Between the Sierra Nevadas and Northern California’s coastal mountain range is a fertile area of phenomenal natural beauty. Acres of olive, walnut, almond, and stone fruit orchards are broken up by clusters of valley oak and sycamore, wetlands, rice paddies, and fields of grazing cattle. Late rains and cool weather have ruined much of this year’s spring fruit harvest, but have kept the normally golden hills unseasonably green. Mustard and other wildflowers are still blooming, and everywhere that blackberry can grow, it does. In addition to significant biodiversity, Northern California has various climate zones as well as unique microclimates. One such microclimate is formed by Table Mountain, a low but picturesque formation in Oroville, CA that serves as the back wall of a horseshoe-shaped depression. Warm air flows into the bowl during the day and is reflected against the mountain back into the bowl at night, such that this area rarely experiences frost. UC Berkeley established an experimental olive orchard on this land early in the 20th century, and it remains largely populated by heirloom mission olives. Today, Chaffin Family Orchards continues to produce olives and olive oil, as well as apricots, cherries, and other stone fruit, wild figs and plums, and grass-fed cattle, meat goats, and poultry. We visited the farm in late May to learn more about their unique farming methods and humane husbandry.
We were greeted in the gravel lot by several dozen chickens, all of which belong to Joshua, a nine-year old boy who has been keeping chickens since age four. His current project is raising heritage breed poultry and selling chicks to local farmers. Chris, one of the partners on the farm, pulled up in a big truck and we chatted about its history, the unique climate, and what it’s like farming at Chaffin. We piled into the truck and drove down through the olive orchards, chatting about restrictive and labyrinthine government regulations, the pressures on small farmers, and activism. Along the way we passed ‘chicken-mobiles,’ mobile chicken houses that the farmers move from area to area, allowing the chickens to peck across the orchards and fertilize as they go. In another section we came upon three billy goats watched over by a Pyrenees mountain dog. Chris explained that these goats were “doing their job,” clearing away weeds and brambles from the orchard. Instead of hiring laborers, he explained that they use goat power to take care of prickly Himalayan blackberry bushes, star thistle, and other undergrowth that threatens to overwhelm the trees. It was obvious which fields had recently been visited by the herd and which hadn’t. We pulled up alongside a moveable electric fence and stepped over it into a large section of orchard across which a happy herd of goats munched away. There were goats nursing their recently-born kids, goats in the trees watching us curiously, bottle-fed goats nuzzling our hands to say hello, and of course, goats tearing away enthusiastically at the brambles.
Chris asked us what we thought was better: one cow grazing a single acre over one hundred days, or one hundred cows grazing a single acre for one day. Thinking that a single cow has less of an environmental impact than a hundred, we assumed that this was the right answer, though it did sound like a trick question. In fact, one hundred cows does less damage in one day than one cow does over a hundred, because one cow over one hundred days will overgraze its favorite foods while ignoring other plants. A large herd, on the other hand, will evenly graze and then move on (imagine massive herds of bison crossing the plains). Grazing herds leave behind exceptional fertilizer, aerate the soil, create waterways into the soil, and bring numerous other benefits. Chris also noted that the orchard is “predator-friendly,” something I had never heard a farmer say before. Predators, he explained, are healthier for the land because the presence of bear and mountain lion (kept at bay by the watchful herd dogs) keep the herd close together and ensure better grazing habits. The herds are protected while predators can hunt in other areas of the orchard.While walking around the farm, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a beautiful lesson in tawhid. At no point was I ever observing one thing in isolation; each element was part of a greater whole, all of the parts harmoniously working together, supporting one another, and cycling through each other. The chickens, goats, trees, bees, undergrowth, soil, predators, farmers, and the people who eat the farm’s products are all connected. This is as far a cry from industrial monoculture and heartbreaking CAFO’s as it gets. People buy from Chaffin Family Orchards because they want their food to be grown and raised in the best possible way, and are well aware that the best food doesn’t just appear wrapped in plastic at the grocery store.
As Muslims, I believe that we should think carefully about what we put into our bodies, because our food becomes us. We can choose to nourish ourselves and our families intentionally guided by principles of mercy and dignity, or we can ignore where our food comes from and say “alhamdulillah, at least it’s halal,” if that. Insh’Allah, I hope to see Muslims becoming more engaged with food movements, and to really connect with what nourishes us by visiting the farms where fruits, vegetables, and meats come from, getting to know the farmers, and especially by getting involved with growing and raising our own food. Even better, I hope that Muslim children are able to witness the constant miracles of Allah’s mercy through creation.
Chaffin Family Orchards doesn’t provide halal meats, but it takes Muslim communities reaching out to local farmers like these to let them know that there is a market for ethically-sound, humanely-raised, local, halal meat. I urge everyone to visit local farms like Chaffin to learn about their food and to take away a few beautiful lessons of their very own.
- "And He has created cattle for you: you get from them your warm garments and other benefits, and you eat of their produce. And you pride yourselves on their beauty as you drive them home in the evenings, and as you lead them forth to pastures in the mornings. And they carry your heavy loads to places where you could not otherwise reach save by laborious strain to yourselves. Verily! Your Sustainer is most kind - a Dispenser of grace." (Qur'an 16:15-17)