I drive north of Santa Clarita and head west on Highway 166. After another hour of driving on a desolate road, I hit the Cuyama Valley. It is a sparsely populated area that is predominately farmland. I am here on a mission. I want to see where the eggs, beef and poultry I have been eating come from.
I turn off on a dusty dirt road and pull into the SZ Ranch. Here I meet up with Steve Zaritsky, the owner of the ranch. It’s a beautiful piece of property, nestled up against the foothills.
First off, I want to see the chickens. Steve raises chickens for eggs. They are all the same breed, Rhode Island Reds, and they produce beautiful brown eggs. The breed of the chicken determines the egg color.
We enter a chicken coop that contains 600 chickens. The first thing I notice is the smell. More specifically the lack of smell. The chicken coop smells wonderful. The floor is lined with fresh wood shavings.
A chicken watering system takes up a good portion of the coop. All along one wall are roosting perches and laying boxes for the chickens. Each chicken lays about one egg per day. Chickens naturally want to nest in their box when laying an egg, though eggs can occasionally be found outside of the boxes.
These are free-range chickens. They have access to the outdoors. Standing there among 600 chickens is absolutely mesmerizing and I could have watched and listened to them for hours. There is a lot going on.
It’s easy to see where the term ‘pecking order’ comes from. There are some chickens that are clearly in charge. The chickens are softly clucking among themselves communicating in their own language.
Outside, chickens are busy as well. There are chickens running around scratching at the ground and eating bugs. There are chickens taking dust baths, something they naturally do.
The eggs are collected daily. They are then washed and each egg is ‘candled’ by hand. This is a process where the egg is held in front of a bright light and examined for faults or cracks. The bad eggs are tossed and the good eggs are packaged up and sold.
The end result are eggs that are wonderfully fresh and have dark yellow yolks.
We then move on to a different coop. Here there are turkeys and chickens that are being raised for meat. This is not as big as the egg-laying operation. Today there are beautiful plump white chickens lounging around blissfully unaware of their future fate. Turkeys are being raised as well, they are heirloom breeds and are normally available by special order.
Moving on, we head to the hills to see the cattle. We hop onto a ranch truck and drive through the rolling hills. Here, the cattle are free to roam. The cattle are 100% grass fed.
Beef from grass-fed cows is very different than conventional beef. Grass-fed beef is normally not graded. So, you won’t find USDA Choice grass-fed beef. That’s because this beef is typically leaner than cows fed grain. Grass-fed beef also has a richer more buttery taste to it.
The only down side to grass fed beef is that it is most costly to produce. So, expect to pay more. However, grass-fed beef is healthier than traditional grain-fed beef. Grass-fed beef can contain up to 5 times more healthy Omega-3s than grain fed beef.
As we drive through the cows I make a request to get up-close-and-personal with one of them. One of the ranch hands seems to know the personalities of the cows quite well. He points me to a specific cow. I’m able to walk right up and touch the cow and it doesn’t seem to care in the least.
Back at the ranch house, I sit down for a great lunch tri-tip from the ranch cooked Santa Maria style. We are in Santa Maria County and meat here is cooked over Oak.
I chat with Steve and his wife Connie about how they got into this business. Steve was in the commercial egg business and at one point was overseeing 1.6 million egg laying chickens.
He sold the business and retired in 2000. After moving to Cuyama, Steve and his wife had a pumpkin patch that they opened at Halloween. His wife thought it would be neat if they also had some baby chicks. So, they got several hundred chicks for the holiday. After it was over, the question arose about what to do with the chicks.
That is how Steve got into the egg business for the second time. He raised the chickens and began selling eggs at the Bakersfield Farmers Market. The demand has grown from there. He moved on to raising a few cattle as well. Today, his herd of cattle stands at 226 and he has 4800 chickens. His ranch is also certified organic.
Steve calls over his three ranch hands and begins introducing all of them. He then gets all choked up as he talks about all of the hard work that they put in on the ranch. “I just couldn’t do any of this without them,” he says.
And that is what I found on this trip. I found a ranch that values its workers and treats its animals with dignity and respect. But to Steve, it is all about turning out a quality product. “When people come up and tell me how great my products are, I get the chills. And you can’t put a price on that.”
This philosophy seems to be paying off. The ranch recently expanded their egg operation and added the Hollywood farmers market to the growing list of farmers marketer they sell at.
SZ Ranch sells eggs, beef and poultry every Saturday from 8 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. at the Old Town Newhall Farmers Market located at the Old Town Newhall Library.