It takes a city to save a farm: How the Bay Area food and farming community helped Soul Food Farm recover from a devastating fire
I posted previously on Ethicurean (here and here) about the September fire at Soul Food Farm, a relatively new but well-known pillar of the Bay area food scene. The detailed account that follows will soon appear in Edible San Francisco, and while it recaps some of what I've written before, I post it here in the hopes that it might give other communities some ideas of how to help when — or preferably, before — disaster strikes.
Around 1:30 a.m. on the night of September 3, engineer-turned-chicken farmer Eric Koefed awoke thirsty, then saw a terrifying orange glow through the windows. A couple hundred yards away, just past the creek behind the house, a wall of fire was devouring the trees and back pasture of Soul Food Farm.
“The farm is burning!” he screamed. “Wake up!”
His wife, Alexis, who runs Soul Food Farm, dialed 911. Her heart was racing so fast she could hardly speak. The operator told her that fire trucks were en route. They woke up Justin, 22, to help and ordered 16-year-old Morgan to stay in the house. (Emma, 19, was away at college.)
Outside, they grabbed hoses and buckets of water and frantically began wetting down the plywood hoop house sheltering hundreds of fluffy chicks, a just-built empty one awaiting new occupants, and the open-air corrals of older meat birds. (The laying hens’ pasture was safely on the other side of the creek.) Three young men, neighbors up late, showed up to help and began digging a fire break with the tractor.
Fire fighters finally arrived with tank-equipped trucks. They hadn’t realized there were people behind the creek until Morgan directed them back there. (“For once it’s a good thing Morgan didn’t do what I told her to,” admits Alexis.) They sprayed down the chicken house just in the nick of time, and the fire passed it by. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Then, 15 minutes later, the wind changed. The fire whipped around and the hoop houses burst into flame. Alexis ran up the hill to summon a fire truck, but its water tank was empty. She and a neighbor plunged into the burning plywood structure, trying to scoop up baby chicks by hand in the darkness, choking on the smoke. Her son Justin had to drag her away.
In the end, it took more than 150 fire fighters to subdue the six-alarm fire on this ridge and valley in Vacaville. (The cause was later determined to have been arson.) The fire crew stayed to patrol for two days, and no houses were affected. The Koefoeds, however, lost roughly 1,200 baby chicks (destined to become broiler chickens representing two weeks’ income the following month); a barn and mature plum trees dating to the 1880s; and about 30 acres of lush, diverse green pasture (the salad bar for their chickens).
As the sun rose, Alexis stared at the devastation, thinking “We’re finished. Soul Food Farm is done.”
Bay Area’s It Farm
With the fire finally under control, the family staggered into the house around 6 a.m. to rest. Sooty and reeking of smoke, Alexis couldn’t sleep: “I felt the need to say something. My life had just changed completely.” She sent a grim, exhausted email to Soul Food Farm’s closest customers and friends.
Among this group were Sam Mogannam, owner of Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco, which sells Soul Food chickens and eggs; Samin Nosrat, the sous chef at Eccolo, a recently closed restaurant in Berkeley, and a loyal customer; Cal Peternell, the Chez Panisse chef who’d encouraged Alexis to branch out from eggs into meat chickens — and me.
I’ve known Alexis since late 2006, when she called me to suggest I include her eggs in the Bay Area Meat Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, a farm-to-consumer meat-buying club I had just started. BAMCSA did distribute Soul Food Farm eggs, then later her chickens. I was one of the first to profile the farm, for Edible East Bay (PDF). We became friends. Somehow I found myself building a website for the farm in 2008. Then just a few months ago, I agreed to help her start her own CSA, in exchange for chicken and eggs.
Alexis has that effect on people. She is a striking, birdlike woman with a steely will and a stubborn streak that are only partially softened by her considerable warmth and charm.
Ten years ago she quit her administrative job in the wine business to follow her lifelong dream to farm. She and Eric bought the 55 acres of prime land from a family who had stopped farming it three decades ago, moved from Vallejo, and planted 250 olive trees. While they were building a house for their family of five, Alexis contemplated what she could grow. All she knew was that she wanted to farm organically and sustainably, in a way that “would feed the land as well as the human body and soul” she told me in 2007. Inspired by the tastiness of the eggs laid by the family’s chickens, she read everything she could find on pasture-raising laying hens and ordered a couple hundred chicks.
Success came quickly, helped in part by Alexis starting a Solano County chapter of Slow Food and attending Slow Food’s Terra Madre conference in Italy, where she met veteran farmers as well as several influential Bay Area chefs. Less than two years after Soul Food Farm began producing eggs, the flagship restaurant of the local, sustainable food movement, Chez Panisse, was buying them, and so was Café Rouge’s butcher shop and Ici ice cream parlor in Berkeley. Everybody raved about their deep orange yolks and quintessential “egginess.” Amateur pastry chefs and foodies lined up to buy them from the Prather Ranch Meat Company’s Ferry Building store and Prather’s farmers-market stands.
The broiler chickens, with a few hiccups, were also an immediate hit. Last year, San Francisco named Soul Food’s as Best Chicken and Best Eggs in the Bay Area — and made a Soul Food Farm chicken its cover girl.
Soul Food seemed like the Bay Area’s unstoppable It Farm. Alexis had finally had the money to buy an automatic egg washer, allowing her to increase egg production, and she had ramped up her meat-bird business as well: 600 baby chicks were arriving by mail each week. (Hers take nine to ten weeks to mature on pasture into the 3.5- to 4.5-pound broilers she sells.) So as not to exhaust her family’s energy and pasture, she had started what she intended to be a “Soul Food satellite network.” Olive grower Albert Katz and Winterhawk vineyard manager Jim Parr, her business partners, had just begun raising birds the Soul Food Farm way on their certified organic pasture in nearby Suisun, under the name Rock Hill Ranch.
And that’s why, while I was saddened for what her family had been through, I confess I was not that deeply concerned. I believed the lost chicks were (forgive me) small fry, and I assumed she had insurance. I called her that morning to commiserate, yes, but mainly to find out if we would need to postpone the launch of the Soul Food Farm CSA planned for the first week of October.
“Yeah, we do,” said Alexis, who was talking to me on her cell phone as she cleaned up the charred wreckage of wood and bone. “I don’t think we can survive this.”
“What?” I didn’t think I’d heard her right.
“I think Soul Food is done,” she repeated.
She told me that they had no financial safety net. They had no way to run the farm—to buy feed and egg cartons, to pay workers—during those two weeks of lost income from the dead chicks, no way to replace the chicken houses, to irrigate the replacement pasture in the front for the birds, to fix the broken tractor. No way to pay the mortgage on the property.
Later, I learned that like many in this economy, the family had been in financial free fall for a year. Eric had quit his engineering job of 30 years last September, hoping to consult while helping out more with the farm. It had almost immediately become clear the family still needed his off-farm income (and benefits). He’d gotten a new full-time job, for a smaller salary, but in June had been laid off. Alexis had had to let the farm’s commercial insurance lapse, and the family’s health insurance policy, too. (A month after the fire, their property insurance paid for the lost barn and fruit trees—and the bank swiftly claimed that check for the lost collateral on their mortgage.) Alexis and Eric had put both their slim profits and their savings into capital equipment for the farm, considering it an investment in their future. They had no cash and no available line of credit. They were screwed.
But on the phone with her, all I could think was that Alexis couldn’t give up on her dream now. Soul Food Farm was one of the Bay Area’s shining examples of sustainable agriculture, a small farm that was trying to feed more people and make its product more affordable without cutting corners or compromising on principles. People cared about it. A lot of people.
“Alexis, can we help? Will you let your friends help you?”
“I don’t see how you can,” she said.
Save our Soul Food Farm
I wrote to all the recipients listed on Alexis’s initial message. I soon heard that Bi-Rite’s Sam Mogannam was considering hosting a fund-raising dinner at 18 Reasons, Bi-Rite’s community center, and Eccolo’s Samin Nosrat was talking to Chez Panisse about another benefit dinner. Alexis’s older sister, Elida Mayronne, and I began conspiring about ways to take donations without having to ask Alexis. Having built the farm’s website, I could create a special fire...@soulfoodfarm.com address, and with it, a PayPal account in Alexis’s name. Elida said to just go for it, that Alexis was too proud to ask for help: right now it was better “to ask for forgiveness later than to ask for permission.” I wrote a post for the Ethicurean with a Donations button, but before hitting Publish I chickened out.
I called Alexis and told her what we were up to. “Just say yes,” I pleaded. “Just let us try.”
After a long pause, I heard her say softly, “I don’t think I’m in a position to say no.”
From that moment on, it was like someone had thrown a switch on a spigot of generosity.
I put the news on Facebook and Twitter, and the many fans of Soul Food Farm soon spread it far and wide. Donations started pouring in, from $5 to $100. By the next day I had installed a blog on the Soul Food Farm website, where I posted Alexis’s initial email and follow-up reports, and said that anyone who wanted to help should email me.
On September 11, San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer blogged about the fire and the effort to save the farm. The spigot turned into a fire hose.
Bi-Rite announced that instead of a dinner, it would hold a raffle for Soul Food Farm, so more people could help: tickets were just $5. Owner Sam Mogannam would match up to $2,000 of the money raised. Why? “Because Alexis is doing something that’s awesome and we wanted to support her. She’s part of our family,” he explains. “As a small business, we understand how hard it is to overcome a cash flow problem.” In just three weeks, the Bi-Rite cashiers sold $8,300 worth of tickets for prizes such as a year’s worth of ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery and a dinner for eight at 18 Reasons.
Restaurants jumped in. Mission Street Food donated its September 12 profits. Chef Melissa Perello, head chef of the just-opened restaurant Frances, turned her final Monday night dinner at Sebo, on September 28, into a Soul Food benefit because “I wanted to see the farm survive.” Clark Summit Farm in Tomales donated eggs and veal, and Steve Sando donated Rancho Gordo beans to it. Perello raised $2,600.
Cane Rosso, a newish restaurant in the Ferry Building cocreated by Coi chef Daniel Patterson and chef Lauren Kiino, held a fundraising family-style dinner October 11 that brought in $3,700 for the farm. (Both Cane Rosso and Coi use its eggs; Cane Rosso features chicken and liver from it as well.) “I know Alexis is a one-woman show, and it would have been devastating if she didn’t get any immediate financial help,” says Kiino. “This was an act of community, not charity — people were there to give back to someone who provides us with amazing chickens and eggs.”
On September 19 and 20, more than three dozen people showed up in Vacaville to donate time and energy to the farm. A general contractor, a couple of would-be farmers, a software guy who’d worked construction in college, my photographer husband, a wine shop manager, a high school student — all gave up a long Saturday or Sunday to help Eric cut and join plywood for chicken houses, or Alexis collect and wash eggs, prepare for a heat wave, and clean up debris from the fire. We managed to build the structures for four chicken houses instead of the two we’d planned on: time and labor in the bank for Eric.
Cameron Crotty and his wife, Anita, who together write the popular food blog Married With Dinner, put their home-renovation skills to work for Soul Food Farm that Sunday. “It reminded me what hard work farming is,” Cameron says. “We got to go home at the end of the day, exhausted. Eric and Alexis got to get up the next morning and go back to it...and the next day, and the next.”
By mid-month Samin Nosrat and I were deep into planning a three-pronged campaign for a raffle, a silent auction, and a benefit party. Charlie Hallowell agreed to lend his hip Oakland restaurant Pizzaiolo, with its chicken-coop-boasting patio, on Sunday, October 11. Samin personally hit up just about every restaurant, café, and bakery in the Bay Area for donations. “Not one person said they were unable to donate,” she says. “The vast majority of them had never interacted with Alexis or Soul Food Farm farm; they’d read about it in the Chronicle or on the blogs. People who I barely knew said, ‘I want to help, I want to cook.’”
I reached out to my network of writers and farmers. Raffle and auction prizes, along with offers of ingredients and volunteer help, poured in. I felt like an air-traffic controller at O’Hare on Christmas Eve.
The largesse was mind-boggling. We had to use several Google spreadsheets to track it all. For the raffle we had dozens of $25-$150 gift certificates, signed cookbooks, and goodies like a 20-pound sack of organic brown rice, a gift basket of chutneys, and a case of canned heirloom tomatoes (see list). For the auction, the prizes included dinner in the Chez Panisse kitchen (won by an $800 high bid), a personally inscribed complete set of Michael Pollan’s books plus two tickets to his sold-out City Arts lecture with legendary farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry ($500), and five baby chicks from Soul Food Farm to start one’s own backyard flock ($75).
For the afternoon bash at Pizzaiolo, Samin had gathered ingredients from local farms and artisans while I had coordinated donations of cases of fine wine and Thirsty Bear organic beer. She assembled an army of cooks to put it all together, and I marshaled another crew, including Alexis and Eric’s daughter Emma, to staff the door, bus tables, sell raffle tickets, and watch the chicks.
Somehow, it all came together. It didn’t rain. It wasn’t too hot. The silent auction — conducted via a simple, free Google form — raised $6,500. We sold out the Pizzaiolo party, and sold $7,000 worth of raffle tickets. The Brazilian music played by Koefoed family friends Felipe and Joanne Ferraz was mellow but ear-catching. The food was plentiful, simple, and amazing — people were mobbing the servers for the perfectly hardboiled Soul Food Farm eggs sprinkled with fleur de sel, the grilled bread with heirloom tomatoes and aioli, and the translucent shavings of prosciutto and lardo. Wine snobs marveled at the bottles lined up on the groaning bar.
Alexis gave a speech that left few dry eyes on the patio. She talked about how hard farming was, how isolating, and how easy it was to forget at 6 a.m. when your hands were covered with chicken poop about all the people who felt a connection to your food. The fire had woken her up, she said, and the outpouring of support had at first embarrassed her, then touched her, and finally had made her think differently about what she did. “Soul Food Farm belongs to everybody now,” she said. “All of you. I can’t fail.” And she urged everyone there to reach out to other farmers they knew, to offer a helping hand, or even just a hand in friendship.
Vote with your time
That is the lesson I draw from this lengthy tale. It is incredibly difficult and expensive to start a new farming venture: there’s a reason why two-thirds of farms rely on off-farm income to make ends meet, according to USDA figures. Buying farmland near metropolitan areas is expensive. And small, sustainable farms don’t enjoy economies of scale on things like feed, nor do they save money and labor by relying on pesticides or inhumane, confined animal husbandry.
Many sustainable farmers could use our help now, before disaster strikes. Sure, it’s great to buy from them at the farmers market — money is always welcome — but those with less of it (and that includes me, these days) can barter their skills instead. Ask them. You’d be surprised at how many farmers would be willing to trade food for help with a website, setting up a blog, designing a logo or labels, marketing, or for the less computer-savvy, even the occasional volunteer workday, building fences or shoveling pig manure.
It’s time to go beyond knowing where your food comes from. If we want the kind of farms we admire to survive, we have to vote not just with our forks, but with our time, our skills, our muscles.
A few days later, heavy rains caused the farm to flood. Three hundred meat birds drowned. I called Alexis expecting her to be upset, but she was laughing. Maniacally, but laughing. She said it was “cathartic to think you are going to lose something and then not,” then paused. “I feel inspired to make the farm more beautiful, to do an even better job with the animals. But nothing is certain. After a fire and a flood, I better be open to all sorts of things. All I know is that somehow, we’ll be OK.”
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