The Bay Area's well-known, much-loved Soul Food Farm was devastated by a fire last night, I learned this morning from a heartbreaking email sent to friends by Soul Food's Alexis Koefoed. Alexis and I were in the middle of setting up a Community Supported Agriculture program for Soul Food's pastured chickens and eggs, which are served at restaurants ranging from Chez Panisse in Berkeley (Cal Peternell gave Alexis her start with the broilers) to Piccino Café in San Francisco (where Sher Rogat this year put together a sold-out dinner in her birds' honor). Last year, Soul Food Farms chicken and eggs were named Best of the Bay by San Francisco magazine and graced the cover of that issue.
Now, not only is the CSA on hold, but I fear the farm itself may be too crippled to survive.
Eric, Alexis's husband and farming partner, woke up around 1:30 a.m. to find a fire raging across Soul Food Farm's fields. It appears to have begun on the adjoining property. The flames were already two stories high, as high as Soul Food's trees. Eric and Alexis grabbed water from "everywhere we could" and started throwing it around the chicken houses. Alexis wrote:
Two chicken houses caught on fire, and then we lost 1000 baby chicks. Trapped. Our old 1880s barn burned and it was almost too much at that moment. Thirty acres of pasture for the meat birds is gone [the farm has 55 acres total, and some of it is wooded] and several old beautiful oaks, all the old plum trees that were our connection to the original homesteaders.
When we could see the farm this morning we found that the front of the farm escaped and looks much like it always has. Across the creek all is burned up to the top of the ridge, and the fire just marched on along the hillside and down the valley.
The house escaped unscathed, as did most of the thousand-plus laying hens. Today, while the fire crews still worked around them and the smell of scorched grass and birds filled the air, the family was cleaning up and building a "quick little chicken house" for the 600 baby chicks that arrived in the post. (That many arrive every week; today they had no water bottles, feeders, or lights awaiting them.) Alexis's daughter Emma and son Justin were at the farm helping, luckily. Morgan, pictured with Eric and Alexis at right, is off at school.
I don't know if Soul Food had insurance that will compensate for the dead chicks or the lost structures. I have not wanted to ask Alexis on this terrible day. I do know that Alexis and Eric were struggling to scale up the farm to support the family — Eric only recently stopped working off-farm to help Alexis full-time. And of course, the high-end restaurants, bakeries, ice cream shops, and other customers able to pay for pastured, locally raised chicken and eggs have had to tighten their purchasing belts in this economy — some have even closed, such as Berkeley's beloved Eccolo — which has seriously affected Soul Food Farm's finances. (In a moving essay Eccolo sous chef and writer Samin Nosrat penned for the Chronicle last week about Eccolo's shuttering, her agony over being forced to give up Alexis's eggs gets two paragraphs.)
It would be a terrible shame if the future of Soul Food Farm went up in smoke along with the beautiful grassy pastures in which these birds have pecked and foraged for worms for several years. I say this not only as Alexis's and Eric's friend and supporter of several years, but because they are a truly vital part of the still-nascent food chain for local, sustainably raised meat in the Bay Area. Even here, where people get up at dawn for the chance to pay $6 per pound for pastured chicken at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market before Marin Sun Farms sells out of them, getting a pastured chicken to your plate is a tricky business. (Wayne Garcia's excellent piece for Edible San Francisco's Meat Issue — which featured Alexis on the cover — explains why, but that issue is currently not online for some reason. I'll post the link when it is.)
To help get Soul Food Farm access to cash, whether for rebuilding the chicken houses and ordering enough replacement birds to meet their obligations to their existing customers or frankly whatever, with her reluctant permission I've set up a PayPal donation account in Alexis's name, under the new email account fire...@soulfoodfarm.com. Please consider donating whatever you can spare via the PayPal button. You can also go to Paypal.com and send a donation directly via the preceding email address. [Update: Don't be alarmed if PayPal says the account is not yet verified; I need to get Alexis to fill in some details. Also, please note that those who dislike PayPal can also mail a check made out to Soul Food Farm to 6046 Pleasants Valley Rd., Vacaville, CA 95688.]
I hope that the many chefs and food suppliers who've exclaimed over Soul Food Farm's birds that "this is the way chicken is supposed to taste!!!!" will consider hosting a fund-raising dinner for the farm; Eccolo's Samin is already on the case, but alas she's lacking a venue.
Lastly, I was supposed to have set up a blog for the Soul Food Farm website eons ago. I regret that it took a terrible, sad event like this one to move this task to the top of my to-do list, but it has. Check the farm's website for the new blog in the next day or so; further updates of the damage and any fund-raising events will get posted there. Assuming I can talk Alexis into it.
Photos by Bart Nagel. Used with permission and shot originally for Edible San Francisco.