Sunday, December 9, 2012

Back to the Land

It’s a short trip from farm to table at the Troyna home, where organic agriculture is a family affair.

As published in Ventana magazine, July 2012.

Photo by Jeff Byrnes
The sign posted at the gate to Rusti and Kristi Troyna’s Oak View urban farm reads, “Old dog, young dog, several stupid dogs. Please drive slowly.” Sure enough, I’m greeted by a friendly graying mutt that wants a scratch.
“They’re herding dogs, and they keep the chickens alive from the raccoons and coyotes,” says Rusti, who worked in construction until a year ago when illness forced him to leave his job. Now, he and his wife, Kristi, manage a sustainable farm of fruits, vegetables, horses, goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys, cats, and, yes, dogs. And they do it all on only an acre-and-a-half of land, which probably wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Rusti’s illness.

“I was diagnosed with mercury lead poisoning from all my years in construction,” says Rusti. “Part of the reason we started doing this was for my health condition.” He says Kristi and his doctors urged him to eat more healthy and organic.
They started raising organic produce and organic fowl for meat and eggs, and the results were dramatic. Rusti describes his health improvement as, “Night and day. I’m better now.”
“Good things come out of bad things, I guess,” says Kristi, a former government employee who left her day job to raise the couple’s two children: Hunter, 7, and Ella, 3.
Eating homegrown and organic was half the equation. The couple also saw it as an opportunity to make ends meet by consulting and educating others, selling organic eggs and meat, and ramping up Kristi’s already successful work with her horses.
“We’re trying to make a go of this, or I’ll go back to doing what I was doing,” says Rusti.
About a third of the property is devoted to horses—three of their own and four that they board. “I didn’t start out to create a business. I was a stay-at-home mom,” but word of mouth, says Kristi, brought her plenty of business giving riding lessons, training for a private ranch, and showing and boarding horses. “We ended up having really great people here that feel like family.”
The horses are also a big reason they now have goats; one of Kristi’s boarders arrived with a goat that never left. “You know the term, ‘Get your goat’? Goats were companions for racing horses. Well, the horse went to a new home, and we ended up keeping the goat. We put the goat on the hill, and as you can see, it’s bald,” says Rusti, pointing to a cleared-off hillside where poison oak and invasive plants previously grew into a massive thicket.
After experimenting with raising different breeds, including Nubians and Nigerians, they’re now focusing on breeding and selling mini Nubians.
“They’re very docile and great milkers,” says Kristi, adding that their size and easy handling makes sense for amateur backyard farmers looking to jump on the urban farming bandwagon.
“The milk tastes just like organic raw cow’s milk. It’s amazingly flavorful. We just love it,” says Rusti, adding that because of the legalities and controversies surrounding the distribution of raw milk, for now they keep it all for themselves and the goats’ nursing “kids.”

The farm inhabitants that seem to vie for the most attention are the fowl. Raising “organic and happy” chickens for eggs and meat hasn’t been easy, but they have a sense of humor about it. Their Facebook page shows a picture of recently butchered and processed poultry with the caption, “It’s going to be a lot quieter around here without all those roosters!” Organic poultry and eggs from their 40 laying hens have made them pretty popular with friends and neighbors.
“We sell our eggs for three dollars a dozen, which is really cheap for organic-fed, free-range. The chickens support themselves,” says Rusti.

The farm is a family affair, and the couple’s two children love to get in on the act. Ella gets a kick out of gathering the eggs, which come in a variety of pale pastel colors. Hunter feeds the fowl every morning, but his parents are mindful of how closely he bonds with the birds in his care.
“He has gotten attached to certain animals. We have trouble butchering some of them,” says Rusti, gesturing to a large white turkey, clucking and following close on Hunter’s heels. “We ended up picking up this white broad-breasted female from someone that was raising her in Ventura as a pet. She is extremely friendly.” The turkey was named Tammy and spared permanently from the butcher block.
The other turkeys, however, will land on Thanksgiving tables this fall. “The turkeys were a hit last year. We did the broad breasted commercial bronze; they grow bigger breasts, they’re juicier, and they have more fat on them,” says Rusti, who plans to offer turkeys for sale again this November.
This summer, their attention turns to offering farm camps for kids six and older. “We’re trying to educate the next generation about better choices. If we hit the kids now, maybe the next generation will be more proactive,” says Kristi.
Farm camp includes hands-on lessons in planting and harvesting produce, milking and grooming goats, an optional butchering day, and frank discussions about healthy, humane, and sustainable food choices. Cooking classes include making cheese, ice cream, jam, and quiche. The best part, Kristi says, is the day the kids compare non-organic grocery store produce to organic homegrown produce. “They’re just shocked by how tasteless and gross food from the grocery store is.”
The goal with the farm camps and the consulting, Kristi says, is to help people make better choices for themselves, their families, and the planet. “With not a whole lot—a goat, chickens, and a garden—food is really good, and it tastes better.”