Everybody loved Soul Food Farm.
When chefs from Chez Panisse first tasted Soul Food Farm’s pasture-raised eggs, they wanted to buy everything that farmer Alexis Koefoed’s hens would give her.
When the Vacaville farm suffered a fire in 2009, supporters raised $35,000 to help Koefoed and her husband, Eric, recoup lost income and rebuild.
And when Koefoed announced that escalating costs of chicken feed would force them to close the 7-year-old operation in September, tributes came in from everywhere.
“I can remember when I first had a Soul Food Farm egg. I thought, ‘This is like a little pocket of sunshine,’ ” says Molly Merson of Richmond, a member of the farm’s community supported agriculture program.
At Soul Food Farm, chickens ran around open fields in an area called Pleasant Valley, producing eggs that captured a lost taste of something real. The farm became a symbol of agriculture restored to its small-scale, homespun roots.
Yet the true cost of producing those chickens and eggs wasn’t always evident, even to those willing to pay $8 a dozen and $30 a bird. For one, feed was already expensive when the drought hit this summer, obliterating what was already the tiniest of profits.
“We could raise our prices, but then we’re really moving away from the philosophical core of why we started this farm, which was to feed people,” says Koefoed.
Slight, with spiky dark hair and elfin eyebrows, Koefoed pads over a carpet of brown and white chicken feathers tangled with oak leaves. Now that her chicken fields are almost empty, she’s reflecting on why a small farm beloved by four-star chefs and a loyal band of customers couldn’t make it.
‘It felt great’
“We were in all the best restaurants, all the coolest butcher shops,” she recalls. “Most of the time it felt great. We worked outside, we were building a business and people loved us.” But, she adds, “We’re older farmers. Physically, how do we sustain it day in, day out?”
Alexis, 47, and Eric, 60, have been practically the sole workers on an operation that at its height produced 1,000 chickens and 600 dozen eggs a week. That typically required 12- to 18-hour days, with barely a day off.
“I’m not complaining. That’s the reality of farming. But I want consumers to know farming is hard work,” Koefoed says.
The couple are keeping their land, leasing some of it to other farmers. They are planting 3,000 lavender plants to use for essential oil and other products. Eric has returned to his previous work as an engineer, and Alexis plans to take a trip to visit farm friends around the country. They plan to rent out their house to visitors who want to spend some time on a farm.
“I cried for a couple of days, and then I got up and I’ve actually been thinking, ‘Wow, Eric and I are going to get some rest,’ ” she says. “There’s not going to be all this pressure on me to be perfect all the time and have the perfect farm, to have a product that had such high expectations from everybody – from CSA members, chefs, the press – that there was never a moment of letup.”
Koefoed’s attention to detail endeared her to chefs and customers. She would check each egg when packing and made all the deliveries herself. Avedano’s, a San Francisco butcher shop that carried her products, lost money on her chickens for the first six months, but stayed loyal.
“That was when I realized how important telling the story of the farmers to the customers was,” says Tia Harrison, Avedano’s co-owner and also chef-owner of Sociale Restaurant.
“I remember telling people, ‘Listen, this is an expensive chicken, but it’s farmed (in Vacaville), and the farmer herself comes in and delivers them. She’s working her butt off, and I think she should make money, don’t you?’ ” she says.
How it started
Soul Food Farm got its start in the late 1990s, when the Koefoeds were living in Vallejo and raising their three children while she worked at a winery and he worked as an engineer. She often drove her kids to a plant nursery in Pleasant Valley, a picturesque spot that has been farmed since the 1850s, where they’d pass a property with an olive grove and an old redwood water tower, tucked below the ridge.
“I had always thought, ‘Oh that place is so beautiful, I wish I could live there,’ ” Koefoed recalls.
Then one day there was a For Sale sign on the property. She remembers braking so hard she nearly gave her kids whiplash. That night she told her husband, “We’re selling everything.” It took her two years to convince him, but they eventually bought the land, living in trailers for another two years while they built their house.
They had no farming experience and no intention to farm the land, but Koefoed changed her mind after living there.
“I realized I had to do more than just live on it. I had to do something with it that was useful and important and connected,” she says.
She began raising laying hens, thinking she would sell the eggs to her neighbors. Then her chef friend Niki Ford brought some in to her bosses at Chez Panisse. At the time, pastured eggs – from birds that are allowed to roam and forage for bugs and plants, which give the eggs flavor and color – were hard to find. Their quality clearly stood out.
“Her eggs were incredible. You could actually taste the difference,” says Bonnie Powell, who has helped start several Bay Area meat CSAs including Soul Food Farm’s. “If you cracked a Soul Food Farm egg next to a store-bought egg, the yolk would be a deep orange and it would stand up. It was hard to break. The store-bought egg was a flat, pale yellow, lifeless thing.”
After Chez Panisse put Koefoed’s eggs on the menu, the farm started getting other high-profile restaurant accounts and media coverage. When Alice Waters asked her to raise meat birds too, the operation expanded.
“At the beginning I thought it would go slow and pace myself. Things started steamrolling right away,” Koefoed says.
The Koefoeds didn’t have time to put infrastructure or even a business plan in place. They never had automatic watering system set up for the chickens, which meant hours spent lugging water each day. Koefoed also wishes she had planted summer squash at the beginning to supplement the chicken feed, rather than having to get it from other farms. Their lack of experience “cost us a lot in money and mistakes,” she says.
They used henhouses set up on rollers so the chickens could be moved to graze and fertilize different parts of the fields. The chickens were let out in the morning and then brought in at night to protect them from predators.
In 2009, a fire destroyed some hen houses and a 19th century barn, and killed over 1,000 baby chicks, costing the farm at least two weeks of income. But the attention from the fire, which inspired countless restaurant benefits, helped get the new CSA off the ground.
Around the time of the fire, Eric stopped working at his engineering job, which meant the family was completely dependent on farm sales to cover household bills as well as operating costs like slaughtering, gas and feed.
That ran in the face of what most farm households do. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 70 percent of U.S. farmers have off-farm employment or other income, which accounts for 85 to 95 percent of farm household income.
Rebecca Thistlethwaite, a farm consultant and author of the forthcoming book, “Farms with a Future,” says it was essential to keep her full-time job when she and her husband started TLC Ranch, a poultry and pig farm on 20 rented acres in Watsonville.
“We could slowly build up the business without worrying about car insurance or having food on the table,” Thistlethwaite says. But it was partly because of that job that the couple ultimately decided to close the ranch in 2010 after six years in business.
“Between my husband and I, we were working about three full-time jobs,” including running the farm, she says. “We weren’t spending any time with our daughter.” In addition, someone stole $25,000 worth of their hens, and they had problems getting access to high-quality slaughtering and butchering services, she says.
After shutting down the farm, the family spent a year traveling to farms across the country, including Soul Food Farm. Thistlethwaite advised Koefoed to put in an automatic watering system for the chickens and to focus more on direct sales rather than her restaurant accounts.
“She could go to one really good farmers’ market and sell 10 cases of eggs rather than driving around San Francisco selling one case here and one case there,” Thistlethwaite says.
Koefoed scaled down restaurant accounts during the last two years and increased higher-profiting direct sales, such as an egg-share program in which customers agreed to pay for a certain number of cartons in advance.
Ultimately the changes weren’t enough. Koefoed thinks now that her farm needed more diversity. Vegetable farms that add poultry farming to their lineup often do better, because they have other income streams and can feed their vegetable waste to the animals. She also sees plenty of areas for improved efficiency and collaboration, for example by starting a farm equipment collective or sharing deliveries.
“We are all so isolated and we are all so consumed with our work,” she says. “Sometimes you feel like you are reinventing the wheel.”
For her customers who want the type of products she provided, she recommends two new pasture-raised chicken farms – Amber and Son Farm in Sebastopol for meat chickens and Wise Acre Farm in Windsor for eggs. She says she’s also excited to lease her land to an impassioned young vegetable farmer, Michael Hoolihan, who is moving his family to live on the land, just like the Koefoeds did.
Still, the question raised by the closure of Soul Food Farm remains: How can sustainable farming become more sustainable for the farmers themselves – especially in California, where agricultural land prices are three times the national average.
“The farmer can’t bear the whole weight of this problem on his or her shoulders. It’s going to take a real community and political effort,” Thistlethwaite says. She would like to see more land trusts help new farmers get established with affordable long-term leases.
Thistlethwaite adds that people need to “go beyond being passive consumers” by being loyal to a CSA and volunteering for the farm, if they don’t want to see more farmers like Koefoed close their business.
“She should be the poster child for raising pasture chickens,” says CSA organizer Powell. “She had to learn as she went. She really was trying to do everything right.
“You couldn’t visit that farm without coming away thinking, ‘This is like chicken heaven.’ ”