On a quest to discover where our food comes from, we went in search of chickens, and found much more. Hidden in the steep slopes west of Highway 29, we arrived at Azalea Springs Farms to find vision and hope, ingenuity and resourcefulness embodied in the work of Douglas Hayes.
It was already understood that Mr. Hayes was brilliant, as Chef Kronmark, of CIA Greystone, speaks so highly of him. We quickly learned he has a background in Physics and is a chef as well as an architect, and that his perspective helps him understand not only the depth of humanity, but also our relationship to nature. He was very concerned with being “present” and appreciating the experience we were about to share, so it was with eagerness and trepidation that this writer took on a new challenge: using a digital recorder instead of taking notes.
It only took us a few minutes after our arrival to forget about the wineries that made Napa famous. Douglas Hayes began to lead us through his property, discussing a philosophy of “love and respect” and how, as systems, we are connected to our food and nature in an intrinsic way. We quickly realized that Mr. Hayes had much more on his mind than the Buckeye Chicken.
“What I’m really up to,” says Mr. Hayes, “is preservation everything: whatever is local or native to this area or this hemisphere.” He references not just his passion for the Buckeye Chicken, originally bred in Ohio, but projects involving red trentino flindt corn and guinea or red wattle hogs, both of which will come to fruition after he finishes his greenhouse and will help feed his passion for Charcuterie.
It was a beautiful day, and the roosters could be heard over the chawing of a chainsaw. The shrill cry of hawks, or maybe eagles, could also be heard as they soared over the crest of the valley, and the highway, as close as it is to his property, quickly became a distant memory. We discussed food and nutrition and learned how he manages his property as an integrated system. “How do you really use what’s here, and improve it?” he asks me. His work epitomizes good stewardship, and looking around, it’s hard to imagine improving his property, as it reminds me of one of my favorite places in Northern California, Jack London State Historic Park.
When Douglas took over the property though, he says the forest was going dead. He adds, “My father was much more brutal with life,” and lists a few of the chemicals his father used: DDT, Malathion, and 24d. For this reason and several others he won’t call his operation organic, but now it’s hard to imagine the forest being silent: songbirds and bees, butterflies and raptors seem to hardly care we’re there, and crickets and frogs can be heard from the dense underbrush beneath the evergreens and oaks.
Douglas leads us to his green house, which is almost finished. In addition to hot and cold running water, it has a photovoltaic system that will power not just the greenhouse, but the fences and gate to the property as well. With automatic windows that pop open at 75 degrees for cross-ventilation, it is clear that Douglas, who has been building “passive solar green houses” since the Carter Administration (1979-80), knows a thing or two about technology, and aesthetics as well. Faced west of south, the green house is set up to grow 2 different “zones” of food, so he can produce vegetables year round. For example, the south box could grow tomatoes, peppers and corn, while the north box grows arugula, spinach and cabbages, which prefer cooler temperatures.
His understanding of integrated systems extends to respect for the soil as well. Douglas says that respect for the soil is essential to respecting as the soil is where vegetables get their nutrients. beyond composting manure, vegetation, and waste, we discuss the humates, fungi, and microbiotic elements of the soil, in addition to guano from the chickens and earthworms which tend to be prominent in healthy soil. As part of a study with World Soil Solutions, Mr. Hayes has seen fantastic results in the overall health of the property, citing his chickens, the bee population, and the dense, 6-foot deep grasses. Gradually we come to understand that the nutritional value of his soil has everything to do with the health of the wildlife, his crops, and his livestock.
Bees are abundant; the three towers of hives standing four to five feet high, in the shadow of a large blue oak. There is a soft hum of activity, and the worker bees zoom to and fro. The rich grasses and garden are in close proximity to the hives, but their food sources are unlimited, thanks to the burgeoning forest growing on the property, and the vineyards across highway 29. The honey is superb, clear, and a true manifestation of liquid gold. Douglas says he gets about 60 pounds per hive. Surprisingly, he doesn’t, as of yet, sell very much, since building a solid foundation for the hives’ long-term sustainability, and not profit, is his priority, but even though he has been keeping bees for nearly a decade, he admits he still has a lot to learn, and repeatedly gives his mentor praise.
We talk some more about his agricultural prospects as we work our way to the chicken coops, which are surrounded by a portable electric fence. He explains his predator problem, and refers to the first flock of New Hampshire Reds he lost, but he expects that next year, his Buckeyes will reach an ideal point of sustainability: “a flock of 300 legit birds” with all the good qualities that define the breed of buckeye: a pea comb which helps them endure cold, proper heart girth, good beaks and feet, and the natural growth rate of 16 to 18 weeks; industrial chickens have been engineered to be harvested at 6 weeks.
Douglas proves to be a font of knowledge, as we discuss nutritional value and genetics. He uses only non-gmo feed from Hunt & Behrens, and mixes apple cider vinegar into the water to eliminate e. coli. The hens also eat whatever they please from the pasture, whether it be grass, clover, dandelion or grubs, and also pebbles to help break up the greens in their stomachs. “Pasture is the key to doing almost everything,” says Douglas, once again referring to nutritional sources. He illustrates how the coops are rotated daily, so that the chickens have fresh grass and the guano is easy to rake up. “Notice, there is no smell of ammonia.” Indeed, there is a rich smell of grass and a hint of clover, and outside the paddock I notice lady bugs in the turf. “The farmer’s friend” I say, as much to myself as to Douglas, and he says “can you believe the chickens were on this grass yesterday?” This feeds into the issue of healthy pasture, illustrating how rotating his various livestock throughout the property will benefit the soil.
The birds themselves are beautiful, and have quite a bit of personality. About 20 per coop, they run and play as they graze, while a very large pullet roosts. Her vehenement clucking is almost a growl as she warns us to stay away from her eggs. There’s a white “Buff Leghorn” playing amongst the red and purple pullets, which Douglas keeps grouped by age. “She was a gift,” says Douglas, from a prizewinning breeder, and she was the only one of a dozen to survive. The love in Douglas’ voice for her is palpable, as he describes the heirarchy of hens, and how she fits in incredibly well.
The hens have a few guardian roosters to help keep the peace, as they hop from the grass to the cross-beams and roosts of the floor-less coops, some flapping their surprisingly strong wings for an extra boost of elevation. The portable coops are roomy enough to afford the chickens and four adults plenty of room, and the rambunctious poultry aren’t camera shy at all as they scurry around our feet. With a full heart, we move on to the chicks’ pen, where the 5 and 6 week old birds are playing all togther, and Douglas illustrates the precise science of incubation before expressing hopes of adding 1800 square feet to his hatchery. He plans to sell a lot of chicks next year, as well as increasing his egg production and attaining that magic number of 300 perfect pullets.
The setting of Azalea Springs is truly magical, and we are fairly astonished when Douglas offers to share his table with us. We walk up to his house, and he tells us about his time cooking at an Ashram. He cultures his own yogurt, makes his own chili sauce and mustard, and has his own special formula for Worcestershire sauce. We talk about his helpers, the food world, and how respect and understanding are such an essential part of relationships as well as hospitality. This brings us to Worth our Weight, a Santa Rosa establishment that works to teach teens about love and respect through food. “Yeah, they were on Triple D” I say, “Guy Fieri’s show.” Douglas laughs. “Did you hear about his Ferrari?”
Over a light lunch of perfectly prepared omelets, we continue to talk food and life. He tells us about his natural spring and the many people doing great things with organic and sustainable agriculture, like Holly Powell and Alan Williams. He mentions Mennonite farmers back east who learned about heritage poultry and became extremely successful, and Tim Boles and Barbados Sheep, We also talk at great lengths about the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone, and their gardening program, “Greystone Greenthumbs,” and he gives several of the students, including Ruth Selby, high praise. With his goal of “Full Circle Sustainability,” we come to fully understand that Douglas practices what he preaches, and is also an advocate for this “new Methodology.” Ruth Selby also took part in the “Almost Famous Chef Competition,” and In her last email, she tells me:
I came to the (CIA, Greystone) garden last year with no gardening experience. We bring our enthusiasm and newly-purchased gloves, but few of us have worked with animals or on working farms before. Over a season of seeding, planting, tending and harvesting, we grow into farmers. We transform from mere recipients into active players in the food chain.
Douglas Hayes has been a huge part of that transformation for me. I visited his farm last August to purchase some eggs. Instead of just taking my money and handing me the carton, he showed us his movable chicken coops that roll around his property. He talked about the respect for the animal that must be present; he showed us days-old chicks under warming lamps. I learned then that Douglas is all about the relationship between animal and farmer, that no relationship can be sustained if one side profits off the other’s suffering.
When we decided to build an improved, larger and safer chicken coop at our student garden in Deer Park, we first went to Douglas for notes on how to construct our “hoop-coop.” Genuine and knowledgeable, Douglas shared construction tips, pitfalls and shortcuts with us. Once we had a suitable home built, he gave us eight Buckeye hens and wished us luck.
Jack Gingrich is also a Greenthumb that I met at the “AFC,” and he adds “One facet of the garden I find most rewarding is the sense of community it fosters… Peter Jacobsen and Douglas are so generous with time and knowledge it inspires others to try and reciprocate. An underlying aspect of local food systems is sharing with or supporting your neighbors. Douglas epitomizes this idea with the help, time, and knowledge he has shared with us and others.”
Words can’t really describe better than that how we felt when we left Azalea Springs that afternoon. With all the nutrient-rich food for thought that Douglas offered us, Sundara and I headed off for our next appointment inspired and optimistic about the possibilities of things to come.