Ground zero

Welcome to the post-apocalyptic farm. Prepare to butcher a few emus, Dumpster-dive and make your own fuel.

Renna Offerman hangs out with some of Rancho Rancho’s well-fed free-range farm critters.

Renna Offerman hangs out with some of Rancho Rancho’s well-fed free-range farm critters.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Try this. Buy a bagel and then throw it in a trash can. How about your own kitchen trash can, just for starters? Now take it out and take a big bite. You can’t do it, can you? Eating out of the garbage is a closely held cultural taboo, but some people actually prefer it. In fact, they wouldn’t live any other way.

Gil Benmoshe, for one, likes to poke at the taboo that trash is tainted. “Something feels good about combating that,” he said, plucking turnips and peppers out of a pile of food that he rescued from a Dumpster.

Benmoshe lives a zero-waste lifestyle on 25 acres of farmland in Rancho Cordova. He is one of 12 people who have been invited or found their way there, all of whom end up eating a lot of scavenged trash.

The Rancho Rancho cooperative also produces its own fuel and builds whatever it needs from scrap lumber. With only a few concessions—such as dinner out with a significant other who doesn’t embrace the lifestyle—the residents of Rancho Rancho have effectively left mainstream society.

Benmoshe—a healthy-looking guy in his late 20s with a master’s degree in child development—hasn’t had a job in more than a year. Other residents also have advanced degrees.

This is the life for him, Benmoshe said. Living cooperatively and resisting regular work and buying meaningless things suits him fine. There’s more than enough to live off in Dumpsters, he says. The bounty is so great, in fact, that Benmoshe is getting a little jaded, and not just because Americans waste so much. “It’s not much different than consumerism, really,” he shrugged.

At the cooperative houses on the UC Davis campus, Dumpster diving is almost a rite of passage. When Jesse—who, because Dumpster diving is illegal, would prefer his last name be left out of SN&R—moved in two years ago, he found a freezer cleared of everything but ice cream, thrown out by a local market after the freezers broke.

Jesse lives with 13 other students in the house known as Agrarian Effort. Weekly jumps into supermarket garbage reduce the house’s food spending to about $100 a week and make the potential of getting caught worth it (if a diver breaks a leg or eats tainted food, a Dumpster’s owner can be held liable).

The students feel they’re doing a service by keeping edible items out of landfills. Although they’re not poor, why shouldn’t they save a little money by getting their food after dark?

“There’s all this free food; why not take advantage of it?” Jesse said. “It’s not like it’s a financial need, but why spend money at a grocery store when you can get it for free in the back? I don’t really see any shame in it.” In fact, Jesse takes a certain pride in it, the same sort of pride Benmoshe has when he talks about the biggest score he ever had: 100 gallons of extra-virgin olive oil.

There’s so much Dumpster food stocked up at Rancho Rancho that residents could hold a three-day feast, dining on chunks of river-caught fish and stewed tomatoes swimming in a sauce of butter (30 pounds worth) and emu broth, boiled down from former pets of the ranch who were butchered after kicking one too many dogs. Goats, roosters, ducks and geese squabbling in the dooryard are also subject to butchering. Shelves of dented cans of pineapple could be dessert, perfectly complementing the hundreds of unlabeled Clif Bars. “It’s kind of empty, actually,” Benmoshe said, peering at the cupboards.

Most of the food (except the emu foot in the freezer) would have wound up in a landfill otherwise. But because it’s standard Dumpster-diver etiquette to bring home everything usable, Benmoshe is beginning to feel a little cramped.

“I wasn’t taking anything to a landfill, but I’m living in a landfill,” he said. “There’s so much trash and dead animals around me.”

But no one said leaving the pleasant crush of consumerism would be easy.

Benmoshe’s roommate, Eli Vaughan, obviously enjoys the excess food. He’s slender, but he’s always eating, either exclaiming over a bag of potato chips or thoughtfully munching from a tray of spotty fruit, chocolates or baked goods.

“I would never buy something unhealthy, but if I find chocolate in the Dumpster, I eat it,” Vaughan said.

“You end up looking at magazines you would never let yourself look at, but in the Dumpster, it goes through a purification process,” Benmoshe agreed.

Rancho Rancho is really good at feeding itself from Dumpsters, but what the residents lack are ranching skills. People sometimes move in with their animals, let them run loose, make their own biodiesel, cook only for themselves and avoid house meetings or planning sessions. There are compost-enriched plots of dirt, but there’s a noticeable absence of anything growing in them.

Photo By Larry Dalton

This is cooperative living without much cooperation.

Benmoshe has planted a few fruit trees, but they’re in constant danger of being defoliated and debarked by the roaming goat. Other agriculture is nonexistent.

“Here’s some pathetic hippie attempt to make a solar shower and toilet,” Benmoshe said, pointing to a strange contraption dangling from a tree behind the cluster of houses.

There are almost a dozen cars parked at Rancho Rancho, most older, diesel models. Rancho Rancho makes its own biodiesel in a barn. The lab consists of a series of smudgy drums and filters that keep the fleet of cars running virtually for free.

When restaurants throw out containers of used cooking oil, Benmoshe and his friends are usually there to rescue it.

“We get oil from Dumpsters, from restaurants, good restaurants,” he said. Chinese restaurants have the best used oil.

Fast-food oil is to be avoided, although it is getting better. Non-hydrogenated oil is not only healthier for the heart, but also better for running diesel vehicles on. To make biodiesel, Benmoshe mixes methanol and sodium hydroxide, a salt-like powder that would burn your face off if given a chance.

Added to hot vegetable oil, the mixture becomes neutral. Benmoshe demonstrates this by dunking a finger into a drum of biodiesel and licking it. Biodiesel is renewable; reduces carbon-dioxide emissions by more than 75 percent over petroleum diesel, according to the U.S. Department of Energy; and can be used in any diesel vehicle with few modifications. But making it can be risky.

“I am not in favor of making biodiesel myself,” he said. “It’s too dangerous. It’s much better done industrially.”

A byproduct of biodiesel is glycerin, and Rancho Rancho does make a lot of soap out of it, but there’s never going to be enough to get rid of the grease. “All your clothes end up being greasy,” Benmoshe said. “Your whole reality becomes greasy.”

Benmoshe lives in a long bunkhouse that farmworkers lived in when the land was worked. On the door is a sign that reads, “No Shopping At Any Time.” To get into his room—built into the house with scavenged red fir—you climb a ladder, crawl over Vaughan’s bed and drop into a cozy little hobbit hole with a big window and no doors in or out.

Vaughan was inside sporting goggles with bubbled-out lenses—one side of his blond hair clipped back with a barrette.

“Gil is a pessimist and exaggerates,” he warned, offering a big, soft Dumpster cookie. Vaughan, who moved to Rancho Rancho after serving in Americorps, said he can see where Benmoshe is coming from, though he’s more optimistic about the ranch.

“Part of my existence is zero-waste, but I do have more than I need,” he said. “It’s easier to be attracted to a label than to think about your actions,” Benmoshe responded. Benmoshe has spent much of his life immersed in complex calculations figuring out the environmental cost of his actions and whittling down his impact on the planet to nothing. He’s come to the conclusion that the effort isn’t helping anyone.

“The most I’m going to amount to is a person who doesn’t exist,” Benmoshe said. “I think it has psychological repercussions.”

Rather than rescuing food from Dumpsters, Benmoshe wants to advocate less consumerism because that, he said, is where the problem lies.

“It’s people who waste the food, not supermarkets,” he said. “You might feel really heroic that you dive a supermarket or industrial bakery, but look. They waste between 1 and 2 percent. Capitalism works. The problem is subsidies and post-consumer waste.”

So, what’s he going to do? For starters, he’s been driving to New Orleans—yes, using biodiesel—and helping in the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

Helping people is great, he said, but what he really loves is how he and 100 other people manage to live together with one bathroom, everyone cooking for everyone else, using as little space as possible and working toward a common goal.

Unfortunately, most of those people will go home, do their grocery shopping and return to daily life. Benmoshe will return to Rancho Rancho and either try to make it work or abandon it. “I’m still looking for something meaningful,” he said.