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We Are Where We Eat: Reviving Rio Linda's Poultry Culture

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(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Michael Frisk is at his Rio Linda ranch kicking the dirt in an attempt to penetrate a geological blockade.

"This is hard pan," Frisk says. "You can't plow it up. It's like clay. It's river bottom. You can't grow anything on it. You can't grow anything in it."

Hard pan is the scourge of Rio Linda's earth. It's an old compacted surface about 300,000 years old. Roots can't penetrate it. Water just sits on it.

Unbeknownst to Frisk's ancestors, this is what they would find under the land they'd bought -- sight unseen -- 92 years ago when they came West to plant fruit orchards. They weren't alone. The same thing happened to the grandparents of Bob Bastian, now president of the Rio Linda-Elverta Historical Society.

"My mother's side of the family came to Rio Linda in 1920 from Watertown SD to start a new life with the Suburban Fruit Lands Company to plant fruit trees," Bastion says. "Most of the trees were dead within three years."

The Suburban Fruit Lands Company was comprised entirely of Minnesota businessmen. They bought 12 thousand acres from the 1844 Del Paso Land Grant, then went back to Minnesota and sold off parcels for a profit. The company's promotional brochures didn't mention hard pan. But pictures showed a sunny Rio Linda with palm trees.

Joyce Buckland, author of a book about Rio Linda, says those palm trees were nowhere near Rio Linda. "Photographs of the palm trees that were in their brochures were actually photographed in Carmichael, CA," she says.

On the advice of the University Farm, now UC-Davis, the new Rio Lindans decided that if they couldn't grow much IN the dirt, they'd work on top of it.

They turned to chickens.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Rio Linda was the second-most important poultry center in California, after Petaluma. But it didn't last.

Frisk remembers when corporate buyers wanted farmers to stop letting hens  nest in Rio Linda's signature long wooden chicken houses, and switch to cages.

"My dad did not want to go to cages," Frisk says. "He's a softie and he thought it was inhumane."

Frisk says the cracks in Rio Linda's egg boom were caused by entanglements with  corporate egg giant Nulaid.

"Yeah, I saw the end of it," Frisk recalls. "Everybody was part of Nulaid. They invested with Nulaid. And Nulaid came and bought all the eggs. They also had their savings accounts with Nulaid and Nulaid tried to subsidize these large farms. They gave more credit, more credit, more credit. The feed went up. The price of eggs went down." 

Today, Frisk uses his land for boarding horses and a ministry.

But drive around Rio Linda's 15 square miles, and you'll see the remains of the old chicken culture. Rickety chicken houses have been saved for nostalgia. Homeowners who still keep chickens on their 1- and 2-acre plots let them roam free and block intersections.


As to the eggs, there's a new wave on the rise. Susan Hanks is a modern egg producer raising chickens the old-fashioned Rio Linda way - roaming free with a wooden chicken house for her hens to nest in.

She named her half-acre "Hanks Hens and All Things Good." She's up to 55 hens. She often cradles one of the mellow chickens in her arms. Hanks says these "ladies" are officially cage-free.

"Their feet touch the soil. They are not confined," Hanks explains. "The state of California says that a bird has to have so many inches of space and we exceed that by 10.

Not one of her hens lays an egg that remotely resembles a white supermarket egg.

"Americaunas lay blue and green eggs," Hanks says, describing how each chicken breed lays a corresponding type of egg. "Big Mama is a Buff Orpington and she lays a large, pink egg. Mini is a sex-link. She lays a beautiful, brown speckled egg."

Hanks is new to Rio Linda. Land here is cheaper than in her hometown of Petaluma.

"My father owned the feed mill and I grew up with poultry."

Hanks's eggs aren't cheap. She gets as much as $5 a dozen.

(Download Susan Hanks' recipe for quiche with greens and ham)

Is Susan Hanks part of a movement to reclaim Rio Linda's glory poultry days?

"That would be a wonderful way to see it," she says. "I think that Rio Linda is all about the small farm and certainly poultry is a huge part of it, and we've got it. Yeah, eggs are the mainstay."

If Rio Linda becomes known for these new designer eggs, this time it won't be because of hard pan and land scams.


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