Pasture Chick Ranch Adventures (Part One)

An interview with local organic star and all-round colorful chick, Lisa Knutson, courtesy of Mission Village Voice
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Mission Village Voice, a publication based in San Juan Bautista gave special permission to BenitoLink to run a Q-and-A style interview between Anne Caetano (AC), owner of Mission Village Voice, and local organic food producer Lisa Knutson (LK).

Due to the length of the interview, the article is being run in two segments. This is Part One:


Lisa Knutson, owner of Pasture Chick Ranch, grew up in San Juan Bautista, and considers it her hometown. The life she led in San Juan Canyon with her family is the backbone of who she is and what she does today. Knutson runs a successful organic business and shares the trials and tribulations of taking part in local agriculture.

Anne Caetano (AC): I know you have chickens and you have eggs — were those turkeys running around chasing me?

Lisa Knutson (LK): Those are wild turkeys; they just adopted me.

AC: How did this all start?

LK: It all started with Courtney. My husband really wanted an opportunity to raise beef. We looked for years out of the area for ranch land to buy because we didn’t think we could get land in San Benito County — it’s so expensive. Luckily, Gloria Zuniga (she was like our godmother) had 200 acres that became available.

AC: It’s amazing how things work out.

LK: We bought 30 bred heifers from Sallie Calhoun, owner of the Paicines Ranch, and set out to grow grass-fed beef. The problem was the fencing wasn’t optimal, and the bulls were always where they weren’t supposed to be. After you’ve been fortunate enough to have an amazing hip replacement, you are done chasing 2,000-pound horny bulls.

AC: I don’t blame you.

LK: My brother Jimmy invited me to a meeting for whole foods that was hosted by Paicines Ranch, and they were looking to source local grass-fed beef. I am sitting at this table, and I am in capris and flip-flops, and there are all these guys. They were in their jeans, boots and hats, like John Wayne, and I am thinking, “This is not my demographic.”

AC: Oh, boy.

LK: Right! I don’t belong there! I was so fed up with the bulls, so I walked out on the porch and called Courtney and said, “I’m done with this. I think our numbers will be stronger if we switch to a smaller rumen, less impact on the land and our stock density will go up. I think we should try it. It is going to ‘pencil’ better, and if they give me trouble I can put my dogs on them.” He said, “Sell them — let’s move on.”

AC: How strategic of you!

LK: I know — just like a woman. So Paicines Ranch bought them back.

AC: Wonderful.

LK: So, we got rid of the cattle. I already had sheep and goats I was using for fiber to spin and sell yarn. The fiber was profitable, but it was on a very small scale. I wanted to look at what we could do with the meat. As we were doing all of this, we were having a lot of parasite issues. The land we were using the most had a high water table and had not been grazed sufficiently. It had a really thick crust of heavily entwined perennial grass. It was a perfect habitat for parasites, which were affecting the animals.

AC: Ugh!

LK: So I tell Courtney, “I think we should get chickens.” We started with some heritage chickens, and they didn’t do well. It took twice the food and twice the time to produce half the meat. From an economic standpoint, it was ridiculous.

AC: Exactly.

LK: I started at the Hollister Farmer’s Market. I had about 13 dozen eggs and thought, “Wow, that’s a lot!” and whole Heritage Birds. I probably made $100 in a week. When market was over, Phil Foster of Pinnacle Farms asked if I could bring eggs to his farm stand. I would go to Pinnacle Farms, set up my little table and sell chicken and eggs. Phil really helped me —he’s great.

AC: That’s the spirit.           

LK: Through Phil I was connected to two CSAs, a huge one in Watsonville, and they wanted A LOT of eggs. The other one was Paul Hamilton, a Hollister boy. Paul had a small CSA up in Half Moon Bay at the time, which has grown to close to 300 members, and he was at Phil’s one day picking up vegetables asking Phil, “Do you know anyone growing chicken and eggs?” I’ve been growing for Paul about 6 years now. He started with 30 dozen eggs, and now he buys 120 dozen every week.

AC: Holy cow!  You first started with the intention mostly of meat but it evolved to be a whole lot of eggs.

LK: Yes, I wanted meat; I was sick of the chicken in the store. So when I started, I tried a bird that in the 1930s was both a laying hen and a meat bird.

AC: Meaning the bird was for both meat and eggs.

LK: Yes, but they ate their egg.

AC: They ate their own eggs?

LK: Yes, they ate their own eggs.

AC: Is that normal?

LK: In some breeds it is.

AC: Then what?

LK: Well, I started looking at other breeds of laying hens. We ended up with White Leghorns, Easter Eggers and Cinnamon Queens. We use the three breeds, so we have a dozen eggs that are brown, white and green. Once I knew the birds I wanted to use, then I was thinking I really want to diversify distribution. So I started researching and talking to people about different farmers’ market organizations, and I ended up with The California Farmer’s Market Association, and they had a market in Morgan Hill.

AC: You are a true entrepreneur — just listen to your thought process.

LK: I’ve been with that market for about three years now. I wanted another big market that is year round. The people that go to those markets are coming for their food. We are their grocery store. I called Doug, the owner CFMA, and told him I wanted one more market, and I want it to be year round, and I want it to be big. He said “Oh, we want you at Mountain View!” I was so excited because it is one of the biggest markets in the state.

AC: They have a serious population.

LK: Yes, they have 5,000 to 6,000 people on a Sunday.

AC: Nice.

LK: The people are wonderful; we feel so loved and appreciated. They love my booth. Heck, I love the booth! It’s so cute with gingham walls, and Schipper Design did my work. I stalked Cheryl Lovejoy for two years.

AC: They are such cool ladies.

LK: All this local stuff. I love it because San Juan is my hometown.

LK: We had paid for everything that we’d done up to that point. We grew very slowly to that point. We ate beans and rice, shopped at Salvation Army, and we invested.

AC: That’s the way to do it.

LK: You can’t get in over your head. So, Sallie Calhoun of Paicines Ranch, and a huge proponent of the local food movement…an amazing woman. She’s my champion. I mean, she believes in me more than I believe in myself most times.

AC: We are going to print that quote.

LK: Yes! She had always said, “If you ever find yourself needing financing, you let me know.” She has a heart for investing in local agriculture/ food businesses; she wants to see them grow. So I called Sallie and said, “Hey, I want to take you up on your offer.” She said, “OK, I’ve got a couple of questions. Can we meet for a drink?” And I said, “yeah!”

AC: Oh boy, this is getting good.

LK: So, we met at the Inn at Tres Pinos. Sallie said, “I just wanted to know, why now?” I responded that I’d been offered an opportunity to grow like 500 percent, and I couldn’t do it on my own. So she said OK. She asked me what I needed and cut me a check.

AC: I am sure she is thrilled to see all this happen.

LK: So our feed deliveries went from two tons every other week to seven tons every other week.

AC: As I drove up, I saw the barn full of feed and thought to myself, “That’s a huge expense.”

LK: Off we went. We increased the number of meat chicks we purchased from 100 every other week to 300. We are now at 360 every other week. Phew! We had to discover the infrastructure as we went because there are no books for what we wanted to accomplish. We turned the horse stalls into brooder houses (a chick nursery). Now we have four big brooder rooms. On average there are 750 little, fuzzy chicks in the barn. We had to figure out how to put these animals out on pasture, give them space, keep them safe, develop a portable laying house for our laying hens, one that we could move easily and allow the manure to go directly onto the ground where it would benefit the soil directly. The meat chicks needed a larger, more spacious shelter that would provide protection from weather while still allowing them the freedom to roam their pasture. I now have several packs of livestock guardian dogs to be the bodyguards of the whole project. We have 20 of these amazing dogs, working in packs to protect  their part of the ranch; they are amazing.  It works out really well for someone who loves dogs as much as I do.

AC: You put that capitol to work.

LK: This will be our third year at Mountain View. People want to know you at Farmer’s Market. We’ve built a relationship with our customers, and our business continues to grow. Right before Mountain View, we landed our chicken at Flea Street Café in Menlo Park. It’s owned by a woman named Jessie Cool, a total pioneer in the local organic food scene. When we started, she had three suppliers and now we are the only chicken they buy. Her executive chef at the time said, “Our customers know when we are not serving your chicken.”

AC: Wow.

LK: I know! I had good teaching. Remember Tammy’s New Leaf?

AC: Yes.

LK: Tammy trained the crap out of me. Consistency, consistency, consistency. Then when I became an esthetician, Eva Frederick was like “Consistency — strive for excellence.” So these women beat this into my head. Thanks God!

 Pasture Chick Ranch on Santa Ana Valley Road on the outskirts of Hollister is a successful organic producer and carries a variety of products. Part Two of the Mission Village Voice interview with Lisa Knutson will run Sunday, Nov. 6. Special thanks to Mission Village Voice, a human interest publication about San Juan Bautista, Hollister, Aromas and Tres Pinos, published in San Juan Bautista. Sallie Calhoun and Matt Christiano, owners of Paicines Ranch, are major BenitoLink sponsors. 


BenitoLink Staff