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Cotati family feels ‘pulse’ of the land

Rebecca Black and Roy Smith, both 44 and native Californians, get to work soon after sunrise. By 7:30 a.m., they’re busy in the cottage they rent on Old Redwood Highway in Cotati, where they live with their two daughters, Siena Smith, 11, and Lillian Black, 12.

This morning, Smith skins and guts a 13-year-old goat, chops up the liver to feed the cats and dogs and saves the best parts for a family meal. Meanwhile, in the backyard, Black tans the goat’s hide.

In this super eco-driven household, almost nothing goes to waste. Nearly everything is recycled and everyone is connected in some way to farming practices that are beneficial for the environment and that provide working models for kindred spirits to follow. Even their daughters take part. This morning, Lillian sits at the dining room table and composes a story on her laptop about Sonoma County apples for the Slow Food Russian River Convivium Website.

Thirty minutes from their Cotati home, on a 10-acre parcel located on Middle Two Rock Road three miles west of downtown Petaluma, Smith and Black raise pigs, sheep, chickens, geese and guinea fowl that manage to look after themselves much of the day and all night long. The heritage breed pigs, Gloucestershire old spots and large blacks, forage and fend without human supervision. They cut down tall grasses, drop manure and work it into the soil with their hooves.

“We harness pig power,” Smith says. “A pig will do all the work of a tractor and more. You don’t have to ride it, use gas or pollute the air. They’re very efficient, very smart and very lovable. Sometimes I think of them as miniature hippos. Like hippos, they love mud.”

For all the valuable chores the pigs perform, there’s still plenty of work seven days a week for Roy, Rebecca, Lillian and Siena. The girls gather eggs, clean them, put them in boxes and keep records of egg production and sales. They also keep a sharp eye on all the farm animals. If a pig or sheep looks like it’s doing poorly, they tell their parents, who roll up their sleeves and put their self-taught animal husbandry to work.

Smith and Black lease their farm from a woman in her 70s who lauds their labors and applauds their efforts to restore soil that was eroded, abused and misused for decades. Until the 1980s, the parcel housed chickens. Then the hen houses were abandoned and the property reverted to a wasteland. Smith and Black cleaned up much of the mess made by squatters.

There’s still more cleanup to do, along with the ongoing effort to conserve water in an area where streams run dry quickly and where top soil blows away. Roy calls his approach “planting rain.” With picks and shovels, he creates mounds and ditches that prevent rapid run-off and that help to disperse the water. Gradually, it sinks into the ground where it filters into a subterranean reservoir built by nature itself. He and Rebecca plan to build ponds that will give them even more water.

The well on the property yields a gallon and a half per minute, not nearly enough to irrigate crops and only the bare minimum for basic human needs. Neighbors typically run out of water in summer. Not surprisingly, they were delighted when they learned that the pig farmers next door weren’t going to suck up water and further collapse the already depleted water table. They also were delighted to discover that the pigs’ strict diet meant that the farm didn’t stink.

Dry farming is a necessity, though they also want to prove to themselves and to fellow agriculturalists that it makes sense environmentally and financially. During the current drought, they’ve survived quite nicely.

When Smith and Black first met in Cotati in February 2010, they didn’t know they would end up raising pigs, sheep and chickens. They initially were brought together by the notion of home-schooling their daughters, then soon discovered that they shared a passion for farming and that they both wanted to live a rural lifestyle.

Black was teaching school kids; Smith worked as a carpenter. His grandfather grew vegetables at a local farm he called “Out Smith’s Way” and, from the time he was 8, Black helped sell them at open-air markets in Santa Rosa.

Black grew up in Orange County and Alaska.

“No one really gardened in my family, though I had a great-great-uncle who kept honey bees,” she says. “But I longed for a real farm.”

She and Smith started with goats on their small rented Cotati parcel, then looked for real acreage where they might put their dreams to work. On bicycle rides around the county, Smith fell in love with land on Middle Two Rock Road.

“Over the years, I’ve developed a visceral connection to this land,” he says. “I feel the pulse of this part of the county.”

He and Black contacted the property owner, signed a written agreement and came to a verbal understanding about the environmentally friendly practices they would put in place. They chose Green Goose Farm as the name for their enterprise, though they soon discovered they didn’t like geese, especially the males. Pig Heaven might be more accurate.

The couple decided to raise pigs organically and to sell pork locally because the market cried out for sustainably raised, humanely slaughtered pigs and locally produced pork chops, roasts and bacon.

“Around here shoppers want to buy meat,” Black says. “But they don’t want meat from animals that have suffered. They want pigs that have received quality care, good feed and that have lived in a comfortable environment.”

Black and Smith didn’t want to raise only pigs, so they branched out to include lambs and chickens. Diversity was an essential part of the plan, and yet from the start, pigs were the superstars of the farmyard. Using the holistic management practices popularized by Allan Savory, the famed ecologist and farmer who was born in Zimbabwe, they raise their pigs outdoors all year long in relatively small, fenced-in areas, then move them from one place to another, allowing plenty of time for the land to restore itself. While this approach might seem like overgrazing, “mob grazing,” as it’s popularly known, is the most environmentally beneficial way to raise pigs. It’s also labor intensive; fences and pigs have to be moved regularly.

“Our method mimics nature,” Smith says. “It’s what the great herds of buffalo did before Buffalo Bill slaughtered them. Nature’s way kept prairies healthy, led to new vibrant herds and provided nourishing food for Indians who hunted for generations.”

The couple started with three pigs, then graduated to 50, which proved to be too many. Now they’re down to 17. Mother pigs are far more fecund than cows; a sow will give birth to 10 piglets in one litter, and pretty soon pigs get out of control.

The pigs at Green Goose Farm graze on native grasses. They also devour the free waste products that Black and Smith gather from breweries, markets and dairies. The pigs are treated regularly to barley, yogurt and milk too old to sell, plus discarded heads of lettuce, bruised apples and overripe pears.

“We take what would end up in landfill and feed it to the pigs, who use it to make bacon for people to eat,” Smith says. “We close the loops in the food system.”

John Taylor, a mobile abbateur who slaughters the pigs at Green Goose Farm. He removes the skin, the hair and the insides and delivers the carcasses to the Sonoma County Meat Company in Santa Rosa. Customers purchase a whole pig for $6.25 per pound, half a pig for $6.75 per pound. A butcher does the carving and wrapping.

When word of mouth doesn’t yield enough customers, Smith and Black publicize and advertise.

“It’s largely a boutique market,” Smith says.

Black adds, “We sell lots of pork and lamb through CropMobster. They check in and help optimize sales.”

At the end of a long day, she and Smith unwind with Lillian and Siena at the cottage in Cotati.

“I hope I’ve worked myself to the bone,” Smith says, smiling. “I wouldn’t trade this life for any other.”

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