Happy chickens, frolicking pigs: Where to buy local humanely-raised meat right here on the Peninsula
You don’t have to be an insufferable bore to want boar that didn’t suffer!
We all know that Portlandia episode where Fred and Carrie pepper their server with questions about the chicken. “How big is the area where the chickens are able to roam free?” an earnest Carrie wants to know. It’s a cringe-inducing moment. And yet it only takes one friend forwarding you a Meatrix video to know factory farming is seriously messed up. We have smelled the feed lot, and it was foul.
Happily, alternatives abound. If you live in Silicon Valley, eat animal protein and strive not to be evil, you have options for buying meat that was raised naturally and humanely. You can even, while you’re at it, support biodiversity (by creating a market for heritage breed farm animals), save on carbon emissions (by buying local) and restore carbon-sequestering soil and grasslands (turns out foraging cattle mimic the effect of the elk and antelope whose grazing and soil-compacting action kept these hills green for millennia).
If that doesn’t do it for you, Ben Roberts of Gambrel & Co., the Redwood City butcher, says pastured animals have a more complex flavor. “Classic commodity raised beef, being fed grain, tends to have a monotone flavor,” he says. “By eating green grass, the flavor tends to be more complex and chock full of omega-3 fatty acids.”
Here are some Peninsula and Coastside farms you should know about, and where to buy their goods.
Dede Boies started Root Down Farm four years ago in hopes of “making a tiny dent in how meat is raised” in the United States. After apprenticing at area farms, including Pie Ranch, the New Jersey native started raising heritage chickens, ducks and pigs on land near Pescadero owned by the Peninsula Open Space Trust.
Boies is committed to heritage breeds. She now has a rare Red Wattle boar (which produces relatively lean meat with “spice” and “floral” characteristics, according to Heritage Foods USA); a Large Black sow, from a breed known for its hardiness; and an Old Spot sow (“their lazy and gluttonous lifestyle yields pork that is fatty, delicious and succulent”).
She is also raising Rouen ducks this year. And in addition to her beloved Delaware heritage chickens, which take a full 16 weeks to mature and have a distinctive flavor and texture, Boies reluctantly began growing Red Rangers, a French hybrid that matures more quickly and tastes more like the ubiquitous Cornish cross chickens Americans are used to. Boies explains why this bummed her out.
She describes Cornish crosses, bred to mature at a lightning-fast seven weeks with enormous breasts, as “little meat machines.”
“It’s kind of amazing from a feeding-the-world mentality, but it’s really far from any kind of humane treatment of animals,” she says.
Raising the Delawares was a stab at coaxing consumers into developing a taste for a real chicken with a fuller flavor profile and less tender meat (because it’s older and has actually gotten exercise). Some customers went for it, especially those from Asian countries, where one breed of chicken is used for both eggs and meat, and Cornish crosses don’t exist. But a lot of people just wanted a tender bird with a lot of breast meat. The Red Ranger, which matures at about 10 weeks and cooks up more like a Cornish cross, seemed a good compromise.
“I just realized that yeah, there’s a certain demographic that heritage breeds are very appealing to, and then there are a lot of Americans that that is not appealing to,” she says. “Doing things the way I want to do them isn’t always going to be the thing that makes this business sustainable, so I have to compromise sometimes.”
Boies is now accepting orders for heritage bronze turkeys for Thanksgiving; she usually sells out. And a note for those who want to get really hands-on with their food: Boies is hosting a poultry harvesting workshop on Oct. 28. You’ll learn how to humanely slaughter a chicken, pluck and process it, and then take it home with you for dinner. Just like Grandma used to do.
Where to buy Root Down Farm pork, chicken and duck:
Saturdays: Palo Alto Farmers Market, 8am-12pm (poultry only); Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in SF, 8am-2pm (all products)
Sundays: Half Moon Bay Farmers Market, 9am-1pm (limited pork and poultry)
Learn more at Root Down Farm
In 2005, grassfed beef operations were still pretty rare, even in California. That’s the year Erik and Doniga Markegard started their herd on the coastal hills near Half Moon Bay and chose to finish them on grass instead of grain. Erik Markegard, a sixth-generation farmer who grew up on Neil Young’s ranch in La Honda, where his dad managed the herd, was the first in his family to catch onto the grass-fed trend.
Today Markegard Family Grass-fed raises hundreds of Belted Galloway cattle (“the Oreo cow”) on land owned by Peninsula Open Space Trust. They also raise heritage pigs, St. Croix lambs and heritage Freedom Ranger chickens, all on pasture and available through the farm’s online store and at farmers markets.
The Belted Galloway, a visually striking breed originating in Scotland, has a two-layer, very warm coat perfect for damp, cold weather. That coat has another benefit: it warms the cows so well that they don’t need to grow a big cap of insulating fat. Belted Galloway meat is famously lean and, like all pastured meat and eggs, high in omega-3 fatty acids. The St. Croix lambs, known for their mild flavor, are also considered lean.
It’s great that the beef, lamb, pork and chicken from Markegard taste good and are healthy for the humans eating them. But rancher Doniga Markegard, a permaculture expert and author of a forthcoming book on wilderness and humans, says pasture-raising their meat is as much about “regenerative agriculture”—restoring biodiversity and rebuilding the soil’s ability to retain water and store carbon—as it is about animal welfare and human cholesterol levels.
“The science has been out for quite a long time. Specifically, here in the California grasslands, in the areas where cattle are present, there’s a higher biodiversity of species than areas where cattle have been removed,” she says.
One side effect of that: greener hills. “The California hills historically did not turn brown. They had these native bunch grasses with roots that just went way deep into the soil, and they stayed green year-round.”
On Oct. 29, Markegard Family Grass-fed hosts a book launch party with music and food at the farm for Dawn Again, Doniga Markegard’s new book, which explores regenerative agriculture in depth. Tickets here.
Where to buy Markegard Family Grass-fed beef, lamb, pork and chicken
Saturdays: College of San Mateo Farmers Market, 9am-1pm
Through an innovative collaboration with the Fifth Crow Farm CSA (10 Peninsula pickup sites)
Learn more at Markegard Family Grass-fed
As local as you can get when you live on the Peninsula, Hidden Villa Farm, tucked into the Los Altos Hills, operates as an educational center where suburbanites can connect with the food system. Its thriving livestock program is run by Blair Thompson, who oversees a breeding program for Old Spot and Berkshire sows, which are typically bred with conventional boars so the fat content isn’t out of control.
“The main thing we raise a lot of is pork. We raise 30 to 40 pigs a year that we sell just as cuts, not halves and wholes,” says Thompson. “We also sell some lamb—not as much, but it makes it through the year. And we do 50–100 meat chickens per month. Those we process onsite, so they’re sold fresh.”
Hidden Villa Farm also offers eggs and, new this year, a special treat: “We’re raising turkeys for Thanksgiving for the first time,” Thompson says, adding that they’re broad-breasted bronzes.
The farm is this very week testing a new online store where customers can purchase items for pickup at the farm. At the moment only Hidden Villa members can see the store, but Thompson will gladly share the code with anyone who emails him. The store should be public in a couple of months, “after the kinks are worked out.”
Where to buy Hidden Villa Farm pork, lamb and chicken:
May-September at the Los Altos Farmers Market (Thursdays, 4–8pm)
To shop online or to order a turkey (pickup at the farm), contact Blair Thompson: [email protected]
Learn more at Hidden Villa Farm
Sarah and Aurelio Lopez of Fiesta Farm raise pastured eggs, chickens and heritage pigs near Watsonville. While the mixed-breed laying flock and the Cornish cross meat flock roam open fields, with Italian Maremma livestock guardian dogs for protection from predators, the pigs forage in a miniature coast live oak forest eating roots, grubs, poison oak and… acorns. Now, I’m biased—I worked for Sarah and Aurelio for years and consider them friends and exemplars of their vocation—but Spain’s famous gourmet black pigs eat an acorn diet. And I can tell you that when you’re rendering Fiesta Farms lard, your kitchen will smell deliciously nutty. So draw your own conclusions. The chickens and eggs are excellent too, and have a loyal fan base.
Sadly, Fiesta Farm is scaling back its operation—Sol Seeker Farm, below, is taking its place at Valley farmers markets—but several options remain for the farm’s devoted clientele on this side of the hill.
Where to find Fiesta Farm eggs, chicken and pork
Saturdays: Sunnyvale Farmers Market, 9am-1pm (pork only; poultry is from Sol Seeker Farm)
CSA (April through November): eggs and whole fresh chickens (pickup location in Palo Alto)
Half or whole hogs (pickup at farmers market or CSA locations)
Learn more at Fiesta Farm
Pastured and organic ducks, chickens, eggs, and, in springtime, Cornish game hens are the name of the game at this family operation in San Benito County. Edgar Mendoza learned animal husbandry in his native Paraguay; he and Kaley met at a nonprofit there, and the rest is history.
For people who love duck eggs nothing else will do, and Sol Seeker sells them, along with chicken eggs, at the Saratoga and Los Gatos farmers markets. Those markets also carry chicken pieces (breast, thighs, etc); chicken livers, gizzards, feet and necks; whole chickens; and duck (whole, legs and breasts). Some of you may wish to think of this as a source of pastured duck fat, the gourmet world’s current favorite for cooking potatoes, brussel sprouts and lots of other things.
At the Sunnyvale farmers market, Sol Seeker sells whole chickens, whole ducks, and duck breasts and legs (order ahead for the duck), as well as chicken eggs. You’ll also find Fiesta Farms pork for sale at the stand.
Sol Seeker is raising heritage Bourbon Red turkeys for Thanksgiving; inquire and reserve at [email protected].
Where to find Sol Seeker pastured eggs, chicken and duck:
Saturday: Sunnyvale Farmers Market, 9am-1pm, and Saratoga Farmers Market (at West Valley College), 8:30am-1pm
Sunday: Los Gatos Farmers Market, 9am-1pm
Thursdays (May-Oct): Los Altos Farmers Market, 4–8pm
Learn more at Sol Seeker Farm
LeftCoast Grassfed A project of enviro power couple Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor, LeftCoast Grassfed raises Angus cross cattle near Pescadero using sustainable practices; in fact, the cattle operation was a byproduct of TomKat Ranch’s conservation efforts. You can find them at the Downtown Palo Alto farmers market on Saturdays (mid-May through mid-December), where they share space with Root Down Farm. Or shop online for shipping or buy in bulk for pickup.
Pomponio Ranch The Akaushi and Angus cattle raised on this ranch near San Gregorio are finished on a combination of oats and spent grain from Freewheel Brewing. You can buy the beef at Roberts Market in Woodside or order online for pickup at a location in Belmont. Read an article about Pomponio Ranch in The Almanac.
Gambrel & Co. This awesome Redwood City butcher shop specializes in pastured meat, buying primarily from Marin Sun Farms, Llano Seco in Chico, 38 North, Stemple Creek and the Rabbit Lady. That means beef, pork, lamb, chicken, duck, rabbit and probably some other delectables I’m leaving out, all raised on pasture in the region. That’s in part because proprietor Ben Robert studied plants and ecology; he looks at the whole picture.
“The whole premise behind opening this place was to teach people about the value of sourcing meat sustainably, knowing where and how the animal was raised and how it was processed,” Robert explained when I popped in the other day.
Asked where animal welfare fits in, he answered: “Humanely treated animal husbandry practices are near and dear to our hearts. Typically in these scenarios, not only the animals, but also the employees are treated better and the overall flavor, quality, and consistency rings true throughout the meat.”
Good enough for us. Bon appetit!