The Homesteading Instinct: an Interview with Chris Kerston of Chaffin Family Farms

It is now officially Autumn and the length of our days diminishes a little with each circle of the planet. In the edible garden, harvesting has gone on for some time as spring crops moved over for summer crops and – lucky for us here in northern California – in many cases they have been replaced with fall crops, some of which are up and going strong, and our winter crops have gone in or are going in. Even if by “crop” I just mean a few rows of beets or carrots in the raised beds out back. Just as for the squirrels and the acorn woodpeckers, perhaps more than any other time of year, Autumn compels us to store up against the cold and the dark. It brings out our instinctive desire for some level of self-sufficiency. Photo: Cattle grazing, and honeybees working on the drive into Chaffin Family Farm – a model for the integrated family farm ideal – below Table Mountain in Oroville.

In the context of this particular economic and political time, our normal Autumnal urge for self-sufficiency made manifest in planting, harvesting and preserving and storing, plays into a much a larger cultural mood in support of this same impulse – no matter where we live or if we garden. This mood is not a new one – and not unique to us. It is fairly widespread and fairly mainstream. It is apparent in articles in the New York Times on the new Femivore and Modern Homesteading movements, which if you have a surfeit of free time the internet threads you can follow on these topics have some great information, some sobering information, and some belly-laugh humor – like most good gardening threads. Photo: Basil plants with seed just about ready to be collected and saved for next season. Saving seed is easy, economical and feels very empowering in a small way towards more self-sufficient gardening practices.

This urge towards personal and regional self-sufficiency and the mainstream support of it is apparent throughout our region – from our burgeoning Slow Food movement, to our regional city councils’ being approached with requests for poultry code overhauls, to the rise in availability of outstanding regional educational resources for learning about organic gardening, edible native plants, poultry and small livestock care, canning and preserving and permaculture as general concept. The ideal of and yearning for some sense of sufficiency – personal and regional – is strong, no matter if you live in a city apartment, an in-town bungalow or a larger suburban neighborhood home. Photo: Bagged oranges for sale in late November at the year-round farm stand at Chaffin Family Farms.

In Mt. Shasta and Dunsmuir, independent nurseries such as Spring Hill and Native Grounds nurseries and public demonstration gardens including Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens offer regular classes on the environmental, sustainability and self-sufficiency. In Redding, the Community Teaching Garden, the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens at Turtle Bay and independent nurseries such as Wyntour Gardens offer regular classes and workshops. Based in Happy Valley, Rico Montenegro teaches across the region about planting Fruit Trees for the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation. In Shingletown, a sustainability gardening circle, including Wayne and Laurel Kessler of Shambani Organics, gets together each season and divides what each home garden will grow so that they all have enough onions, potatoes and so on. In Weaverville, the Trinity Nursery teaches classes and holds produce tastings for people gardening at higher altitude. In Chico, a new Chico Organic Gardening Society founded by David Grau of Valley Oak Tool, The Chico Grange, Chico Eat Learn Grow, GRUB, the Chico Permaculture Guild, CSU, Chico’s Institute for Sustainable Development and the University Farm both offer education, research and models into more sustainable food production and living practices, the Gateway Science Museum, and independent nurseries such as the Plant Barn, offer classes and workshops. Photo: Thyme being dried for fall and winter cooking.

Throughout our region our Master Gardeners and their demonstration gardens at Fairoaks in Sacramento and at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Davis, as well as our many garden clubs offer presentations and programs on such topics. The outstanding regional edible communities publications edible Shasta Butte and edible Sacramento highlight some of the most self sufficient in terms of local food producers throughout the seasons.

And this is by no means a full list of what’s going on – it is just the tip of the iceberg of gardening activities in our rich and engaged region. The Jewellgarden on-line Calendar of Regional Gardening Events lists gardening related events around the region by all of these groups and more. If you have an event you would like listed, send me an email: with all relevant information.

The ideals of homesteading and self-sufficiency are pertinent topics and on the minds of just about every gardener I visit or talk with. The impulse toward these ideals is strong – and growing stronger.

In Oroville, Chaffin Family Farms regularly offers tours and classes as well on such things as Permaculture, home olive curing and cooking classes based on the teachings of the Weston A. Price Foundation. Variously called a ‘diversified’ or ‘integrated’ family farm, Chaffin Family Farms is one of our region’s leaders (and we have several ranch and farm leaders throughout the North State) in the idea of a ‘permaculture’ model for both large agricultural endeavors and, as Chris Kerston assures us, for the home gardener. While it may be good, hard work pretty much year-round, it is also rewarding, year-round. Photo: Goats at work weeding and clearing at Chaffin Family Farms.

“It’s all about cycling your resources in order to diminish the inputs you have to buy or bring in from elsewhere and maximize your outputs in the form of food and produce,” Chris told me as we took a tour of Chaffin Family Farm. Owned by Carol and Kurt Albrecht, the 2000 acre Chaffin Family sits nestled at the base of the iconic Table Mountain outside Oroville. The farm has been in Carol’s family for three generations and they produce more than 40 crops with five full-time, year-round employees. Del Chaffin, Carol’s grandfather started the farm in 1913. In the 1920s, Del Chaffin realized that year-round water might be an issue and he had the foresight to put in a reservoir on part of his land on top of table mountain. The reservoir is filled by winter rains and gravity fed to the farm below the rest of the year. Photo: A young cow came to say hello to us at Chaffin Family Farms.

Chaffin Family Farms crops include 200 acres of ‘Mission’ olives and olive oil, ‘Blenheim’ apricots, ‘Fay Alberta’ peaches, ‘Suncrest’ peaches, citrus, eggs, kiko and boer goat meat, grassfed beef and lamb meat, free-range chicken meat and eggs. The farm does boast two dairy cows, but the dairy is used for the farm families.

“The diversity of what we grow and raise adds to this cycle of our farm and makes it run more efficiently,” Chris described as we watched a herd of goats working (read: eating, which is what goats do best) some overgrown underbrush in one area of the farm. “Very specifically, our animals and our crops work together. The cattle and sheep are in charge of mowing and light pruning in the orchards – cleaning up the fallen fruit that could otherwise cause disease issues over time. Once they are done and we move them on to their next orchard, the goats come in for some deeper weeding and pruning. The goats will clearcut areas of the farm for fire breaks as well eating things we don’t want to mess with like Himalayan blackberry and poison oak. The goats are followed in an area by the chickens and their mobile home. Chickens are in charge of pest control and the final nitrogen rich nutrient additions to the soil (read: poop). In this way, since integrating our ‘crops’ – animal and vegetable – and their roles on the farm, we have decreased our labor needs, decreased our use of diesel 85%, and increased our orchard and animal happiness and productivity. And while we are a 2000 acre farm, everything we do here is scalable to the home garden in some measure.” And Chris would know because he and his young family practice many of these integrated techniques in their far smaller (But still close to an acre) home garden in Browns Valley. Photo: A small part of the chicken flock at work weeding and clearing at Chaffin Family Farms.

Many home gardeners do and are looking to do even more. Chris’ first recommendation to home gardeners wanting to satisfy their homesteading instinct is to incorporate some small livestock – a hog, some rabbits or chickens – into the home garden to allow for some homegrown fertilizer and weed control, and eventually some mean. (Small farm animals do make funny sweet pets, so depending on your personality, you may or may not get a stewing hen out of this arrangement. You might just get a few years of very consistent eggs and fertilizing, and a few more years of consistent fertilizing and some bossy old hens following you around the garden. Still seems like a good deal to me.) Photo: A busy honey bee hive at the in-town home garden of Jeff and Peter.

Chris’ second recommendation is to plant a few fruit and nut trees, which can be kept small using the correct pruning techniques for a home garden scale and will supplement your annual vegetable garden. Stagger the types and varieties of fruit you choose so that you have something coming into fruit almost year-round, he advises. Photo: The fifth generation of family to work the land at Chaffin Family farms is represented by this young entrepreneur and his flourishing egg business.

Finally, make sure you compost all clean, green waste and re-use this green manure back onto your own garden beds – ornamental or edible. With the addition of composted chicken or rabbit manure – you have yourself a great year-round, all purpose fertilizer. And the beginnings of an integrated family farm and homestead, home garden sized.

Chaffin Family Orchards has booths at Farmer’s Markets in Oroville, Chico, and Paradise. The Saturday morning farmer’s market in Chico is a year around market. The other markets are seasonal from May to October. Call 530-893-FARM for a recorded message on our local farmers markets. Chaffin Family Farm products are available on a seasonal basis at the ranch in an honor system farm stand. You can drive up to the ranch any day of the week and purchase available products. If you would like to make sure someone is available to wait on you or that they have specific products available please call first at 530-533-1676. If you would like a farm tour with your shopping experience than it is particularly important that you call and make an appointment. Select Chaffin Family Orchards products are also available at Chico Natural Foods in Chico, California and Almond Street Natural Foods in Paradise, California.

Another word used for this closed-circuit type of farming or gardening is ‘permaculture,’ which as a concept also aims to incorporate home-based systems such as solar power, rainwater harvesting and greywater reuse. Chaffin Family Farm hosts many workshops and educational tours of the farm and its methods throughout each year and last year they hosted a weekend permaculture workshop led in part by Cathe Fish, whose website Practical Permaculture has a lot of good information.

If you are interested in greywater reuse, John Whittlesey of Canyon Creek Nursery & Design in Oroville, specializes in the design and installation of water wise gardens and greywater systems for home to landscape use. He is a certified installer by Greywater Action, whose website also has a lot of good information. John Whittlesey can be reached at 530-774-4955. Photo: The edge of the reservoir that supplies Chaffin family farm with water. On the top of scenic Table Mountain, the reservoir was built by Chaffin Farm founder Del Chaffin in the 1920s.

Further Reading: The following books are excellent references for home gardeners on integrated gardening methods, permaculture and modern homesteading, all of which are available in stock or by order from Lyon Books in Chico.

“The Backyard Homestead,” edited by Carleen Madigan (Storey Publishing, 2009) According to this book, which I have yet to prove in my home garden, but still bears trying, a well designed and worked home garden on a quarter of an acre can produce each year: 1400 eggs, 50 pounds of wheat, 60 pounds of fruit, 2000 pounds of vegetables, 280 pounds of pork, and 75 pounds of nuts. Wow.

“Gardening When it Counts,” by Steve Solomon (New Society Publishers, 2005)

“Homegrown Whole Grains,” by Sara Pitzer (Storey Publishing, 2009)

“Raising Poultry Successfully,” by Will Graves (Williamson Publishing, 1985)

“The Winter Harvest Handbook,” By Eliot Coleman (Chelsea Green, 2009)

“Landscaping with Fruit,” by Lee Reich (Storey Publishing, 2009)

“Sufficient,” by Tom Petherick (Pavilion Press, 2009)

Photo: View across a working field to one of the barns at Chaffin Family Farm.

Upcoming Gardening and Sustainability Events include:

Cool Weather Gardening Hands-on Workshop, Community Teaching Garden on the Campus of Shatsa College, Redding: 10 a.m. to noon
Presenters: Wayne Kessler and Jim Collins
Community Teaching Garden, Shasta College Main Campus

For registration information, call 530-225-4835

How growing food in America is changing Thursday, September 30 at 7pm at the 1078 Gallery
an evening with Katherine Leiner, author of “Growing Roots”

From the Press Release: In the Spring of 2007 Katherine embarked on a journey crisscrossing the country and interviewing a new generation of sustainable farmers, cooks, and food activists. Leiner’s book, “Growing Roots,” is a beautiful and inspiring collection of interviews, color photographs, and recipes from people nationwide who are committed to edible sustainability. The event will also feature GRUB and other local organizations focused on food and sustainability.
Please join us for this free book event at 1078 Gallery, 820 Broadway, Chico

Sierra Oro Farm Trail Passport Weekend – Saturday, October 9, 2010 Time: 10:00 AM
Taste the bounty of Butte County agriculture while traveling the Sierra Oro Farm Trail.
The CSU, Chico University Farm is one of many local farms on the Sierra Oro Farm Trail that are open to the public during Passport Weekend. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, October 9-10, 2010. For more information visit the Sierra Oro Farm Trail website.

This Way to Sustainability ~ “Connecting Communities” November 4 – 6, 2010
CSU, Chico and Butte College in Chico and Oroville

This Way to Sustainability VI is hosted by CSU, Chico and Butte College. Over three days and two campuses, we hope to bring together people who care deeply about the future of the north state and our planet, to learn about pressing sustainability issues, and to create a space for dialogue and action.

Register online September 13-October 27th!
Click here for full details.

In the Garden: note card, journal and 2011 calendar collections. Delight the gardeners, readers, writers and food lovers in your life with thoughtful, sophisticated and artfully unique note card sets, journals and calendars from Dedicated to the art, craft and science of gardening, produced wholly in the North State on 100% recycled papers, Choose from Natives in the Garden, Edibles in the Garden and the NEW Seed Series. Available now on-line or at local fine shops near you. All of’s cards are printed in Chico by Quadco printing using 100% recycled paper and vegetable-based ink.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.