Liz Kellar

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April 22, 2011
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Building a farm

A old-fashioned barn raising has been in progress for the last few weeks off Red Dog Road - a concrete manifestation of the determination of a growing number of young farmers to wrestle a living out of the notoriously poor soil of Nevada County.

Although the Rocker Farm project has been hampered both by bad weather and by a number of practical setbacks, the barn was roofed last Sunday, and soon will hold a flock of chickens.

Farmer Matthew Shapero already has 15 lambs in a pen on the acreage above Nevada City, and hopes to establish a permanent breeding flock of eight to 10 sheep, as well as raising ducks for eggs and goats for brushing.

Rocker Farm is one of the newest of 10 sites in the Living Lands Agrarian Network, a nonprofit organization that offers training and mentorship.

Members give young farmers a leg up by providing housing, affordable land and financial backing on a network of farms. The project links willing property owners who want to lease their vacant fields to farmers.

In return, farmers, interns and volunteers enrich once-fallow soil to grow flowers and vegetables sold to local restaurants and farmers markets and through Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions.

The property had been on Living Lands' radar for a couple of years, and members originally had looked at the acreage for use as a vegetable farm, Shapero said.

"In hindsight, the soil is quite poor," he said, adding the parcel's natural meadow will be much better suited for raising livestock.

"What (feels) special is that it will be unlike any other Living Lands site, it will be devoted just to animals," Shapero said. "A few of us are feeling impassioned about what animals can do for agriculture ... I felt strongly that I wanted to work with animals, as the genesis of fertility on the farm."

Shapero, a Santa Barbara native, attended Columbia University in New York City and was well on his way to a career in medicine before turning to farming.

"I was not raised in agriculture. I barely cared about agriculture," he said. "But I started reading about it, and for whatever reason I got really worked up about the issues and the ecological and political implications."

When a planned job working on an ambulance fell through, he ended up spending a year on a vegetable farm in Long Island and "fell in love ... I was happy that my intellectual interest matched my passion for the physical work."

Shapero knew he wanted to return to California and reconnected with a childhood friend who was apprenticing as a farmer with Living Lands.

The friend introduced him to Tim Van Wagner and Leo Chapman in what Shapero calls a "serendipitous connection."

Last year, Shapero was a journeyman and ran his own business out of Living Lands' Bluebird Farm, where he is still raising pigs.

"I signed up for a year," he said. "I basically knew nothing about animal raising. I learned everything I know last year."

Shapero's next step was to develop a new site, and chose the "magical, beautiful" land off Rocker Road.

But along with the magic came a ton of headaches.

"If we had known then how much work it would take to develop ... but we were smitten," Shapero said with a laugh.

Volunteers were hard at work clearing brush by early November for the access road.

"It was a nightmare," Shapero said. "The soil was more moist than anticipated, and took more rock than anticipated, so the cost skyrocketed."

According to Shapero's blog, the soggy muck ended up sucking up 135 tons of rock before it was done. Fencing nine acres also was much harder to install than anticipated, taking three months instead of a week.

"The property is extraordinarily wet," Shapero said. "There are either a lot of springs - or a broken NID pipe."

Now Shapero is trying to finish up the barn, as well as getting in electricity and water.

"It's a lot of work in all directions," he said. "The barn is the most exciting and noticeable."

The barn raising was supposed to start Feb. 12, but the weather pushed the start date back to the beginning of April.

"Tim and I, we're not builders - we had no idea," Shapero said. "We thought we could do it in a week."

The volunteers scavenged 22-foot-long locust poles from throughout the county that weighed as much as 600 pounds each. Luckily, Chapman is a former contractor and provided a lot of help.

The clock was ticking, Shapero said. He was expecting 150 chickens on Thursday and has another flock brooding temporarily at another farm.

In preparation, he has built a mobile chicken tractor - a "moveable coop, if you will." He hopes he can take care of his water needs by getting a neighbor's permission to tap into an NID ditch up the road; there is overgrown piping already on the farm.

Shapero is planning a work party/fundraiser for Rocker Farm, possibly over the Memorial Day weekend - the information will be posted on the Livings Lands website.

In the end, all the labor will have been worth it, he said. Rocker Farm is intended to be a training ground - not just for Shapero, but for future farmers as well.

"During the barn raising, we were talking about what an incredible manifestation this is" of the Living Lands ethos, Shapero said. "It's bigger than my farm business - it's for the Living Lands legacy."

For information: Go online at, or follow Shapero's blog at

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail or call (530) 477-4229.

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The Union Updated Apr 22, 2011 11:03PM Published Apr 22, 2011 10:59PM Copyright 2011 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.