Ryan and I were standing beneath his porch and about to load nine crates of eggs into the bed of his truck when a gentle rain began to fall. Because of the cartons exposure to the rain, we had to stack the crates inside the cab of his truck. I offered to join him another time, but he found me a tight little spot in the back seat and insisted I tag along.
Behind the driver's seat, where Ryan was singing along to old 70's classic rock hits over the hum of the diesel engine, I was curled into, well... the shape of an egg as we made are way through the winding roads of Rodeo Gulch into town.
Ryan, himself, is a unique man with acerbic wit, free-associative humor, and a contagious laugh. With long wavy hair that flows down to his shoulders and a beard straight from The Bayou, he is the sole proprietor of an independent chicken and goat ranch in Santa Cruz County.
Reaching Soquel Street, the main artery of Santa Cruz, that would take us into downtown, I asked him "What it was like to work and own a free-range farm?"
He said, "Two things wrong with what you just said. Firstly, I identify more as a rancher. I am not growing chickens from the ground, you know. Secondly, but most importantly, this isn't a free-range operation. Don't say free-range. Free-range is the part of the whole problem. It"s reasons like this that I'm doing this.
"Free-range is a legal term that means something entirely different from what it suggests. Everyone sees free-range eggs and they imagine little happy chickens running around in fields. But, legally speaking, free-range means 3 to 4 square per bird. I've been to these free-range facilities and it is literally a sea of chickens in a warehouse. The floor is concrete, every morning they come in and scrape out the manure. Their access to any form of 'range' is extremely limited and typically just concrete.
"My animals are pasture-raised, and rotationally grazed. That means the animals are moved from pasture to pasture. Outside! What a terrific concept!"
It reminded me of Temple Grandin and how she discusses the treatment of animals in enclosed facilities. She says one of the most important environments for an animal is not just about providing quantity, but quality.
In one scenario, she discusses how a wolf, who was in an enclosure at a zoo, was pacing back and forth in front of the cage - scientifically called stereotypy. The wolf was so possessed by this routine action, that even as the zoo keeper put his foot in front of the wolf, it continued pacing without noticing the zoo keeper. The reason for the wolf's behavior was its inability to behave and act as a real wolf would. She says the efforts we make to provide a good environment for animals in enclosure are, despite the humanistic intentions, often not truly considering the welfare and natural behavior of the species.
Over the course of the last several years, there has been significant progress in developing natural environments, catered to a specific species. Animal phycologists' findings and projects, the conditions in which an animal lives in the human domain, have provided insight into the reality of taking animals away from nature and into human care. Though the cause may be worthy, it takes a great deal of research and understanding to not move an animal from one bad setting in nature to another bad one in captivity.
Though more pertinent to zoos and captivity, the concept equally applies to ranching. Yet, when animals are regarded as products or commodities, many abandon or ignore the same principles of welfare. In Ryan's argument, it even comes down to legal terms. To the layman, free-range seems like progress and a paradigm shift towards conscious ranching. But, in reality it is a marketing term-one that minimally considers the comfort and health of the animal.
Though Ryan raises these animals for production, it is his aim to provide an environment in which that maximizes the health of the animals and the land. As long as we continue to farm animals for consumption, which Ryan argues is an intrinsic part of our diet, then it is in our moral interest to make a better life for them at the ranch.
My legs are just beginning to cramp as Ryan finds two spots on the street to park his truck. As he opens the door I nearly spring out like a coil into the road. He tells me to wait a moment as he goes in through the back entrance of a building. A few moments later he opens a back door that leads into a kitchen. We begin to unload the crates. He tells me to place them flush against the side of the giant oven.
There are a few cooks ignoring us in the back of the extremely large kitchen. Despite the wealth of space it seems nothing much was going on. He walks over to a board and pins his invoice to the wall.
I ask, "Is this all for the restaurant?"
"No, most of it is going to be sold at a farmer's market this weekend. Thankfully I have friends selling them for me, doing five markets a week is a full time job in itself!"
Ryan then walked off, telling me to wait for him in the restaurant. I walked out into the main lobby and where there were several stands selling homemade jellies and jars of various condiments. To the right was a bar with many local beers and ciders on tap. Just behind that a wine-bar and beside that a volunteer booth.
I walked over to the bar and ordered a local beer. I struck up a conversation with an older man and the bartender about the local brewery scene, when I heard Ryan behind me. With the beer, I turned around and he was speaking with a man selling Mexican cuisine. It was humorous to me how out of place he looked. A majority of the crowd were well-dressed folks around their forties and fifties-a stark contrast to a young man in ripped cut-off shorts, sun-bleached t-shirt, and a camo-pattern trucker hat. But, everyone spoke to him as if there was no difference between them, at all.
We found a table in the corner. I was admiring the local artwork while he was gorging on the Mexican plate.
I ask, "So, is this a restaurant? Or, what is it?"
"Well, it's more a venue for local, start-up cooks to set up and serve their food on designated nights."
He handed me a flyer that showed different themes for different nights. It was a wide variety of foods from different cultures around the world. Some were hybridizations, some were strictly authentic.
"Tonight's pretty quiet, but sometimes you have three or four different independent cooks going at one time. It's a meta-restaurant. A restaurant in a restaurant in a restaurant," he said over his finished plate of food.
Sitting on that table, many people came by to speak with Ryan-including all three owners of the venue. In brief period of time I had already made connections for writing and received console from an experienced educator.
"You're a celebrity here," I said.
"Not just here," he answered.
A woman who ran the chocolate, candy shop in the venue took us back and gave us some caramels. I asked her how her business does here, especially being a non-commercial candy store. She told me that because of the quality and experience they do very well and that the business continues to grow.
As Ryan said his extended goodbyes with everyone, one general theme rose out of our departure. Being somewhat jaded on the idea of failed community oriented projects, I was deeply surprised and impressed by the functionality of the scene. That being said, I can't help but take into consideration that Ryan and I were certainly the youngest people around. Bringing this up, Ryan tells me there isn't always this broad of an age gap. Many of the breweries and other restaurants he works with have a wider blend of ages.
Nonetheless, there is something promising in the fabric of this community-whether at the venue we attended, or one of the others he mentioned. It poses a real opportunity to the ideal: sustainability could actually be sustainable. Perhaps, quality and integrity can be regained from the lost territory of mass production and commercialization.
But, it does make me wonder too: Is it only because this area is rich in resources? Is it only because there are investors here willing to develop the project? Is it really possible on a larger scale?
On conclusion of this article, I wanted to know more of the other side: the commercial, mass production of meat, eggs, and milk. Next article, Ryan will detail his experience with that side of the industry.