Our team has always been a huge proponent of supporting our local food shed, small farmers, and sustainable agriculture. When my boss and I left Google and established a culinary program at Palantir, we made sure not to lose sight of this and integrate that philosophy into our core values.
One of our favorite local food businesses is Marin Sun Farms. They specialize in pasture-raised livestock, and we've been working closely with them for the past 5 years. At the beginning of our relationship, the founder and CEO, David Evans, invited my Executive Chef, Jean-Claude Balek (or just JC, as I know him), to do a working farm stay at Roger's Ranch. It was a trans-formative experience for him, and he insisted that I go, too. It took me 5 years, but I finally got the chance.
Here's the story on that:
ROGER'S RANCH WORKING FARM STAY
Roger's Ranch is located in Inverness, CA. Evans inherited the ranch through his family, who have been working on the land for decades. I heard his mom and pop, and uncle have their own ranches not too far away.
I arrived a little early, and was welcomed by Evan's dogs, Bueno, Pedro, and Prima, a gray-haired mutt, and two Jack Russell terriers. They greeted me with a mean bark, but a gentle hand was all it took to coax their true and friendly nature. Beautiful creatures. I got attached right away.
David came out of the house in the front (he lives on the property) and introduced himself and the two farm hands that I'd be working with, Robert and John.
After fumbling with the controls on the ATV, I rode up with John to the hoop houses where they kept the egg-laying hens. Along the way, I had a chance to get close-up to the grazing cattle.
Cows can be rather intimidating. They stare you down with this unrelenting death gaze, as if they're intuitive of their delicious fate. John gently called them over with a soft, drawn-out, "heeeeeyyyy, giiiiiirrrrl!" and they began to roam towards us. When we drove onward, they kept on our tails, their roam picking up to a stampede; they're a whole lot faster than they look.. Riding alongside, and in the middle of a herd against the sunrise with the sputtering motor of the ATV mixed with the trotting and moo-ing of the cattle was surreal. There's a haiku in there somewhere...
Anyway--Robert later explained how they trained them. The cattle were initially skittish around people, and it took Evans and his team training them with hay, fences, and lots of hey girlin' to get them as docile as they were when I saw them. The chickens, however, require a bit more patience.
John described his trials and tribulations of caring for the chicken on a daily basis. Raccoons, coyotes, skunks, and bobcats are among the predators that he has to constantly worry about. He was telling me how a skunk's MO is to attack from under the floor. He'd check up on the chicken in the morning only to find one decapitated with its neck forced through the wire lining the raised beds. Brutal.
But chickens, in some cases, can be their own predators, too, as they have cannibalistic tendencies. If a dead chicken isn't removed soon after it's felled, its remains will get picked by its fellow flock. Neglect a laid egg for a day, and you might find it pecked and empty by the next. John demonstrated their taste for eggs by throwing one into the open field. Within seconds of the *crack*, the chickens swarmed the egg, and in a moment, it was gone. I thought this was strange considering they could crack into any of the eggs at any given time, but for some reason, they choose not to, for the most part.
The chickens aren't confined to any particular hoop house; they can come and go as they please between any of the six houses. Some of the chickens clique up and form a tightly knit group. Others are ostracized or bullied, usually by the few roosters in the flock. Some hoop houses produce more eggs than others. Some are tidy, and others, absolutely filthy. (Seriously, there's like poop everywhere.)
I saw all of this as I picked the eggs. Between John and I, we picked more than 600 eggs in less than an hour. Roger's Ranch raises several different breeds of chicken. There are breeds that lay eggs daily, and others that lay eggs every other day, so John's gotta do this at least once a day to keep up with the chickens.
To pick a chicken's egg, you basically rob it from their nest, most of the time, right from underneath them. Some chickens are really cool about it, others, for some reason, don't like it when you lift them up and kidnap their children. The latter will attack you with an intense ferocity...and then, like, give up after 2 seconds. Well, that's chickens, I guess. In any case, it made the egg gathering process easier for me.
Every 3 days, John takes the tractor up and moves the houses forward a full length equal to the house itself, positioning the back of the house until it lines up to where its front used to be. What happens is the chickens feed off the flora and bug life in the area, eating and pooping within a certain radius of the hoop houses. In addition to what the land provides, the chickens are given an organic feed which consists mostly of corn and a grit (basically fine ground rocks, and oyster shells) that helps them digest their food. Since chickens don't have teeth, the grit acts a good substitute. Their waste contains microbes that fertilize the land with much needed nutrients. Moving the houses allows the grass to be replenished again. Once the land has fully recovered with new, healthy grass, they bring the cows over to graze and benefit from this optimized pasture. And this goes on as long as the weather and seasons allow.
How awesome is that!? It's called, rotational grazing, something Marin Sun prides themselves in. It's a sustainable practice that wouldn't be possible if the chickens were kept in cages as is the case with most of the industry.
Top: this image illustrates just how quickly the chickens graze the land. This is just the second day, and were moved on the third. Bottom: chickens' future grazing patch, just 20 feet over. Lush, healthy, and ready to be devoured.
Back down at the ground level, Robert was building a brooding house for the chicks to be moved into. He showed me the area that they were currently living in, and explained the process of nurturing the chicks. When the chicks are born, they need lots of attention. A brooder temperature of 90 to 95 degrees is ideal, and Robert and John do everything they can to maintain this temperature. After a few days, they drop the temperature gradually, which encourages the chicks to grow feathers. When the chicks have outgrown their space, they are moved next door to a larger brooding house, which I mentioned earlier. Robert hooked them up with a new bedding, cleaned the water hoses, and set up new chicken wire to make them comfortable in their new home.
On to the fun part: eggs. One of the more menial tasks on the ranch is egg cleaning and packing. Thousands of eggs are washed a day, and due to the fragility of the egg, most of the process must be done by hand with only a little help from a sanitation machine. Eggs are delivered by local ranchers throughout the day. The eggs need to be placed one by one, by hand, onto a ramp that feeds into the machine that washes the egg with an organic soap. After about a minute, the eggs come out clean on the other side where it is packed into boxes and labeled for distribution. Not much to it, but this is what I spent a majority of my time doing. The whole thing is done in a facility that was originally designed for dairy cows and processing their milk, so it's not exactly best suited for eggs, but it works.
I owe my thanks to John, Robert, and James, all brothers working on the farm. All very nice people. They were so willing to answer any questions that I had--and I had a ton. What struck a chord with me was even when they expressed their frustrations of the job, they were passionate about solving the problems that caused them. I even saw them reading up on books about raising chickens while they were on their break, and sharing new information with each other. They gave a shit. That's important to me, to know that the curator of my product cares. They'd only been working at the ranch for several months but had a good understanding of the nature of the cattle, the hoop houses, and its feathered denizens.
And of course, I thank David Evans, who has been committed to us since day one and was cool enough to trust me and let me work on his farm for a few days.
After my last day on the farm, I headed over to Drake's Bay for some raw Pacific oysters. A perfect ending to my stay in Inverness. JC was right. The trip had transformed me.
So, what did I learn from my time on the Ranch?
On one hand, I felt like I wasn't doing enough. I can do more to fulfill my part in the sustainability movement. This starts on a personal scale. I need to stop drinking bottled water. I should really get a bike and ride to work. I need to start purchasing more local sustainable product outside of work. That's something I gotta improve, and it's all up to me.
On the other, as a member of the Palantir kitchen team, I'm doing a lot. When it comes to beef, Palantir only serves grass-fed, 100% of the time. 75% of our eggs are produced by pastured chickens. Roughly 90% of our produce is local, and within 150 miles. Still--we can do more. And we plan to. After coming back from my trip I got together with JC and our Kitchen Coordinator, Dan Watts, to come up with a strategy on how to further affect the agricultural landscape for the better. We want to do more field trips to more farms. We want to meet the individual ranchers. We want to get to know every one we're buying from on a personal level, not just a professional one. We want to build a coalition of local farmers, distributors, and cooks that work together in the mission of sustainability.
The biggest thing I learned from this experience was realizing just how much I didn't know about the food that I'm cooking and serving, and how I could better connect myself. I understand, that as a cook, I have the a great deal of power in influencing the environment, because I can influence people on what they decide to eat. We eat at least 3 times a day, every single day of our lives. I can have a hand in that. Our dependency on the agricultural system is huge. If we take it for granted, abuse and break it, we're doomed. But if I can cook and serve food made from sustainable, non-GMO, whole ingredients, and the better I can make it taste, the more people will buy into that and not processed foods. I just need to learn how to make it affordable and accessible to a wider audience. That's my mission now.
All right, that's enough philosophy. I introduce to you--dogs:
Stay tuned for part 2, where I visit the Marin Sun Farms processing plant and spent a day breaking down animals with a bunch of people much better at it than I am.