From table to farm

Local farm’s pigs have exquisite taste

Benji Vander Mollen visits a number of area restaurants twice weekly to collect compost for Canopy Farm’s pigs and chickens.

Benji Vander Mollen visits a number of area restaurants twice weekly to collect compost for Canopy Farm’s pigs and chickens.

Photo by Ken Smith

Under the canopy:
Canopy Farm sells produce at Chico Natural Foods, the Wednesday farmers’ market in the North Valley Plaza parking lot, and at several area restaurants. For more information, visit Canopy Farms on Facebook or call (319) 321-0018.

Slop time at Canopy Farm is a gourmet affair.

“They definitely have their favorites, like the grapes and chunks of pineapple from Bacio,” Benji Vander Mollen said as he dumped a 32-gallon bucket of fruit, vegetables and assorted scraps into—and on top of—a pair of gleefully grunting pigs.

“Sometimes they even get some good-sized chunks of lobster tail from Sicilian Cafe in there,” Vander Mollen continued. “I think they eat better than most people do.”

Indeed, the list of restaurants that contribute compost to feed the farm’s pigs and chickens compose a short list of Chico’s finest dining establishments—Grana, Leon Bistro, Red Tavern, Two Twenty Restaurant and more. It’s a fitting final destination for the leftovers, as some of the fresh, organic produce served at those restaurants originates at the farm.

“It’s like a lot of things in farming—it’s all a big circle with no real beginning or end,” Vander Mollen said. “It goes from the farm to the table and back to the farm again. That’s the kind of thing we like to support and experiment with here.”

Vander Mollen and his partner and co-operator, Auburn Johnson, shared information about other sustainable practices they embrace and explore during a recent visit to Canopy Farm, off Dayton Road just south of Chico. To begin with, they use all-organic methods and other biodynamics—like planting according to lunar cycles, natural pest control and growing a diverse array of fruits and vegetables.

The couple hail from the Midwest, where Vander Mollen grew up in a family of avid gardeners and Johnson spent several years working on farms in Wisconsin. When they moved to Chico four years ago, they wanted to continue developing their agricultural skills, and started interning at the GRUB Cooperative.

“We had to learn how to do some things differently out here, like growing with irrigation as opposed to the natural rain cycle,” Vander Mollen said. “Farming anywhere is all about timing, but the timing is a lot different out here.”

The duo started their own operation three years ago, when the opportunity arose to caretake a piece of farmland off Dayton Road that had been fallowed for 25 years. Vander Mollen and Johnson chose the name based both on the centuries-old oak trees dotting the property and the term’s relevance in permaculture circles: “There’s everything from microorganisms up to that we are all here under the canopy, and we try to use that life to promote more life,” Vander Mollen said.

The farm grows an assortment of produce—including sugar snap peas, rainbow chard and Peruvian golden berries—that are sold to the aforementioned restaurants and other local eateries, Chico Natural Foods, and at the Wednesday farmers’ market in the North Valley Plaza parking lot.

Canopy Farm assumed GRUB’s composting and hog operations when the collective lost its lease last year. Vander Mollen and Johnson currently raise four hogs a year that are then prepared at Chico Locker and Sausage Co. The couple keep half a hog for their own use, and sell the others by the whole pig through a co-op program; they are not currently permitted to piece out the hogs, though Vander Mollen said they may expand the program in the future.

“You can really tell these pigs lived and ate well by the quality of the meat,” he said of the final product. “The fact you can take some old apples and stuff and turn it into bacon … that’s magic.”