Small farms, big challenges
Community-focused businesses soldier on in face of natural disaster, market forces
Natural disasters. Land prices. Unpredictable landlords. Market forces. Nonlocal competition. The challenges facing small-scale farmers in Butte County are many, and survival can come down to the ability to adapt and diversify.
“You can’t expect that it’s going to be easy. You have to be on your game,” said Francine Stuelpnagel, co-owner of the GRUB CSA Farm in Chico. “There’s a lot of moving parts.”
Stuelpnagel and her husband, Lee Callender, operate on 10 acres and offer more than 30 different types of vegetables. They run what’s called a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, which means consumers buy products directly from a farm, paying for the product in advance.
“A lot of our stuff is going super fresh from the field straight to the kitchen, prepped, [then] on somebody’s plate—and that’s pretty neat,” Callender said.
For GRUB, the CSA means 85-100 families that pay monthly—like a magazine subscription—for shares of tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce, among other available veggies.
“It’s really a great program for [the consumers], because they get a better deal, and it’s a good program for us because it’s guaranteed income,” Stuelpnagel said. She added: “We’re trying to make a living, and we’re trying to offer a great, amazing, diverse amount of vegetables to our community.”
It’s making a living that can be tricky. Callender says he believes fewer people are venturing into the small-farm business, or aren’t able to maintain one, and the reasons vary.
One friend, he said, was forced to abandon a farm last year on the south end of Chico because it became unsustainable, adding that housing costs may have played a role. Samantha Zangrilli, who runs TurkeyTail Farm, which also has a CSA, says meal-delivery services such as Blue Apron threaten her business, which she says operates under a similar model but is truly local.
Stuelpnagel, 41, and Callender, 39, went through an upheaval about six years ago, moving from a farm off Dayton Road because the landowner did not renew their lease. The couple took a year and a half to settle on their current property on West Sacramento Avenue.
Now, they are looking to buy the land they operate on, holding farm-to-table dinners to raise money for a down payment. Buying the land would mean long-term security, they said, and a defense against having their farm taken out from under them.
“We’re passionate about what we do,” Callender said. “I think it takes hard work—a lot of sweat—to do what we do.”
Like the folks at GRUB, neither Zangrilli nor her husband, Cheetah Tchudi, grew up with farming backgrounds. Zangrilli studied environmental politics at Chico State and was introduced to farming while living on a co-op in town. She says farming allows her to provide a “clean, organic” source of meat in place of “adulterated” sources whose labor practices pose animal rights questions. And Tchudi says he stumbled into farming as a student at Evergreen State College in Washington, where he worked on an educational farm.
Since 2008, they’ve run the 40-acre TurkeyTail Farm in Yankee Hill, which suffered massive destruction during the Camp Fire.
Zangrilli and Tchudi were comfortable with the prospect of an evacuation. They knew their roles and the things they should take with them, so when they woke up the morning of Nov. 8 and saw the plume, they got to work. Tchudi began moving propane cylinders into the open and hitching trailers. Zangrilli grabbed the ducks, saving 60 out of 80 of them. The pregnant ewes and newborn lambs also were loaded up.
And then there were the products in storage. The couple had thousands of dollars’ worth of meat that needed to stay cold or risk becoming rotten without power. That would go, too.
Several days after the Camp Fire roared through Butte County, Tchudi, 36, gained permission to bypass roadblocks and check out the community-focused farmstead he and Zangrilli, 33, had been cultivating.
“It was brutal,” Tchudi said. “We had a firefighter friend that confirmed that our house had burned down, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to find any animals. We had heard some reports through the sheriff that there was a pig herd running around, and so I was hoping that was us. But yeah, literally kicking through the ashes of my scorched home … digging through where my bedside table was, hoping to find my keys. It was pretty crushing.”
As if running a farm wasn’t enough of a challenge in itself—TurkeyTail sold a variety of food products at Thursday Night Market, plus ran a successful CSA—they now faced the prospect of starting over.
Tchudi and Zangrilli say they contemplated leaving after the fire, but decided to rebuild, largely starting from square one. Where else could they go as farmers and not confront the effects of climate change? Why abandon the customer base they’d built over the last decade?
TurkeyTail maintains a presence at Thursday Night Market in Chico, selling duck eggs, herbs and flowers. Tchudi said he recently rebuilt greenhouses for mushroom cultivation—a specialty of his—on the foundation of the couple’s former home. They currently live in a fifth-wheel trailer, sharing space at a family home on the property that did not burn.
“We are staying because the Chico community has shown us so much support,” Zangrilli said, “and we do this because everybody needs food—everybody eats.”