Blazing a trail
A Yankee Hill farm provides locals with a new option for naturally raised meat
As TurkeyTail Farm finally comes into view within a shaded ravine in Yankee Hill, a small flock of sheep trots by. A young man with bright red hair appears, accompanied by his only two employees, herd dogs Zero and Quinoa, and opens the single gate to this hidden-away animal farm.
Elsewhere on the property lives the farm’s namesake, a small rafter, or group, of turkeys, as well as many more fowl: 150 chickens and 50 ducks. A small herd of grass-fed sheep and goats roams freely inside the farm’s electric fence before being put in a smaller pen for the night. The pigs are also gathered in a fenced pen about the size of a small garden.
Cheetah Tchudi—born Chris, he got his nickname as a child—and his parents, Steve and Susan Tchudi, have been building the place from the ground up since purchasing the 40 acres of oak-studded property in the hills just outside of Oroville two summers ago.
“My parents sold their suburban home and just purchased the land outright,” said 25-year-old Tchudi.
Tchudi’s parents were English professors in Reno, and instead of relaxing in retirement, they opted to share their son’s dream of creating a sustainable and ecologically friendly farm.
The family markets and distributes through a model known as Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. Instead of growing a crop and selling it at a produce stand, the Tchudis divide the bounty among people who pay a $30 weekly fee, or $15 for a half-share.
“Basically an individual buys a portion or share of the farm, and in exchange they get a portion of the harvest,” he said. “It’s great because the community and the farmer share the risk and the profit.”
When the Tchudis bought the land, the property held nothing but trees, brush and a well head, so the family camped out and spent the first season building the water infrastructure and a wooden canopy, the lone shelter on the place, hiring help only for the installation of electrical work.
“It was a little rugged,” Tchudi said, laughing. “We just pitched some tents and had a little camp kitchen.”
Tchudi’s parents now have a home in downtown Chico, but Tchudi spends some nights out in the wilderness, mostly to watch out for predators.
“There’s been a lot of bear action lately,” he said.
Tchudi graduated from Evergreen State College with a degree in agriculture and was farming in Washington before he came to Butte County. Steve and Susan were eager to partake in their son’s vision of creating high-quality food. Susan tends mostly to the garden, while Steve helps with construction.
They also have become part of the community, as Susan presides over marriages here in Chico and Steve edits and contributes to the Chico Peace and Justice Center newsletter. The couple also have a radio show on KZFR called “Ecotopia” that airs Tuesdays at 6 p.m.
Recently, Tchudi has been working with Lee Callender, who runs an increasingly popular Chico-based produce CSA.
Callender founded GRUB (Growing Resourcefully Uniting Bellies) about a year ago, starting by providing vegetables and fruit to seven families. Interest from community members has grown, and these days 40 families pay for a share.
Each Wednesday, participants head to the GRUB pick-up point off Dayton Road for bags with fresh, locally grown vegetables and, now, meat. Callender said the CSA model is great because it’s sustainable and there is very little waste. Another benefit is that it allows the two farms to help each other.
“Being young farmers, it’s really important to support each other, and the CSA model allows us to do that,” he said.
The meat, mushrooms and other small vegetables from TurkeyTail complement GRUB’s produce selection, Callender said.
Danielle DiPietro-Hawkins is one of the seven GRUB customers who have opted to receive a “meat and goodies” share from TurkeyTail. She now gets veggies and half a meat share once a week.
Not a big fan of red meat, DiPietro-Hawkins said she was surprised that she liked the lamb she got from TurkeyTail. Her husband enjoyed the goat. Being involved with the CSA has changed her outlook on eating.
“The nutritional value is so much higher in natural and locally grown food,” she said. “It’s even changing the way I cook, because I don’t just buy the typical things from the grocery store.”
Back at TurkeyTail, Tchudi notes that the livestock is used to maintain the farm. Sheep and goats help with brush management, and the chickens do the initial tillage by scratching and fertilizing the ground. The pigs help by kicking up the small rocks in the soil.
The animals are also able to forage for grass and insects on the ground and are exposed to vitamin D from the sun. The main source of nutrients comes from what Tchudi says is the cornerstone of the operation—mushroom cultivation.
Inside a plastic-covered tent are several mounds of sawdust (made from organic rice straw and dead oak trees found on the property), clumped together sprouting oyster mushrooms out of the mangled mass of fungi. Tchudi sells the mushrooms to Chico Natural Foods and has recently started growing shitake mushrooms as well.
As the family completes the construction on the farm, they will have a small laboratory to research the benefits of mushrooms. After the mushrooms have been cultivated, the excess fungal mass is fed as a healthful supplement to the poultry.
Recycling nutrients and letting the animals do the work around the farm is part of the TurkeyTail motto of living in harmony with nature and lightening their own carbon footprint.
“We like to fancy ourselves an ecological farm,” Tchudi says. “We use the tricks of Mother Nature and apply them to our farming practices.”