Food & Drink

Field to Fork: Skyelark Ranch, not a lark at all

By From page A8 | July 23, 2014

Young people out of college who try to build a farming or ranching life from scratch in our region have one thing in common. It’s drive.

An easier way of life is always available through conventional employment. Yet they feel deeply that this is their life’s path.

In the case of Alexis and Gillies Robertson, who started Skyelark Ranch in Capay Valley, their direction first emerged in their college years. She’s from Paradise. He’s from Scotland, outside Edinburgh. They met in class in Tasmania, where Alexis was doing a semester abroad in her environmental studies and agricultural economics studies at UC Santa Cruz.

Neither had a farming or ranching background, but both were drawn to it. After working for a time in Butte County, they ruled out farming. Alexis got a master’s degree in grazing management and related studies at UC Davis once they moved to Yolo County. Ranching it would be.

They credit FarmLink, a California nonprofit that’s helping to launch a new generation on the land, with leading them to 60 acres in Capay Valley a few years ago. It was once a small ranch, with an orchard, horses and grazing land, but it had seen better days. It hadn’t been operated commercially for at least 14 years, says Alexis.

Today it’s full of life. They raise sheep, pigs and chickens for eggs and meat, which they bring to four farmers markets and Bay Area butchers. The Davis market on Saturdays is their most successful market.

“When we set out on Saturday mornings, we run into four or five vans going to Davis. It’s pretty cool,” says Gillies.

Their customers expect commendable practices in raising their animals, and special breeds are common on such small ranches. They have seven heritage Berkshire sows and two boars, with the ability to butcher three hogs a month. That breed does well on their type of pasture, Alexis says.

As for sheep, they have 50 Capay red ewes, a breed that was developed by one individual in Capay Valley. And then there are 1,500 laying hens for eggs, as well as enough chickens to sell 200 a week, some at farmers’ markets, most to Bay Area butchers.

“You have to do numbers,” Gillies noted.

Bigger volume will build a more financially viable operation — both work part-time jobs now — but that’s easier said than done.

Last year they raised 1,600 heritage turkeys for a Tomales Bay market. But 800 baby ducks arrived the day of my visit, as they’ve had enough of turkeys.

“Turkeys are social birds,” Gillies said. Davisites know this from the news accounts of the nuisance turkeys that congregate on roofs and in yards. On their farm, while they had pens, “We had turkeys on the roof, in trees, in the orchard and in the neighbors’ yards.” What’s more, there’s no longer a slaughterhouse in California that will process such a small volume of turkeys for them, say the Robertsons.

One wonders if the well-heeled customers who paid $9 per pound for these Thanksgiving turkeys in Tomales Bay had an inkling of what went into raising their holiday birds.

Manas Ranch in Esparto, where Alexis works part-time, butchers their meat during the year, ranging from sausage to chops.

Constraints for small operators include capital, marketing channels and time. Farmers market commitments take many hours. To address that, Alexis and three other female operators just formed the Capay Valley Meat Co-operative, which will enable them to take turns selling in Vacaville, and perhaps elsewhere.

“We would like to own some land eventually, and a house, and ramp up,” said Alexis. “But we’d always have to lease grazing land,” Gillies pointed out, as it would be far too costly to own acreage for that purpose.

And they’d like to reach a scale where they wouldn’t have to work part-time jobs as well.

All of that may lie ahead. But on that Thursday afternoon, they had more urgent matters — those 800 baby ducks needed attention. Theirs is a life where something always needs doing.

— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at [email protected]

Dan Kennedy

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