I was lost. My GPS app had failed me four miles back when I hit the unmarked dirt road on the way to Da-Le Ranch in Lake Elsinore, one of San Diego's more successful small family farms. I knew I had arrived when I opened my dusty door and was greeted by a cacophony of sounds: chickens clucking, sheep bleating, cows bellowing.
Co-owner Dave Heafner, a burly 68-year-old, lumbered out of his front door, firmly clasped my hand in his own callused mitt and thanked me for coming to visit. In well-worn jeans and T-shirt, a Marines ball cap and mud-caked work boots, it's hard to picture him sitting at a desk in a suit and tie. But after serving in the Marines for 20 years, Heafner had a lucrative career in finance.
Twelve years ago he lost everything, from his money—"I had $20 dollars in my wallet"—to his health—"I was deathly ill and thought I was going to die," he says.
That's when, according to Heafner, his wife, Leslie Pesic, saved him. She wanted to move to Lake Elsinore and raise animals. Heafner would move on one condition: Pesic, then a vegetarian, would have to taste a bite of every animal they raised. She reluctantly agreed. They bought their house and some dry, rocky surrounding land.
"Everything you see here," Heafner says, referring to the various animal habitats on the land, "we built ourselves."
"We started out with 12 chickens, four rabbits and six pigs," Pesic says. Today they have thousands of animals, from cows to geese, that live on eight different properties. Pesic is their primary caretaker. Heafner calls her "the animal whisperer."
Although Pesic coos and coddles, snuggles and sweet-talks the animals, she's not sentimental. She admits that while she names some of them, others she simply calls "breakfast, lunch or dinner," and lets loose a good-natured cackle. She agrees when Heafner says, "God put animals on this Earth to be eaten."
"But there's nothing wrong with loving the food before you eat it ... Cause a happy animal is a tasty animal."
Heafner in turn credits the animals with helping to save Pesic. When they bought the land, Pesic suffered from anemia and an immune deficiency and says that once she began eating meat, her health improved.
"I was so sick, I'd be in bed for days," she says. This from a woman who routinely works 16-hour days in the blistering Lake Elsinore heat.
It's that kind of resiliency that has made Da-Le successful. When they first began farming 12 years ago, the main source of income was their worm farm. Soon, however, Pesic began intensively researching how to raise larger animals. As we walk the grounds, guinea fowl, ducks, geese and chickens roam freely. "It's not good for 'em to stay put," Heafner says. "And, they get to eat directly from the land," adds Pesic. "Bugs like maggots and spiders are great for them."
At nighttime, they are returned to their "living community," an enclosed area where they "live in harmony," says Pesic. Otherwise, they could fall prey to predators such as coyotes.
Many of the animals, including their flamboyant Bourbon Red heritage turkeys, are fed a proprietary grass-based feed. Others, such as the cows, subsist primarily on alfalfa. Heafner explains that their cows are "grass-fed and grass-finished," which means they're never fed corn or other foods such as candy, to fatten them up before slaughter.
This strict adherence to a grass-fed diet comes at a price. Every five weeks Heafner pays $8,000 for a truckload of alfalfa. "It's really expensive," admits Pesic, "but we do it because it's healthier for the cows and for our customers."
Pesic says that pigs and chickens, in contrast, cannot live on more than 20% grass. Therefore, she supplements their diet with peas, corn, millet and oats.
Da-Le specializes in heritage animal breeds, that is, traditional breeds that were routinely raised prior to the rise of industrial agriculture. "We're not a ranch that needs to feeds the masses, so we can run a truly sustainable farm," Heafner says.
They use previously owned farm equipment. Feed is fortified with "salvaged foods," foods that are still edible but too unattractive to sell to consumers.
On days when Heafner sells his meat at area farmers' markets, he brings home leftover vegetables and broken eggs that either get mixed into feed or get composted. "It cuts down on what goes into a landfill," Pesic notes. In an effort to "waste nothing," Pesic recently began making stock from animal bones to sell at farmers' markets. Heafner says customers love it: "Most people just don't have the time to make stock from scratch. So we do it for them."
Not everything on the ranch has been a success. Pesic takes me to an area housing about 15 chickens. "This is a costly experiment," she says, resignedly. These former factory-farm chickens had lived in cages their entire lives. "They were de-beaked, with clipped wings and no feathers," Pesic says. "It was so sad. I wanted to save them."
Although the chickens are doing much better—their beaks have started growing back, and they sport richly colored feathers—Pesic says they don't roost or fly and are prone to mites. "They're just not as healthy as the birds born here," she says.
In contrast, Pesic's decision to become a certified "master incubator," which allows her to care for and hatch chicken eggs, has become a significant part of their business. They also sell duck, guinea fowl, quail, turkey, goose and pheasant eggs.
Although Da-Le Ranch raises animals, nearly all the meat is slaughtered, processed and packaged at different USDA approved facilities from San Diego to Northern California, with most in the central part of the state. The vacuum-sealed meat is returned to one of their local USDA approved cold storage facilities in one to four weeks, ready for them to take to farmers' markets.
Da-Le meats are sold at 17 farmers' markets throughout Southern California and can be ordered ahead of time. They sell as much of the animal as possible ranging from pork chops, sirloin and chicken breast to beef tongue and lamb kidneys. A wide selection of sausages, ground patties and bacon are available. If they don't have what you're looking for, just ask.
"We listen to our customers. We grow what our customers want," says Heafner.
As for Da-Le's future, Heafner says, "We're not tapped out on growth yet." They are currently looking to hire a couple of people to help with their burgeoning farmers' market business.
They also admit (to my dismay) that they have considered leaving California and moving to a state that is friendlier to small farmers. "California has legislated some small farms right out of business," Pesic says.
As for now, they are here in San Diego, waking at dawn and working hard seven days a week. "We haven't taken a vacation in 19 years," says Heafner.
"It's true," Pesic concurs. "I love the animals. I need to be here for them."
Lucky animals. Lucky us.
24895 Baxter Ranch Rd, Lake Elsinore, CA 92532