SLT in the News

Alexis and Eric Koefoed: Soul Food Farm

Author: Aleta George
Date: Jul 01, 2011

Alexis and Eric Koefoed: Soul Food Farm

July 2011

In the late 1990s, Alexis and Eric Koefoed stood at the top of the driveway with their three children, suitcases in hand. In front of them was the 55-acre piece of land that they had just purchased on Pleasants Valley Road in Vacaville. It had no house, no electricity, and no running water—just an old barn where local kids partied.

Prior to stepping into their new lives on the land now known as Soul Food Farm, Alexis and Eric lived with their children in Vallejo where Alexis grew a beautiful garden on her quarter acre of land. On one of her frequent visits to Morningsun Herb Farm she saw a “For Sale” sign at the McCory Ranch.

“I felt obsessed about this place, about living here,” she said when asked why she uprooted her family. “My first impulse was selfish. Like many women, I was asking myself, ‘Is this all I’m going to do in life, have kids and do housework?’ I saw the property as an opportunity to do something creative, new, and exciting—but I never knew that we were going to be known for chickens.”

Their new life hasn’t been easy. At first they lived in a tent, then a trailer, and then a cabin. It took five years to build the house where they live now, and which features a large open kitchen with cement floors, restaurant-quality gas range and refrigerator, and walls of windows. Now her kitchen is used for cooking classes led by top Bay Area chefs.

Alexis feels a connection to the history of the land, especially in spring and summer when she can visualize the flower garden planted by Ruth McCory, a descendant of the McCory family who homesteaded the land in 1880. The freesias and pink ladies continue to pop up, and on the back end of the property a few of the old trees still produce small yellow plums.

While having coffee at her long, wooden kitchen table in late June, she pulled out her smart phone to show me a picture that she had taken the day before, an old plum tree with a brilliant blue sky in the background. Since she had taken the photo, the weather had turned; it was raining and she was worried about her chickens.

In answer to the proverbial question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, in her case it was the egg. When they were still selling only eggs, Alice Waters, the Chez Panisse chef who helped to revolutionize the food scene in the San Francisco Bay Area, called Alexis to ask if she would raise meat birds for the restaurant.

Today, Soul Food Farm raises over 6,000 meat birds and has about 1,000 laying hens. All are “pastured birds.” Language is important, said Alexis—and confusing to customers. Small farms once used the term “cage free” for their eggs, but industrial chicken farms co-opted the phrase. “They got rid of the cages but it didn’t mean that hundreds of thousands of chickens weren’t still crammed into big warehouses,” she said. “Free range” was the next phrase co-opted by industrial chicken farms, where the “free rangers” can still be stuffed into a large warehouse as long as there’s a little door for them to get out to a small courtyard. “Certified organic” simply means that the chickens eat organic grains.

“’Pastured’ chickens means that the they are out and roaming about. It’s a powerful and significant phrase,” Alexis said.

Eric Koefoed, a civil engineer for thirty years, is currently playing a bigger role on the farm since being laid off during the recession. “Now he’s my slave,” she said with a grin, but quickly turned to a more serious note. His not working and bringing in an income is probably unsustainable, a truism for most family farmers. Two-thirds of all farms in the U.S. rely on off-farm incomes to subsidize their farms.

“No small farmer has enough capital to make their farm what they envision it to be. I realized a long time ago that social media would make ours a modern farm, and from a marketing point of view, we are successful. But after 11 years we are still struggling to pay the bills and figure out how best to sell our products. We are up every morning at 6 a.m. and work until 10 or 11 p.m.,” she said. “But we believe in what we are doing. Small farms are on the cusp of changing the food landscape, and we just need to hold on.”

When asked what kind of help small farmers need, she said there should be more support for small farmers, and it has to be more than people attending farmers’ markets. Farms need to be more accessible to the public, and receive state and federal support. There should also be a tax break for transporting animals, feed, and vegetables. The closest slaughterhouse that can fulfill their needs is Grimaud Farms in Stockton, where Alexis and Eric drive their meat chickens to slaughter once a week. It takes them 90 minutes to get there, but it takes other farmers much longer. She knows a farmer in Santa Barbara whose only slaughterhouse option is in Stockton. “That’s hard on the birds and expensive for the farmer,” she said. One of the reasons that local food can be so expensive is that California has lost its farming support industries, from canning to feed supplies to slaughterhouses.

Knowing that Alexis had eggs to wash, I reluctantly left her kitchen table. On the way to my car, I picked up a dozen eggs from the self-serve cooler, placing my money in the tin. The cooler sits on the edge of the olive tree orchard that she and Eric planted. Under the trees, at least a dozen Freedom Ranger chickens had found shelter from the rain under their own volition.

From April to November you can stop by the farm at 6046 Pleasants Valley Road, Vacaville, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for fresh eggs purchased on the honor system. You can also join Soul Food Farm’s CSA program for chicken and eggs. For more information visit Soul Food Farm

(Note: Soul Food Farm closed its doors this summer. For nearly a decade they have raised pastured chickens for eggs and meat, which were sold to restaurants and locals through special orders, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, and an on-site egg box. In her letter to CSA customers, owner Alexis Koefoed cited the rising cost of chicken feed ($13,000 a month) as a primary reason. In my interview with her last summer, she also cited the expense of their weekly drives to Stockton, where the only available slaughterhouse is located. She had a few other ideas how the public can help small farmers succeed. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the next step for these passionate farmers is uncertain, though they do hope to continue farming.)

—Aleta George