Interview with Chris Kerston of Chaffin Family Orchards

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Loving food is a complicated thing.  The amount of research that has to be done in order to eat sustainably, humanely and in a healthy (yet affordable) manner is overwhelming. This is why I love organizations such as Chaffin Family Orchards. They are doing things right. Chaffin goes beyond organic and humane to think about the entire process of food and how it affects our world. I spoke with Chris Kerston, who is  Director of Marketing to get a better idea of what they do and why they do it. It’s truly remarkable stuff:

Blanca Valbuena: Chris, before we even get to talking about the farm, can you give our readers a brief look into what permaculture is?

Chris Kerston: I’d say we use a blend of permaculture and holistic management.  Permaculture is about integrating symbiotic, self sustaining systems.  Originating from the two words permanent and agriculture, it typically doesn’t subscribe to the idea of annual plantings as a primary source of food but rather creating food forests that can sustain life throughout the entire year without the need for annual tillage and replanting.  It’s about dovetailing operations that work in concert with biological cycles and changes.

Permaculture is also partial to systems that favor macro over micro management and requires a little more faith and understanding in nature to sort things out on its own.

Holistic management is about mimicking nature, particularly in regards to how wild herds move and how they restore and replenish ecosystems rather than destroy them.  It requires a huge shift in thought and culture to see how animals, in our case domestic livestock, can be used to build stronger prairie rangelands, create top soil, and sequester massive amounts of atmospheric carbon.

BV: How do you go about planning and executing a permacultural farm? 

CK: Our farm is a 5 generation, 2,000 acre ranch with both rangeland and orchards.  We have about 200 acres of 100-year-old olive groves, and 50 acres of heirloom citrus and stone fruit orchards that are each around 50 years old.  We also grow grass-fed beef, lamb, goat, and pasture raised chicken and eggs.

What we do that’s different is we integrate the livestock and orchard operations in a symbiotic manner.  Most of the orchards are irrigated and produce a grassy, meadow-like understory below the tree canopy.  Conventional orchards usually spray weed killer on the entire orchard floor to remove the grass.  Even organic orchards usually spend huge amounts of resources to remove the grass and weeds.  We decided to take a different approach and mimic nature.  Much like how wild animals move into savannahs during the warm months, we move the livestock into the orchards and they enjoy the shade and cool grass during our hot, dry summers.  We use portable, solar powered electric fences to move the animals to fresh ground every few days just like roaming herds of native grazers move frequently in nomadic patterns.  Each species of animal performs a different task in creating a positive land management change.  The sheep and cows mow the orchard floors.  The goats remove invasive weeds like wild grape, star thistle, himalayan blackberry, and poison oak and goats can also be used to do light pruning in the olive orchards.  They also can be used in removing the brush on overgrown creeks that are too shaded and thatched out to support a healthy ecosystem.  The chickens come in the orchards to eat fallen fruit, drastically reduce our bug load, and spread their wonderfully nitrogen rich manure right under the trees.

We’ve been farming this way for about a decade and overall we use about 85% less fuel than we used before integrating livestock in the orchards.

BV: How many people currently work at the farm?

CK:  Currently on 2,000 (3.3 square miles) acres we run just a skeleton crew of 8 people (6 full time and two part time) and sometimes a couple college interns.  Ideally it would be nice to have a few more hands to help, but because everything works so streamline we can get by without.

BV: What are the major crops that you grow there? 

CK:  Our two biggest crops, and also the ones that have been grown here the longest, are beef cattle and olives.  

BV: Do you ever get attached to any of the animals in the farm? How do you prevent and emotional attachment from happening?

CK: I take immense pride in knowing how our animals are raised and being able to share that with the public and give people the option to eat meat in a way that can honor the animal’s life.  We have a motto here in regards to animal welfare, “All good days, only one bad.”  Taking part in an animal’s death is never fun, but it’s the harsh reality of the cycle of life.  Everything dies.  When you are part of a system where animals are conceived, born, cared for, and die under your management you realize how fragile our own lives are.  You also realize that what most creatures are looking for is comfort, respect, and being able to connect to their natural environment.  We live in such a death-fearing culture that treats death as the ultimate enemy.  But there is a spiritual aspect that is missed and I believe that life is much more about quality and not nearly as much about quantity.  So it’s a long way to answer the question but no I don’t really get attached to individual animals but I still hold a deep reverence for the life we take from them.  

BV: The farm is not only Animal Welfare Approved, but also Predator Friendly. Can you expand on that a bit?

CK: Animal Welfare Approved is one of the most stringent and selective animal welfare programs in the world.  I’m very proud to say we meet their standards.

Certified Predator Friendly requires a bit more explanation, but predators play a very important role in keeping wild herds mobbed together so they impact the ecosystem evenly.  It’s about checks and balances. Depredation, in addition to set stocking (non-rotational grazing), are probably the biggest factors that have led to overgrazing and the poor stigma that livestock herds have for damaging rather than enhancing the environment.

BV: Organic and sustainable farming gets a lot of slack from people. Some say it is not productive and could not feed today’s population. Do you think it is feasable for other farms to do as Chaffin farms does? 

CK: No I don’t believe that just organic is the only answer but it has made some really positive strides for alternative farming models.  Organic alone is far too compartmentalized to be an all inclusive solution.  I think we need to go beyond our western logic and look at interconnections and at the whole system.  I LOVE that chemical free farming is becoming a mainstay in our society!  But organic doesn’t intrinsically address the eater’s health, or social welfare issues, or productivity; it’s really an environmental policy.  Many small organic farms address those issues on their own, but often the large-scale organic corporate agribusinesses and food processors don’t address these things well at all.  And unfortunately it’s mostly the big corporate organic names that make it onto the supermarket shelves.  Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a perfect account of this.  Is organic lettuce from a 1,000 acre farm, that’s still shipped a few thousand miles to the end consumer really the answer?  Does organic junk food really solve any problems?  We need to focus on systems that build symbiosis, promote community, minimize inputs, build fertility, and utilize resources over multiple crops and seasons.

I absolutely believe that nearly everything we do here at Chaffin Orchards can be scaled up or scaled down to any size property and that the principles can be exported to any climate or environment.  Will the end result look different somewhere else?  Absolutely, but the ideas are the same.  You look at your local resources, use them efficiently, mimic nature to design complimentary enterprises, engage with your community and become part of the solution.    

BV: Tell me a bit more about your role in the farm.

CK: I do a little bit of everything.  My title is Director of Marketing, but with 8 people working on 2,000 acres selling nearly everything grown here direct to the public, means everyone wears a lot of hats.  I’m also one of the 3 farming partners that run Chaffin Orchards which means I have a direct hand in managing the business.

BV: Did you know when you were a child that you would end up in this line of work?

CK: Not at all!  My parents are both from corporate America.  My mom is a high level manager at a big fortune 500 company.  In high school I started dating a girl whose family had a ranch.  I fell in love with her as well as the outdoor lifestyle to which she was accustomed.  We began buying cattle together and building a herd just a few months after we started dating.  After high school I worked on ranches full time in addition to continuing to grow and develop our own herd.  We got married and a couple years later and now have one 4 year old son and another son on the way.  I met Kurt and Carol Albrecht at a conference 5 years ago and have been working here ever since and my family and I now live on the farm.

BV: If you could change one thing about the current state of affairs in the food industry what would that be?

CK: Wow, wouldn’t we all love to have a magic wand sometimes.  I think there is a twofold issue that plagues our food system.  There are tremendous road blocks to keep small producers from growing, adding value, distributing, and selling food.  The whole game is designed for the big players to succeed.  In this regard I’m probably pretty libertarian; I believe consenting adults should be able to buy or sell foods freely.  If people knew half of the headaches that your average farmers market grower has to go through to legally sell their product they’d be flabbergasted.  Dealing with those hassles takes up a huge amounts of time, and the cost incurred for that labor gets either passed on to the consumer or the difficulty is too much to overcome and grower just can’t sell their product.

On the flipside however I believe that we need to see more engaged consumers.  Food has the power to solve so many ills in our society in regards to health, environment, economy, culture, etc. But because we eat three times a day, and have so many other priorities, quality of food goes on the backburner, while cheap and convenient junk foods move to the forefront.  For our own sake we as a society have to get away from this.  We need to tap into a simpler time and way of living where people know how to buy fresh ingredients and prepare them.  We need to eat daily meals with our families and friends.  We need to savor the fuel we put into our bodies.  I don’t pretend to think this is anything less than a cultural revolution and it will take small steps.  Yet with obesity, autoimmune diseases, and cancer reaching epidemic levels it seems so clearly evident that what we are doing now isn’t working. I think the MOST important thing people can do is try to buy the majority of their food direct from the farmer and do it with your children so that the next generations absorbs that as the new norm.

BV: If I wanted to purchase products from the farm, where can I get them?

CK:  On the vast majority of our products we sell almost exclusively to our local community.  We sell at the Chico area farmers markets as well as at the Nevada City Farmers Market.

We also have buying clubs around the state where we make deliveries if we are travelling through for other errands.  This allows us to keep the trucks full both ways and make better use of fuel and our time but to also serve regions that wouldn’t normally be able to readily purchase from us.    We currently make deliveries to Sacramento, Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Tahoe/Truckee, and Los Angeles.  To get on the email list for one of those drops send me an email to chris_kerston [at] chaffinfamilyorchards [dot] com and let me know what region you’re in.

We do some national shipping as well with our items that are more durable and aren’t likely to compete with local growers in other regions.  Olive oil and citrus can’t be produced in most other climates but are still items most families consider staples. See  our webstore for those products. For updates on what’s in season or currently available for shipping be sure to join our email newsletter list

BV: Can people visit the farm?

CK: Yes we do private tours all the time.  I’ll spend about 2 hours with folks showing them everything we do here. This includes taking them to see the animals, the orchards and visiting our lake on Table Mountain.  It costs $50 for groups up to 4.  We also do school campouts where whole classes come and stay for a couple days.  We take the kids on hikes, teach them about gardening, they pick fruit for the farmers market, collect and wash eggs, and basically get involved with whatever we have going on that time of year.

BV: When you are not working, what are you doing for fun?

CK: I enjoy spending the majority of my time away from work with my wife and son.  We like to go on hikes on the property, cook nice dinners, watch movies, and occasionally go to town for a night with friends.

BV: If I came to visit you, where (or what would we eat)?

CK: It would probably be at our home.  When we have guests we usually make bbq with some of our grass-fed beef, my personal favorite is Ribeye’s, or roast one of our pastured chickens.  But Chico has a plethora of great sustainably-minded food choices.  A lot of times we go with friends to Farmstar Pizza which uses most of its ingredients from local farms, or the restaurant at Sierra Nevada Brewery which is just a really cool business all around.

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Antonio Evans

Antonio Evans

Head of Product at Socialdraft
Antonio Evans is Head of Product at Socialdraft, a social media platform for teams.
Antonio Evans
Antonio Evans