“Grandma didn’t want us to have anything to do with ranching,” says Nancy Prebilich of Gleason Ranch, throwing open the door to an aging dairy barn that’s stood on the family property for more than 40 years. Without flinching she wades into a half inch of muck that backed up in the pig stall last night — adding “snake drains” to her ever-growing to-do list — and grabs a squealing piglet from underneath its 350 pound mom.
“We had the passion for it,” she says, snuggling the little pink bundle, “but not the permission.” At just 34, Prebilich — who holds a degree in international theater and grew up off the farm — may seem an unlikely candidate for saving not only her family’s Bodega ranch, but for a way of life that she was actively discouraged from.
But returning to the land is a dream that’s becoming increasingly appealing to generations of people who’ve lost touch with the simpler rural life. The reality, however, is not always so rosy.
For the past nine months, she’s been pasture-raising heritage breeds of chicken, pork and turkeys along with grass-fed beef on a few hundred acres of family land, and it’s been a steep learning curve. “We’ve be trained out of desperation and urgency,” says Prebilich.
Chickens, however, are the focus of the operation with nearly 5,000 French La Rouge chickens on the property, from chicks to 3-month-olds ready for market. Going a step beyond organic, free-range poultry, Nancy’s mission is to raise the best-tasting chickens you’ve ever eaten, with an old-fashioned texture and flavor flavor your grandparents might recognize. Each week she receives 500 to 700 chicks, raises them on the farm for 11 weeks and sends them to Fulton Processing (in Forestville) before selling them at local grocery stores and farm markets.
What sets her apart from other poultry producers: Prebilich claims to be the only large-scale commercial producer of 100% local, pasture-raised chickens in Sonoma County. What’s the difference? Free-range chickens are, by definition, given access to outdoor pens, unlike conventionally raised chickens. But the chickens don’t always take up the offer to head outside.
Gleason Ranch cluckers spend most of their lives in specially-built “chicken tractors” — specialized pens without bottoms that allow the birds to eat bugs, grass and other natural things. The pens are moved daily to new pecking grounds. A llama stands guard against coyotes, though predators are always a threat. “Organic and free range doesn’t necessarily mean what people think it means. People have auto-criteria they ask me every time, but once people are educated that these are real animals, not genetically modified lab rats on two legs, they start wrapping their heads around it,” she said.
In only nine months, the slow-growing chickens have gained plenty of fans, including the notice of the French Laundry and local meat purveyor, Sonoma Direct along with early customers like Patrick Tafoya of the Bodega Bay Lodge’s Duck Club Restaurant, the Sonoma Mission Inn and John Ash & Co.
“Quite simply some of the best products I ever have had the pleasure of working with. The care with which these animals are raised is evident in every bite,” said Tafoya. “They grow the best chicken I’ve ever tasted.” Adds Bruno Tyson, executive chef of the Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, “It reminded me of the chicken we ate at home while growing up.”
Everyone in the family — her mom and dad, sister, 11-year-old nephews and six-year-old niece — chip in, working without pay to move chicken pens, feed and water the animals, attend to the chicks and maintain the decaying buildings. Nancy also hand-delivers much of the meat to markets and restaurants.
The Prebilich/Gleasons are one of the most established agricultural families in Sonoma County. Her great-great-grandfather William Gleason founded Gleason Dairy on the Bodega Coastline in the 1860s. The family continued to operate the dairy, which moved to its current location just east of Bodega in 1912, until the 1960s when competition from bigger milk operations forced its closure. Grandma Gleason held onto the ranch for more than 50 years as the barns and outbuildings decayed, deterring her children and grandchildren from joining the family business — not realizing that the time Nancy and her sister spent on the property were some of the most memorable of their lives.
The good news is that in June, the ranch may actually come close to breaking even, but that’s hardly the recipe for sustainability. Expenses are rising and consumers, she says, are only beginning to connect the dots when it comes to her prices versus those of larger producers.
Even so, the family is far from out of the woods and there’s an underlying urgency in everything they do. “We’re not here to be millionaires. I just want to pay the mortgage,” she tells me as we stroll the property. With nine months of chicken-raising under her belt, she’s optimistic that the farm will be able to sustain itself long-term, but still isn’t entirely sure of the future. “By August, we’ll know if we can make it.”
Lex McCorvey, Executive Director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau echoes the challenges to local farmers. “There are very few sectors of the agricultural community that are making enough money to support their families. If they can create and sustain a niche market for their product, more power to them, but the reality for most people is that many of the niche markets are not sustainable. The bottom lines is that it’s pretty hard to make this your sole income.”
A visit to the meat counter at local grocer, Oliver’s, which carries Gleason chickens at their Cotati and Stoney Point markets, speak volumes to the challenges of moving chickens that can cost $20 and up, versus those half (or less) the price. The chickens were discontinued at the Montecito location because they weren’t selling. Across town at the Stoney Point meat counter, employees said they’re often asked why the chickens are so expensive, but that a faithful contingency of customers who know about Gleason Ranch usually buy up the stock.
Prebilich admits that it can still be hard-sell, but consumers are starting to get it. “Twenty or thirty years ago, we would have been up a creek. But people are starting to understand what local and sustainable means when it comes to food. I have to charge more because of how intensively these heritage chickens are raised and processed. But 45 cents of every dollar you spend on my meat stays here. On any other bird, only 15 cents stays here.”
Ultimately, what matters to consumers is what’s at the end of their forks. After purchasing one of the birds (with feet still attached), there were some clear differences. The La Rouge chickens (also known as Freedom Rangers) are dense, heavy birds, but lack the giant breasts we’re used to — seeming almost skinny by comparison. The flavor, however, is rich and complex, with a more toothsome quality than other birds. What’s a surprise is that dark meat lacks the greasy gristle of other chickens — a portion of the chicken I usually throw away as inedible. And at $19 for a small bird, there’s little chance that I’ll let anything, including the heart, gizzard and neck, go to waste.
Marissa Guggiana, President Sonoma Direct, is also a fan of the chickens. “Gleason Ranch is an old fashioned farm in our era, which means they need the support of the community to succeed. Luckily their chickens (and pigs and turkeys and lambs and beef) are absolutely perfect, they have this rich wholesome flavor and they stay moist through and through.”
Despite local support, whether the family will be able to keep the ranch intact is in the balance. All around them, property is being bought for exorbitant prices, often for vineyards. “This is prime pinot land,” Prebilich says. And with the vineyards come issues of shared water tables, among other concerns. “What happens to families like us when people with loads of money can come in and buy all the land around us?”
Says Prebilich: “We don’t want to become grape people. We just want to keep our land. We want to bring back the ranchers to where they belong.”
Nancy and her family sell chickens and other animal products at the following locations…
461 Stony Point Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
OLIVER’S MARKET (Cotati)
546 E Cotati Ave.
Cotati, CA 94931
VALLEY FORD MARKET
14400 Hwy. 1
Valley Ford, CA
19449 Riverside Dr.
Sonoma, CA 95476
3639 18th Street
(between Guererro and Delores)
San Francisco, CA 94110
2815 Diamond Street
San Francisco, CA 94131
THE NATURAL GROCERY COMPANY
10367 San Pablo Ave.
El Cerrito, CA 94530
THREE STONE HEARTH
1581 University Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94703
THE FAIRMONT SONOMA MISSION INN & SPA
100 Boyes Blvd.
Sonoma, CA 95476
JOHN ASH & CO.
at Vintners Inn
4350 Barnes Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
THE DUCK CLUB RESTAURANT
at Bodega Bay Lodge & Spa
103 Coast Highway One
Bodega Bay, CA 94923
14415 Coast Hwy 1
Valley Ford, CA
at TIMBER COVE
21780 North Coast Hwy 1
Jenner, CA 95450