Straight from the pasture
Wookey Ranch produces healthful, humanely raised lamb and chicken
Actual farming was the furthest thing from the minds of Richard Coon and Christine Hantelman when they settled into a farmhouse nestled in a century-old north-Chico orchard 21 years ago.
“We met in Iowa and both had off-farm occupations when we came here,” said Coon, a former pilot and airplane mechanic who intended to open an airplane restoration shop. Hantelman, his wife, was a jeweler and metalsmith working on a master’s degree in botany at Chico State University.
“A few years into living here we decided we needed something to eat grass,” he continued, “and that’s how we got into sheep, not knowing exactly where it would lead us.”
Where it has led is to Wookey Ranch, a fully functioning, modern farm on Wookey Road producing grass-fed chicken and sheep, and home to the couple, two dogs, two cats, three turkeys and an ancient peacock that has lived there longer than anyone else. Moreover, it’s a certifiable slice of paradise—particularly noticeable on the first sunny morning following two weeks of rain.
“It’s been so wet we’ve got ducks living in our orchard,” Coon said as two of them quacked overhead and landed nearby. Coon and Hantelman sat just outside their farmhouse, explaining their philosophy and farming practices while a tom turkey paced perilously close, puffing itself up in an effort to keep me—the stranger—away from Lily and Mildred, his hens.
“We raise our lambs entirely on grass—or on forage,” Hantelman explained. “When they’re born, they’re nursing from their mothers who are out in the fields eating grass, and then once they get to the place where they’re taking in green stuff as their main diet, that’s what they eat until they’re fat enough and big enough to harvest.
“A lot of the sheep in this country are grown that way too,” she went on, “but then they’re gathered up at the end of their lives and finished in a feedlot setting where they’re getting heavy grain supplementation. The huge differentiation is that we’re entirely grass-fed and -finished.”
Hantelman said that feeding and finishing meat animals entirely with grass makes a difference in terms of the health qualities of the meat, “things like the fatty- acid profile, Omega 3s, higher anti-oxidant levels. There are a lot of health benefits to having entirely grass-fed red meat.”
“The bottom line is sheep are herbivores,” Coon interjected. “What’s happening in confined-animal feeding operations is they’re taking herbivores and feeding them things they’re not evolved to eat. It causes them a lot of health problems, and the thought is that their meat gives us some health problems.”
Coon said grass-feeding also cuts out the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs): “Most corn in this country is GMO now; most soy beans are GMO. By going purely grass-fed and -finished you’re taking the GMOs out of it. We feel like it’s time to stand up and be counted, and we’re on the side of no GMOs.”
As far as chickens go, Coon offered, they are monogastric omnivores—meaning they have a single-chambered stomach—and can’t survive on grass alone. Any supplemental feed given them at Wookey Ranch is certified organic.
To ensure the animals are grass-fed, the ranch employs modern, holistic, rotational-grazing practices similar to those championed by widely known Virginia farmer, author and lecturer Joel Salatin. The couple’s pastures are surrounded with state-of-the-art electric fencing, and Hantelman sings her own decades-old sheep-call—almost like a yodel—to herd the flock to new areas to feed and fertilize.
The chickens are ferried to fresh pastures in three moveable pens, with three more under construction. In addition to healthier, happier animals, other bonuses of rotational grazing are maintaining sustainability and diversity of the land, encouraging growth of native plants and perennial grasses, and fire control.
Though everything at Wookey Ranch is by definition organic—or “better than organic,” as Coon and Hantelman say—the farm is not certified organic.
“A lot of small producers choose to do basically what we’re doing, which is grow organically but not get certified,” Hantelman said. “But any imported feeds we use are certified organic. We don’t use sprays on our pastures, we don’t use chemical fertilizers. Even the garden is all things that would be approved by an organic certifier. Certification is a great thing but it just adds cost and complication that we just feel we’re too small to absorb right now.”
Instead, Wookey Ranch offers something perhaps better than a stamp of certification—an open invitation for their customers to come see what they do firsthand.
“We have a relationship with our customers that we’re comfortable with at this level, where they can come see what we do, see what we feed our animals,” Coon said. “If we ever get big enough that we can’t interact with our customers one-on-one, then certification will be a valid move for us.”
Such growth isn’t in the works right now, said the couple. Since they began focusing primarily on the farm five years ago and began selling at local farmers’ markets three years ago, they’ve been in a state of expansion. While the three solar panels on their property generate just enough energy to sustain it, the couple’s own energies are sometimes pushed to the limit.
“We just want to focus on what we do better,” Hantelman said. “We’ve expanded a lot the last couple years, so now we want to catch up and make sure we’re really good at what we’re doing.”
“The demand for locally grown, organically produced food is staggering,” said Coon. “People want the real deal. But then you balance that by realizing there’s only two of us. We both sometimes come in at 9, completely whupped after working all day and realize we haven’t even planned for dinner.”