by Shelly Englert & Jay Newcomer
When Jay and I met in 1997, we were attending a large urban college in Denver. We were completing Bachelor of Science degrees in Environment Science, a very new program at the time. It was essentially a build your own degree based on a variety of classes in biology, geography, geology, botany, soil science, and hydrology. We had a combined total of 12 years in the program and no real idea of what job we could do with this background—except it did leave us with an idea that we wanted to live a more self-sustainable, lesser impact lifestyle.
From an early age I’d been around fresh produce as my dad always had a small family garden consisting of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, horseradish, a variety of herbs and lots of care and love. His favorite thing to can was pickles—crisp, spicy, and crammed with lots of dill and garlic. I still remember the smell of the moist soil. In the mid-1970’s he was a fruit and vegetable buyer for a small produce business called Garden Fresh in Southern Arizona. He taught me how to look for the perfect tomato, what a ripe cantaloupe smelled like, and how to tell if a pineapple was ready for eating. We would grab handfuls of alfalfa sprouts out of trays growing in the warehouses and he would show me how to pick them so no one would notice. He later went on to work for Safeway in the produce distribution warehouse in Denver, a much larger scale, but still the same fruits and vegetables and still the same love of produce.
Not only was I lucky to have my dad’s little backyard garden, but also my cousins’ Grandma, Grandma Doris, had the most amazing garden I’d ever seen. She turned her urban backyard in the center of Denver into an edible jungle of adventure. At any time of the year I could go there to find something to eat, from carrots to raspberries to concord grapes. She was definitely a pioneer in urban backyard gardening. These two people made me realize how fun and important it was to grow food. My first garden was about 100 square feet in a corner of a yard I was renting. I had to clear out all the broken glass and bricks and my dad helped me bring in and amend the soil. I ripped out the grass, added more soil, and planted every seed from a package of tomatoes and a package of cucumbers. Every single seed sprouted and I was in heaven for the entire summer. I fed my co-workers and friends with all the extras and knew from that moment on I wanted to try to grow my own food.
Jay was fortunate enough to have a mom that cooked every meal from scratch with fresh seasonal food she would find from the local grocery store or the local farmers’ market. She carefully prepares every meal with as much attention and detail as an astronaut preparing for a flight to the moon. To this day, she is one of the best cooks I know who still prepares every meal with fresh local produce. Her love of food has rubbed off on Jay and he has taken fresh local food to a whole, other level.
So when Jay and I met, it seemed only natural that we’d move to a place that would allow us to grow food. That move came in 1998, when we moved to Anderson Valley and onto the property with Jay’s mom and step-dad, Gail and Ron Gester. Shortly after we moved in we were introduced to Bridget McBride and Andrew Lemann on the Yorkville Ranch. They had a large garden, an orchard, and some goats. They also had two small children, were running a Montessori school, and in desperate need of help. Homesteading was proving too much work for one family so they invited us to move up with them and help out on the ranch. We couldn’t believe our luck. In less than two years of envisioning our lesser-impact life we were getting a chance to live it. We took over the garden, replaced all the raised beds and made them taller, planted a few more fruit trees, added to the chicken coop, learned to milk goats, made cheese, and started planting all of our own seeds. We built our own soil from the manure of the chickens and goats, saving seeds, and preserving our bounty.
We thought we would be able to join the farmers’ market in Boonville the following summer, but the reality was that the paperwork was too much to deal with and our garden didn’t actually provide enough to share with the community. It was, in fact, a large family garden that provided food for two families and a few extra people on the ranch. That was satisfying and more so because we were not only growing all of our summer vegetables and a few of our winter vegetables (not to mention the canned tomato sauce and salsa that kept us satisfied in the rain), but we had our own eggs, our own goat milk and goat cheese. Jay was also foraging mushrooms and we picked enough to dry and last until the following fall. The only thing missing was the meat. That’s when we realized there was free food roaming around on the hillsides throughout the Valley and out our back door. Jay caught our first piglet and we raised it up and ate her at Thanksgiving. All this bounty had given us a great reason to be thankful. Since that first pig and celebration, Thanksgiving is a big deal around our house. There are usually around 12-25 people in attendance. We try and are very successful in having all homemade, homegrown, foraged, local food. One year, we kept a list of all the items we had on our table and the only thing we didn’t make or forage was the beer, the wine, and the black pepper.
Canning, drying, and preserving our bounty has also become part of our seasonal routine. I can from August to November and have enough sauces, salsas, butters, soups, jams, olives, and pickles to last until the following summer. We’ve entered our bounty, fresh and preserved, in the Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show for the last 14 years. We have enough ribbons to surround our house twice. We enjoy entering not just to win, but also to help support our local fair. Every year, we try to get a few more people to enter, it’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s free to enter—not to mention, the excitement of getting a blue ribbon. I also participated in the Not So Simple Living Fair a few years ago displaying some of our canned, dried, and preserved food—a way for others to see what we’re all up to in the hills of Anderson Valley.
So after a few years of running around on the Yorkville Ranch attempting to catch piglets, we decided to give Jane Zeni a call. She has an amazing stock of healthy, happy, 4-H worthy pigs and is always ready to help us out by selling us a few pigs. We purchased piglets from Jane for a few years, raised them, and slaughtered them—first for ourselves, then for others. Now we’ve gotten into breeding our pigs; the first was a Zeni sow with a domestic Russian boar we purchased from Lake County. Now we cross breed our pigs with wild boars, raise the piglets, and sell them.
Shortly after figuring out we could be pig farmers, Jay decided to start making sausage and then salami, with the initial guidance of a 2nd generation Valley local whose family has been here for over 100 years. Jay’s become quite proficient and now teaches a class at the Not So Simple Living Fair educating others on the fine art of curing. Every year he has people coming back to him saying they did exactly what he taught them and can't wait to learn more from him. If you know Jay, this makes his day and he tries to teach something different every year while still educating on the basics. Along with butchering and processing our own pigs he has learned to cure other meat. He has made dry-cured ham, Lonza (pork loin), Guanciale (pork jowl or cheek), Bressaola (beef), an emulsified pork liver sausage called Mazzafegati, and a variety of fresh sausages and dry-cured salamis. These include but are not limited to British, German, Polish, smoked, keilbasa, spicy goat and bacon sausage, and house-cured tenderloin. Jay also makes corned beef and pastrami, a dry-cured bacon, and a honey-cured bacon.
I haven’t mentioned our children, Hannah and Ethan. Hannah, now 13, was born within the first year we were on the ranch. She’s always accompanied me into the garden, to the milking barn, and into the classroom starting at three months. At three weeks old, she was an attendant to our first chicken processing. Ethan, nine, has also been involved in the garden and animal care and butchering. Even though the Montessori school closed by the time he was six months old, that hasn’t suppressed his curiosity for learning. From that moment on we decided to home school and have continued to learn at home for the last 13 years. Not a day goes by that we aren’t learning from or teaching our kids. They have always been closely involved in the raising, caring, and slaughter of our pigs. We name the pigs Lunch, Dinner and Midnight Snack with no regrets regarding our closeness with these amazing and delicious animals. Hannah and Ethan both recognize how important it is for us to know our food, for them to know where there food comes from, and that these animals have had a good life.
Thirteen years later, our garden has expanded, we've planted a few more fruit trees, more berries, and we're getting better about planting a winter garden. The orchard is established enough to provide a nice variety of apples, pears, peaches and plums, and a smattering of figs. Our berry patches provided us with raspberries, blueberries, and a seemingly perpetual bloom of strawberries. White mulberries are our newest addition. We’ve become proficient in canning, preserving, drying, and recently, fermenting. Our storage is full of the summer’s bounty that will last us throughout the winter. We haven't bought garlic or any tomato product in years. Our newest discovery is ketchup and barbecue sauce, a huge hit with the kids.
Our newest endeavor in pig breeding keeps us well stocked with pork and we are able to sell piglets to a few of our friends a couple of times a year. Our freezer is endlessly full and we have periodically traded for local fish and local beef. We've also learned to find the local food that's missing from our diets and become involved. That's why we belong to the local grain share and a local cow share. Unfortunately, we no longer make goat cheese, but when it's available locally, we buy it.
After focusing the last 14 years on this lesser impact, more sustainable, and local lifestyle we've discovered how hard and time consuming it is, but the pay off is enormous. Our kids have a healthier understanding of what it means to grow your own food as well as how to care for, water, feed, store, and process it. They know that what they put into their bodies is better for them, for our community, and the earth. Teaching our kids that living a conscientious lifestyle regarding our food, how it’s grown, how it's treated, our impact on the earth, and our overall awareness of those around us is all the sustainability I need as a parent. Here’s a perfect quote from Ethan, “Everyone should do it and stop buying factory made food.” Jay and I know that this next generation of food eaters has lived a lifestyle of awareness and darn good local food.
(The next two articles in the CWLF series will be interviews. David Ballantine is talking with the McEwen family about their market garden and Tom Melcher interviewed Bernie of Pomo Tierra and Bernie’s apple juice. Connecting With Local Food articles are organized by the AV Foodshed and intended to appear in the AVA and on the www.mendocinolocalfood.org website every two weeks; however, as you have probably noticed, the series seems to take on a timeline of its own.)