Homesteading at Hanks Hens

Hanks Hens & All Things Good
As a person with a brown thumb and an ignorance of plants in general, the idea of homesteading is something that is way beyond me. Homesteading equals self sufficiency and that means growing and raising most of your own food. I certainly appreciate the premise, but am I built for that kind of life? Not very likely.

Someone who was bred for it is Susan Hanks. She and her husband, Paul, own Hanks Hens & All Things Good, a homesteading operation in Rio Linda. Susan says that she grew up with farming in her blood, which definitely was influenced by the fact that her family owned a feed mill operation near Petaluma. 

I met the Hanks when I went to an event at Feeding Crane Farm's Lulu Kitchen. She has developed a relationship with Feeding Crane that has greatly helped her own operation. Feeding Crane has helped connect her to local restaurants, such as Mama Kim's and Masullo Pizza, so that she can sell her eggs and herbs. You will also find Hanks Hens at a couple of farmers markets, including the one on 15th & Q on Tuesdays (starting May 6).

discussing manure
Susan is hosting a "farm tour" for some apprentices from Soil Born Farms' Grow Your Groceries classes. Adults can choose from a selection of classes and farm tours under the categories of either Urban Farmer or Home Gardener. There are about eight who have come to learn about turning smaller properties into homesteads or income producing properties.

Hanks Hens is located on just two acres that the Hanks bought as a foreclosure property. Susan explains that they are lucky to not be on hardpan and are, in fact, blessed with really great soil. As we walk the property our footprints actually sink down with each step, indicating lots of looseness and good drainage. It will be easy for the plant roots to grow. 

We start in their west garden where there are plans to prep it for the fall garden and add a few more fruit trees. Susan is filled with tidbits of gardening information that she's gathered over the years through experience and from talking with others. She explains how she is going to plant two long rows of corn to create shade for the plants that can't take direct sun. One of the apprentices asks about corn pollination and Susan explains that she just does it by hand, pulling pollen from the tassels and then touching it to the corn silks.

CW from top: lettuce, west garden, beautiful soil, main garden

We move over to her main garden where she is starting to prep for the summer planting. Susan explains different gardening methods: mounding rows, covering with plastic or straw, etc. It's here that we find a large toad hiding in the compost heap. "That's a good sign," she says. "It means that it is a healthy compost with out any contaminants in it." We discuss the use of manure and I learn that there is toxic manure that will actually sterilize your garden. If a horse is given feed that was treated with an herbicide, it can linger in their tract and into their manure. Then the manure will end up sterilizing your garden. If it's good for humans to know the farmers where our food comes from, then it's good to know where your manure comes from too.

Susan's best money crop, and what she is known for at the farmers market, is her herbs and teas, both fresh and dried. She will put together bundles of things such as Herbs de Provence that she then will cross-sell with nearby meat vendors. Some of her uncommon items she has that you won't find elsewhere are things like feverfew, pineapple sage, eight varieties of basil, and medicinal herbs. Her chamomile is very popular for making tea.

As we walk around we meet a few chickens. Georgia, a Rhode Island Red, is a feisty, large bird, but she doesn't mind being picked up and petted. There are 50 chickens on the property, 8 are free-range and the other 42 are split between two coops. Susan gets about three dozen eggs a day and you might have had one if you went to Mama Kim's for brunch. After their second molt, which happens yearly, they are on the downward slide for egg production. That's when they become someone's meal or backyard pet. Susan will sell her eggs and the chickens, but she does not breed and sell chicks.  Susan's daughter, Sydney, explains that the golf ball is put in the nesting bin because chickens like the feel of the fake egg. They think that if there is an egg already there, then it's a safe place to lay their own. 
Next we walk over and are greeted by the lambs and their moms. Susan keeps a few ewes to breed so that they can have lamb meat. These lambs are two months old and will go to slaughter in September when they are about six months old. Asked how animal slaughter is handled, she explains that her sheep are very friendly and have no problem being loaded onto a trailer. She takes them down to Dixon to a facility that she feels really comfortable with. Once the lambs go down the ramp, they really are not expecting what's coming and so the procedure is quick and humane. "You learn to detach yourself from the process," she says. "They've had very comfortable, well cared for lives." When I asked how she chooses which to lambs to keep, she explains that it's the well behaved, easier to control ones she keeps an eye out for. The last thing she wants to deal with is chasing them around. 

check out her chair/barrel shelves

Hanks Hens & All Things Good is open as a farmstand. Starting this Sunday, April 7th, Susan will be selling her plant starts, including 31 varieties of tomato plants. You can stop by on Sunday, starting at 9 a.m., or any time during the week that you see her farmstand sign out front. She also sells eggs and seasonal produce all year. 

Some of the tomato plants she'll be selling: Berkeley Tie Dye, Wapsigpinicon Peach, and Goldman's Italian-America. She also has a large selection of pepper plants.

Hanks Hens & All Things Good is at 340 W U Street in Rio Linda. Note that the signs don't say W U on them and that for my GPS, I had to enter W U versus West U in order to find it. 

For other Farm-to-Fork style stories like this one, click here: Farm-to-Fork