"Shooting ground squirrels is about the only legal thing going on in Hayfork," said my friend Keating. "Next time you come, we'll take you squirrel hunting. For the culture shock."
Before two weeks ago, I had never heard of the town of Hayfork, California. It sits in a valley in Trinity county, which I had also never heard of. It's way the fuck north, sandwiched between Redding and Humboldt county. Hayfolk almost disappeared earlier this summer, when wildfires singed the mountain rims surrounding the town.
Keating grows pigs right now, plus a brood of chickens. And pasture. Lots and lots of pasture. The Gloucestershire old spot, Tamworth and Berkshire hogs do much of this work, shitting and rummaging and rolling around in the dirt. The grass is mostly dry this time of year, dusty-tan and full of prickles and burrs. I saw some pictures of the farm from the spring and it a different place — all green, lush, and hopeful. But Keating and his business partner Chris are optimistic that the greenery will return. It's an El Niño year after all.
They get all of their water from a nearby spring. It's still got water in it when we drive by, but not a lot. It's pretty incredible that such a small spigot is keeping so many pigs alive.
Keating and Chris brought pigs onto this 800-acre parcel of land in January. (They've had control of the land since last March.) It's stunning. There are the pastures, of course, only some of which have been revitalized. The remainder look like scorched earth after being trashed by the cows that used to graze there. Venture only part of the way up the hill and there's an oak forest — prime acorn territory, and a dream summer home for the pigs. Fruit trees and bushes also grow in this area, so the pigs can have apple, pear, and berry desserts. Further up the road, the oaks give way to old growth pines. Here it feels almost like Oregon, lush and moist, even in the absence of rain.
Everywhere I look, though, there's evidence of Hayfork's true economic engine. This part of the state seems to run on cash, and it's an unspoken non-secret where that cash comes from. Camouflage-colored tarps barely conceal 12- to 15-foot plants destined for delivery to cities further south. There's one farm that clearly has the blessings of the medical establishment; its cute, well-trimmed plants sit in manicured burlap pots, visible from the road.
Chris says he and Keating would be having a much easier time right now if they had bought into this economy and added a few plants to their land. But they want a sustainable, long-term business, not a fast money-maker that will likely self-destruct when pot becomes legal.
Instead, they're focusing on their pigs, their pasture, and finding a way to not to operate at a loss. Pigs, I've learned, are very expensive if you're raising them right. Quality feed is only part of the equation. Providing access to plenty of land and water is another. Driving them to the processor and paying for that step is, of course, another cost.
Keeping them alive is perhaps the hardest part. The ranch sits in serious predator territory; mountain lions and black bears are so common that Keating stays up night after night with a spotlight attached to his truck. When the dogs bark, he flips a switch and scares the shit out of whatever's creeping onto the land. Bright lights, no city.
They have plans to buy some kind of roving tractor that will work better than the truck-spotlight situation. Someone could move around with the pigs once night falls, adding another layer of protection.
But they need money for that, and to raise money they've got to sell pigs. Their pork is crazy tasty if you can get your hands on some of it. I've seared some meaty, marbled chops in a cast iron skillet at home, and feasted on chorizo and linguica for two meals in a row while visiting the farm. I've got a huge hunk of shoulder in my freezer, too, with plans for carnitas. Come over and I'll make you some.
Hopefully one day soon, their meat will show up in the Local Butcher or replace some of the less-than-ideal pork in the kitchens of restaurants around town. Ultimately, Chris and Keating want to sell directly to consumers through a hybrid retail and restaurant operation. The idea isn't fully fleshed out, but it will involve counter service and easy to prepare foods like pulled pork sandwiches or ham-and-egg toasts. Once a customer tastes a dish, the two hope, they'll want to walk over to the fridge and pick up some chops, a dozen eggs, and a recipe idea or two to take home.
There's much more to this story, too. There's the story of the town of Hayfork itself, which is poised for rapid change in the next couple of years. There's the story of Chris's family, who owns much of the nearby town of Weaverville, and has for decades. And there's a story about a real life Noah Cross figure in Hayfork, who controls the water, the mill, the gas, the town. The bigger tale is about what we should do with the vast stretches of land torn up by drought and irresponsible farming now that money has started to roll in — and what to do when it leaves. Stay tuned, I guess.