(Updated to add working link to Millie the pig wallowing, and to correct a few minor factual errors)
What could be better than starting out a family vacation with a trip to a family farm?
That's how I attempted to sell our stopover at Clark Summit Farm in Tomales to the Dairy Queen Mother and Surfer Sis last week, via a roundabout route to Stinson Beach. The clincher turned out to be that Clark Summit wasn’t far from Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes. I wanted to meet rancher Liz Cunninghame, who had expressed interest in supplying the meat CSA I am in the process of forming, and see her animals firsthand after reading stories about her in the Chronicle and Marin Independent Journal (available here).
I knew from my reading that Liz's grandfather bought the Marin County land in 1916, and she inherited the 160-acre farm from her father in 1997. She sold the dairy cows and instead raises grassfed, certified organic cattle; pigs; broiler and laying hens; and a few turkeys. She only began working it full time a year and a half ago. Her husband, Dan Bagley, works at a nearby school doing maintenance and comes home to help with chores.
After a few miles of a two-lane road with pasture on either side, we pulled up at the bottom of a large hill with several buildings on it. There didn't seem to be anyone around except some piglets, who were very interested in us, racing from fence to fence to check us out.
I climbed up to what appeared to be the farmhouse, a modest white clapboard building with the remnants of a foam cushion strewn across the porch, along with a guilty-looking dog. When I knocked, other dogs started barking. A few minutes later, Liz emerged. In her baseball cap, muddy canvas workpants, and orthodontic braces, she looked far more youthful than a 48-year-old mother of four who spends most of her time outdoors has any right to look.
She welcomed us and immediately brought us over to the inquisitive pen of two-month-old male piglets. The first two litters, of 21 piglets, had only been born on the ranch four months earlier. Up until then she had bought young piglets and raised them, but she'd decided she was ready to breed her own. She has 60 now.
The piglets, a blend of Duroc and Hampshire "and maybe a few others," were a mixture of colors, some with spots. These guys eat like kings. Liz gets leftover whey free from Cowgirl Creamery — meaning from organic, grassfed Straus Family Creamery cows — and mixes it with grain, hay, pasture, and the occasionally leftover cheese.
We watched as the piglets scampered around, rolling in the hay and nuzzling each other. Liz pointed out that, given enough space, pigs will designate a corner in their pen for defecating, and keep the rest of it clean. And in fact, the pen had no odor. Also, I couldn't help but notice their adorable little curled tails atop their juicy-looking hammy butts, and think about how factory pigs have their tails docked at birth so that other pigs don't chew on them — behavior they exhibit only when overcrowded and stressed.
On the other side of the barn were the female pigs from the oldest litter, some of which would be kept for breeding. Liz said she had a newborn litter too young for us to visit, as the sow would get mad. Instead she introduced us to her "No. 1 escape artist," Millie the sow, who was temporarily housed in a pen near the house having broken through the wire in her pen further up the hill.
"She likes it when I spray down her wallow for her. She'll stick her face in the hose and practically sing," Liz said.
Surfer Sis suggested sweetly that Liz demonstrate this trick, and she affably dragged over a long hose. Millie did indeed seem to love the arc of water, pushing her black, glistening snout into its path and opening and closing her mouth — although soundlessly. She kind of looked like a dolphin waiting for fish.
(It was such a funny scene that I made a short video of her performance with my digital camera, which you can watch on YouTube. And it's my mother chatting away with Liz, not me.)
We proceeded up the dusty hill, big Rhode Island Red laying hens scattering before us. In a paddock were a couple of movable pens of broiler chickens and a pen of turkeys due to be harvested the next day. (Liz had suggested on the phone that we avoid that; I was only too happy to oblige.)She said that her broilers were a bit unusual, a cross with Rhode Island Reds and Cornish hens."They take longer to fatten up, and they forage more," she added, explaining that she usually harvests the chickens at 12 weeks, instead of the standard 10. "We do ours a little bigger." The chickens are raised and harvested using Joel Salatin's popular methods, then she lets the carcasses sit for two days on ice; her buyers must come to the farm promptly to pick them up. She can't keep up with the demand for the chickens.All of her animals are slaughtered on the farm. "I feel good about that," she nodded. "They're happy here, right up until the end."
Further up the hill, we encountered some older piglets hanging out in an A-frame structure at the top of a dry-looking paddock with some muddy spots for wallowing. Liz explained proudly that her husband custom-built these "farrowing huts" — the middle is big enough for the sow, with the little side extensions for the piglets to lie under, protected from being rolled over on by their mother. He had even put hinges on the sides so Liz could lift them up and check out the piglets.
Dan had also built her a henhouse with laying boxes on shelves that could be accessed via a waist-high, swing-up door on the outside. The 700 laying hens produce more than 400 eggs a day; sales of the eggs to local grocery stores provide most of the farm's income.
Liz asked if we wanted to climb up to the summit and see the cattle. I was game, but my mother and sister announced they were going back to the car to wait, Surfer Sis rubbing her stomach with lunchlike motions. So just Liz and I hiked up through the long, dry grass, me trying not to huff and puff too much at the steep incline.
"I usually do this on the dirt bike," admitted Liz.
The view at the top was well worth it: a big cloudy bowl of blue sky upturned over a spread-out herd of 80 cattle. Liz pointed out where the rail line used to cut through the pasture, carrying milk from all the Tomales and Pt. Reyes dairies back to San Francisco, and the couple of longhaired, big-horned Scottish Highland cattle she has mixed in with the Angus.
Because her pastures are not irrigated, her beef follows the cycle of the grass. She starts slaughtering the cattle in June, at about 24 to 30 months old, and stops around October. (Pork is harvested year round; chickens from June to November.)
We headed back down, chatting as we walked. I asked her if slaughtering on the farm meant her customers were able to get as much offal as they wanted. She said yes, although sometimes the butcher would tell her a beef liver or two were not good enough to eat.
"We use everything. I get bags of leaf lard, and I'm about to try out this new recipe for pig ears," she exclaimed. She'd just bought two freezers off of Craigslist in preparation for the meat she was putting up for the winter.
"I pretty much only eat our own meat," she explained. "I like knowing how it was raised, and it's so good, why would I eat anything else?"
Alas, I had to take her word for it — for now. Our cooler was tiny and we wouldn't be home for three days, so I couldn't buy any of her beef or pork to take home. But I'll be back.
Clark Summit does not have a website. If you are interested in purchasing a split quarter, half or whole beef, or hogs by the half and whole, call Liz at (707) 876-3516 or e-mail clar...@aol.com.
And if you're intrigued by the idea of a Bay Area meat CSA, about 40 of us are starting to figure out the logistics of getting biweekly deliveries of various fresh grassfed meats. Join the Yahoo list-serv by sending an e-mail to BAMC...@yahoogroups.com.