At Big Bluff Ranch, Tyler and Holly Dawley are raising Big Sur chickens on open pasture. Big Sur are great for chicken-lovers because they’ve got all the flavor you expect from a heritage breed, but they’re much larger-breasted than smaller breeds like Freedom Rangers. The Northern California ranch itself is super cool, too: Big Bluff operates exclusively on solar and hydropower, because it’s so far back in the Coastal Range mountains that it’s off-grid from normal electricity. That’s the way it’s been since Tyler’s grandpa bought the land in the sixties and used camp lanterns when he needed to work past sundown.
Tyler and Holly are raising their two children on the ranch, which they’re happy they’re able to do, because, as Tyler says,
“The ranch is the center of our family. My mom spent summers up here as a child, and when I was a kid it’s where all the cousins came for Christmas. A lot of my extended family has grown up and spread out, but it’s a really important piece of our family legacy.”
The importance of the land to their family is why, several years ago, the Dawleys decided to put it under conservation easement, meaning that even as parcels of farmland are subdivided and turned into McMansions all around them, their farm will stay protected forever. They would much rather the land remain productive under regenerative farming practices, than fall victim to the development creeping slowly outward from the Bay Area.
Big Bluff’s regenerative farming emphasis started back in the ‘80s, when Tyler’s grandpa started raising grass-finished beef because conventional farming just wasn’t going to work for the mountainous area. Since then, Tyler has added other grazing and pecking species to the pasture-based system, including chickens, which work in tandem with the cows to keep the fields naturally fertilized with manure. The chickens are 100% outside on the California hills during the day, and at night they have access to sheltered roosting houses if they want and choose. The chicken feed is nearly all locally grown and 100% locally milled, and includes wheat, soy, and corn, the latter of which is grown by Mennonite farmers down the road.
Their farming philosophy is simple, as Holly explains: “We believe agriculture can be regenerative to the land, and can support our family. Our children will be the second generation to grow up on the ranch, and we’re proud of that.”