Blazing Trails at Casa Rosa Farms
Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
July 22, 2016
From heritage pork and Pekin duck, to olive oil and wool, you’ll find an astounding array of products at Casa Rosa Farms’ small booth at the Jack London Square Farmers Market. Diversification has been the name of the game for Rachel and Anthony da Rosa, two young farmers adapting to the constantly changing landscape of small family farming.
“Anthony says we do it because we’re crazy,” says Rachel with a laugh. “I think it’s because we like farming, and it’s an important thing to do. If American farmers stop farming, then it’s pretty much over. Even though it gets harder to compete with all the imports and it feels like we’re just hanging on sometimes, we just have to keep doing it and hope that people make good choices when they go to buy food.”
Back to the Land
Rachel and Anthony met after college when they were both living in Oakland, and they bonded over their shared passion for the rural life. Anthony grew up on a farm; in the 1960s, his family immigrated to the Central Valley from the Azores Islands in Portugal and bought land to raise dairy cattle. Rachel had homesteading parents who kept horses and a garden.
In 2008, the couple decided to move to Anthony’s family farm and start planning their own adventures in agriculture. Inspired by agroecology, a whole-systems approach to farming, they decided they would integrate livestock and orchards to create a diversified farm. They eventually settled in the Capay Valley, where they found better access to water and Bay Area markets, and a strong community of like-minded farmers.
Now in their mid-thirties with a child of their own, Anthony manages the livestock and crop planting on the farm, while Rachel oversees processing and distribution. “It’s a team thing, and we try to make it work as best as we can,” says Rachel.
They currently raise heritage breeds like Limousin cattle (a meaty French breed), California Red sheep (a cross between a Barbados and a Tunis, bred in California in the 1970s), and Pekin duck, as well as pigs and chickens. The animals are rotationally grazed in the farm’s olive and fruit orchards and on certified organic pasture, supplemented by non-GMO feed or hay grown on the farm.
For Casa Rosa, the biggest challenge of producing high-quality, pasture-raised meat is in the “last mile”: distribution. To make ends meet, Rachel says the farm must move at least four steers a month and 30 pigs a year. Farmers markets provide one avenue, but don’t bring in enough income alone.
To diversify their sales channels, the farm has experimented with online food delivery services like Good Eggs, GrubMarket, and Farmigo (now defunct). The farm has also partnered with the Capay Valley Farm Shop, a “food hub” that aggregates produce from growers in the region to deliver to restaurants and other businesses.
Working with Manas Ranch Custom Meats in Esparto, Casa Rosa has developed their niche by offering a wide variety of meats, from standards like steaks and sausage, to specialty products like beef bacon (popular among customers who cannot eat pork).
From osso buco to Korean short ribs, Rachel does her best to keep ahead of the food trends. “That’s what keeps it interesting for me,” she says. “Trying to anticipate consumer demands and what’s going to be in style right now.”
In 2014, Casa Rosa teamed up with a couple other pasture-based ranchers to establish Capay Valley Meat Growers to buy supplies together, pool trips to the meat processor, and generally support and strengthen their operations. “It started out as three neighbors thinking that maybe we could help each other out, instead of competing against each other,” says da Rosa. “There doesn’t need to be three meat stands at every farmers market.”
For example, Casa Rosa and Skyelark Ranch trade weeks selling their farms’ products at the Jack London Square Farmers Market in Oakland. The alternating schedule allows the ranchers to spend time more time with their families, and even take the occasional vacation.
The businesses also collaborate with each other to fill any product gaps. For small farms like Casa Rosa and Skyelark, being able to offer a broad and generally predictable selection of meats is essential to growing customer bases at the market.
“It’s kind of like a dance,” explains da Rosa. “Right now Skyelark is low on pork, so we’re doing our pork. They may have chickens now, but I know they’re not going to have chickens toward the fall, so we’re going to offer chickens in October. We try to coordinate to balance out production and keep consistent offerings for our customers so they don’t go elsewhere.”
The relationship also fosters mutual respect among the farmers, as they’re selling each other’s products. “One of the things that makes the partnership work is that we have the same values ,” Rachel continues. “When we present our product and their product, it’s equitable and fair. We tell our customers, ‘It’s from two different farms, but you’re gonna love both products.’”
Where Ethics and Flavor Meet
Rachel takes pride in communicating the care that goes into her and her fellow farmers’ meats from the animal’s birth to market. While the cost of Casa Rosa’s meat is higher than that of industrially raised counterparts, the farm attracts customers who value supporting small family farms and sustainable practices such as pasture-based animal husbandry and organic land stewardship.
“There’s very little you can mechanize when you’re caring for animals; there’s no substitute for a human being,” she says. “You have to check up on the animals, you have to make sure that they’re healthy, that they’re safe, that they’re fed, that they have enough water and shade. You can’t outsource that to a machine—I mean, you can, but that’s called a CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation].”
For Casa Rosa’s loyal customers, ethics and flavor meet in the final product: “Pork is the gateway drug,” Rachel says. “Someone might say, ‘Oh my god, that was the best pork that I ever had.’ Then they say, ‘Let me try some of your beef. I don’t really like grass-fed beef, but let me try it, because your pork was amazing.’”
Find Casa Rosa Farms at the Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays.
Photos courtesy of Casa Rosa Farms.