From Soul Searcher to Sustainable Chicken Farmer
July 10, 2012 | Hana Lurie
For Alexis Koefoed, a quest for purpose 15 years ago ended with the purchase of farmland in Vacaville, California. She is now co-owner along with her husband Eric of Soul Food Farm, a sustainable farm that raises pastured chickens for both meat and eggs. The Koefoeds farm full-time and live leanly off of the income they generate primarily from running their CSA. Lately, the couple has sought to diversify its product offering to lavender and other crops in order to increase the farm’s economic viability.
I recently spoke with Alexis Koefoed to learn more about the origins of Soul Food Farm, her reasons for farming sustainably, her position on organic certification, the challenges her farm faces, and more.
Q: What is the story of how your farm came to be?
Alexis Koefoed: Well, it was a series of events that weren’t related to farming at all – being in my late 30s and looking for the meaning that I’ve been searching for that was more than just being a housewife. I found this land, was inspired by it and bought it. I wanted to do something agricultural but wasn’t sure exactly what. The chickens were on the farm already as part of our veggie garden, and we were putzing here for a few years trying to figure out the plans. The chickens were what took off – suddenly people were beating down our door for pastured eggs and we realized that this was a huge need, so we developed the farm as a chicken farm.
The farm sits on the north side of Vacaville, and the area has been a farming valley since the 1800s. Eric and I are only the second people to own this land; it belonged to one other family from the 1880s through 1997 when we bought it. I ran the farm alone for two or three years, then Eric stopped [engineering] and started to work with me here full time. I think this will be our fifth year together.
Q: When and why did you decide to embrace sustainable farming?
Alexis Koefoed: When we bought this property 15 years ago, it had been deserted since the late 60s, so we walked onto a piece of land that had no house on it and had been let go to cattle, so it was like walking onto a blank canvas. It was never really a conscious decision to do anything but sustainable, organic farming. It was already part of the way I thought about life and the way Eric had grown up in Denmark where you take the best care of things you can and bring out the beauty in whatever you do. It never occurred to us to do anything but the best we could do for the animals, soil and plants, even at our own sacrifice – even if it meant that we didn’t have certain things.
It’s interesting because now we’re using words that 15 years ago weren’t so common in our lingo – for two city folk like Eric and I; it wasn’t even on our radar. We were just going by instincts and natural inclination. Now we can talk about “sustainability”, we talk about locavore and eating locally, but that just wasn’t super common language 15 years ago. It was more common back then to talk about “organic”.
Q: Is your farm certified organic?
Alexis Koefoed: Even though we did get the farm certified [organic] immediately, we [recently] let it go after 12 years. We decided that it’s more important for us to have our values and the reflections of what we do be enough. I feel like I’m just as capable as anybody else to make good, solid decisions for the land, and I didn’t want to be prevented from moving forward with projects. For example, I have all of these lavender plants that I want to put in, and I can’t buy them certified organic.
The farmer across the street has a beautiful nursery; she does everything [according to] the philosophy and ideals of organic, except that she doesn’t use a certified organic rooting compound when she propagates plants. So, even though 99.9% of what she does is technically certified organic, she can’t get certified. Well, I want to buy her plants, support her and do business with her. I don’t want to be [obliged] to buy things from other people when here I have a farmer doing every single thing right under the sun. I may resurrect [the certification] if I ever need to for some business reason.
Q: What do you grow on your farm?
Alexis Koefoed: For the last two years, I’ve been working on diversifying the farm because chickens and eggs are just not enough to sustain a family. So we’ve invited a beekeeper to keep his hives here and we get some of the honey to sell to our CSA. We’ve leased four acres of land to a row crop farmer this year so that he can start his project, and we’re going to use those vegetables for our CSA. Another woman farmer across the street and I have partnered up last year and started planting hundreds of lavender plants for a new lavender business. Right now we have about 1500 in the ground with 3000 more plants scheduled for October. We already have a line of lavender products. This year we made super-fine high-grade essential oil and a lavender spray. Next year we should have a you-pick-lavender field and we will be adding a bunch of other products like lavender pillows, fresh-cut lavender that we can ship – we’re just going to keep expanding. All of these little projects are an effort to diversify the farm – there’s always something going on, and year-round products to sell.
Q: Can you describe some unique sustainable practices that you employ on your farm?
Alexis Koefoed: The most important thing that we do on our farm is letting the chickens run around and be free. We don’t confine them, and we move them around frequently. We don’t over-till our soil; we don’t have a non-tilling policy, but definitely a low-tilling policy where we will mow fields for a couple of years rather than disk them. We will topseed the fields when the winter rains come to get some variety of forage out there, but we try to do as little invasive farming practices as we can. We’re also big on conserving water – we do a lot of drip irrigation. We’re putting in an irrigation system at this moment with sprinklers and drip lines. Whatever we are planting has to be something that can survive with little water. That’s why lavender is a good product, because you don’t have to water it as heavily as you would ornamentals.
Q: How does the farm make money?
Alexis Koefoed: The CSA is definitely the backbone of this farm – we’ve had one for three or four years now. We have about 300 CSA families, and there’s probably 70 or 80 that rotate on a regular basis. So for a typical CSA, you pay a subscription fee, you receive a box, and you may not know what is in that box. Our CSA is different because of the animals. We actually built a website with what we call an “8 basket online order form” and when the CSA is open for orders, [customers] get an announcement. Then, they can order exactly what they want – how many eggs, chickens, livers, or lavender products they want, and then the farm packs it for each individual CSA member. We’re just actively expanding our farm direct sales. I think that’s the best way to keep your farm afloat.
It’s tough. Two-thirds of small farms in the United States rely on off-farm income, and we don’t have that, so we live very lean. I don’t even think it’s a sacrifice, I think it’s just the basic choices you make. If you’re going to be a farmer, you’ve already put aside the idea that you’re going to have a luxurious life.
Q: Would you consider the farm profitable, or self-sustaining?
Alexis Koefoed: We’re making it; it’s just hard. The more expensive chickens you get, the tougher it gets. But, we’re here! We’re paying our bills every month. I’m looking to the diversity of the farm to relieve some of that tension. So when the chickens stop laying eggs in November, we’re not sweating it because now we’ll have lavender or vegetables and honey. That will make it an easier business enterprise. And it just makes sense that you would never build a business on one product alone unless it was logical. Unfortunately with chickens, the cost of production is so huge that you have to have other things.
Q: What are the future goals of the farm?
Alexis Koefoed: To open up the farm to a lot more public events like weekend camps. I’m working on a whole series of projects so that people can see what we’re doing, participate, and learn about agriculture even if they never want to be farmers. I don’t want the farm to turn into a housing development and my children don’t want to be farmers, so it seems like the logical thing is to keep it growing and developing. I think that’s my ultimate goal – that when I’m old and gray, this farm can be some kind of an educational place. Then I would feel like I’ve done my work.