Anyone lucky enough to taste genuine barnyard chickens knows they have much more flavor than bland industrially farmed birds crammed into huge factories. Old-fashioned birds are almost as rare as hen's teeth in commerce, however, which may explain the buzz attending the recent arrival at farmers markets of Rainbow Ranch Farms, legendary for its superb quality and fiercely unconventional practices.
The founder and leader is Xenia Stavrinides, a passionate advocate for alternative agriculture. She's a colorful, charismatic character, born in England of Cypriot Greek heritage; a former lead singer in a heavy-metal band, Parthenon; writer of a self-published pamphlet about cooking and food choices, "The Perpetual Stew"; and a researcher of poultry and meat farming around the world.
On her 2½-acre ranch in Piñon Hills, just north of the San Gabriel Mountains, she raises 24 heritage breeds of chickens, including Sussex, Black Copper Marans and White Plymouth Rock. She is working to breed new disease-resistant birds that thrive in the harsh high desert without antibiotics. While the birds have shelters in which to sleep and lay eggs, they mostly live outside. Unlike commercial birds, they are never fed corn, soy or genetically modified foods. They forage on specially reared insects. The result, Stavrinides says, is a more nutrient-dense meat.
Even customers who don't necessarily subscribe to the farm's philosophy appreciate the extraordinary quality of its poultry.
"Their chicken had a ton of flavor, much more than what I had bought from other vendors," said Fred Golan, a customer at the Beverly Hills farmers market.
Rainbow Ranch birds take four to five months to be ready for slaughter, more than twice as long as industrial chickens, and cost roughly twice as much, $8 per pound for whole chickens and $12.99 per pound for boneless breasts.
"Commercial chicken is dirt cheap and feeds the world," said Stavrinides on a recent visit to the farm. "I'm not feeding the world, just a few friends and family."
According to Stavrinides, she, her close collaborator Dennis Kelley and other community-supported agriculture (CSA) members do the work at Piñon Hills and other affiliated farms in Barstow and Ontario, and at Mary's Goat Farm in Apple Valley. They also raise beef, pork, lamb and goat, but sell these only to CSA members. Production is very limited, and CSA memberships currently are sold out; small quantities of poultry are available at the Lindy & Grundy butcher store and through mail order.
Julian Partovi, a CSA member who has previously worked as a farmers market site manager and represented his family's small apple farm, started offering Rainbow Ranch chickens, ducks and a few eggs at farmers markets three months ago. He now sells at the markets in Culver City, Mar Vista, Beverly Hills, Cerritos, Westwood and Altadena as supplies allow.
Farmers market legislation
For many years, state and county agricultural officials have argued that they lack adequate funds to enforce farmers market regulations, particularly the provisions forbidding vendors to resell produce bought from other farms and wholesalers. One year ago, Assembly Bill 996, intended to boost resources for enforcement, failed to pass the California Assembly Appropriations Committe largely because the revenue it would raise exceeded anticipated costs. A revised version, AB 1871, introduced Feb. 19 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento), closes the gap; both costs and revenues are estimated at $1.35 million by an official analysis.
AB 1871 will come up for a crucial vote before the Assembly Appropriations Committeeo on May 23. Market stakeholders, including county agricultural commissioners, the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California Alliance of Farmers Markets and the Community Alliance With Family Farmers, are continuing to work to fine-tune the bill. If it passes the legislature and is signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, it would take effect in January.
The most significant new provision raises the daily stall fee that the California Department of Food and Agriculture charges certified farmers markets for each vendor, from the current maximum of 60 cents to $2. Currently only farmers are charged, but if the bill goes through, the charge will apply to all vendors under the authority of the market operator, including prepared food and craft sellers.
Extending the fee to nonfarmers will bring in the money needed to pay for farmers market enforcement by county and state inspectors; if only farmers were assessed, they would have to pay a much higher fee, perhaps $4. Some nonfarmers object that the new assessment represents taxation without service, but many farmers see it as appropriate, since food and craft vendors benefit from the allure and regulatory exemptions of certified farmers markets.
There are several other new regulations as well. County agricultural commissioners will continue to be required to inspect the farms of new certified producers, but for renewals inspections will no longer be mandated; inspectors "may" visit "as needed." In principle, this sounds like a setback for managers, inspectors and consumers who expect accurate certificates. In practice, however, annual inspections are not always conducted as required, and agricultural commissioners are looking to adapt regulations to reality.
Certified farmers market operators may not allow the sale of "fresh whole produce" in adjacent nonagricultural areas. Some markets have allowed produce sales in the noncertified area, but most shoppers don't recognize the difference between certified and noncertified. Dried fruits, nuts and juices are not included in this prohibition.
Growers and dealers will not be allowed to sell produce to vendors whom they know intend to resell it at certified farmers markets. This provision may make sense in theory, but it is unclear whether it means that wholesalers are required to ask what buyers will be doing with the produce that they purchase or whether there might be any penalties for violations.
Certified market vendors must post signs stating the name and location of the farm and that "We grow what we sell." The purpose of the requirement is to make cheating a more clearly actionable violation. However, it is unclear whether agricultural inspectors will be expected to cite and sanction farmers who fail to post the "We grow" signs.
Managers may contract with county agricultural commissioners for investigations of suspected cheaters at their markets. It is unclear to what extent managers will now have to pay if they initiate investigations with agricultural inspectors in other counties. Will this "pay for service" option disadvantage less affluent markets and consumers?