April. Watch their Facebook page (turkeytail) or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
Sara Calvosa Olson is a Karuk writer living with her soulmate, raising two large teenage sons. She has a regular column in News From Native California that explores California Indian foodways and reconnection to traditional Indigenous ingredients. Chími nu’am! (Let’s eat!)