Turkeytail Farm | Yankee Hill, CA

First-generation farmers Cheetah Tchudi and Samantha Zangrilli spent nearly 10 years building Turkeytail Farm “paycheck-to-paycheck.” Over time, they diversified their farm and farming practices to raise animals, grow gourmet mushrooms, and tend herbs and flowers. Their direct-to-consumer model included a CSA program, farmers markets and restaurant sales.

But in November 2018, the Camp Fire burned their water system and electrical panel plus their house, greenhouse and barn. The livestock survived – some hauled away to the safety of a friend’s house, others sheltering in place on the farm. Then the couple faced the daunting task of fire clean-up without the benefit of insurance.

Recently, Samantha and Cheetah sat in the living room of Cheetah’s parents’ home – which was not destroyed by fire – and looked out over their new greenhouses and yurt as they talked about the Camp Fire, and their plans to rebuild.

A Conversation with Samantha and Cheetah:

SAMANTHA: I’m Samantha Zangrilli.

CHEETAH: I’m Cheetah Tchudi. Together we are Turkeytail Farm.

We were first founded in 2008, where we moved to a raw piece of property in the foothills of Butte County. We started from scratch with just an existing wellhead. So we established power, our pump house, and began building infrastructure and fences.

Q: How do you describe Turkeytail Farm?

CHEETAH: Our mission is really a diversified farm. We used to raise lamb, pork, chicken, duck eggs, gourmet mushrooms, cut flowers, and value-added herb products.

The premise behind the farm is doing things in synergy, never using anything just once. And so examples of that would be the by-product of our mushroom farming operation – basically the leftover substrate from farming mushrooms – we would re-cook that and then use it as a feed supplement for our poultry. Our poultry, which were pasture-raised, would then deposit manure onto the pasture and strengthen the pasture for the sheep that came behind them. The manure from the pig operation would then go to feed the flower farm, and then when we pull weeds from the flower farm we would then feed those to the sheep as supplemental feed. By doing things smaller scale with greater diversity, we try to make it more profitable in the end.

Q: How did the farm evolve?

CHEETAH: We do this as a married couple. We built our own home and barn. We did it paycheck to paycheck, basically taking odd jobs as farmers tend to do as necessary to build it up. We used a lot of salvage, milled a lot of my own lumber for some of it.

SAMANTHA: We had work parties to fill in the walls of our house with our friends. And then every birthday or holiday I’d be like, “Can I have running water?” Or, “Can I have a washer and dryer? And can I have a shower with a wall?" That’s how we built our house over seven years.

Then in 2014, I quit my job in town and started farming full-time. We started our CSA. We started selling to grocery stores and farmers markets. I did supplemental craft fairs and pop-up shops. And then I did private sales, where I would just deliver to people’s houses as much as possible.

CHEETAH: Just prior to the fire, we were on the menu at several restaurants with our mushrooms as well. So, yeah. But largely direct to consumer, largely CSA-based program.

SAMANTHA: And we were just about done with infrastructure building. We had finally had a barn to store all of our equipment. We finally had pretty much all the equipment we would need… Like Cheetah said, we just got another major account, so we were really just about to make a good amount of profit from the business after years of building it up. We’re first-generation farmers. Cheetah’s parents bought this land, and we didn’t really have anything. We didn’t take any loans. We’re not going to go into debt. So we’ve just been little by little, building it up. I felt like we were just about to launch.

CHEETAH: And that’s where we were when the campfire hit.

Q: What was the impact of the Camp Fire?

CHEETAH: We’d been through forest fires before. It’s kind of expected up here. We spend a lot of our time brush-clearing with assistance from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, doing their conservation grants. So we’re pretty fire-savvy.

This was my third evacuation from the farm. So when we saw the plume of smoke and looked on the fire maps, we were pretty comfortable first thing in the morning. It’s like, “Okay, that’s Camp Creek Road. That’s two days away at least.” I was reticent to even start prepping to leave. But as the morning went on, we realized this was a little different. So we started hitching up trailers and loading what livestock we could.

SAMANTHA: The power went out, and that’s when we decided that we were going to load up our freezer full of meat because we had just finished harvesting chickens two days before the fire. So we loaded up all of our meat. And we didn’t have any water as well.

In August, our well tends to go dry. Over the years we’ve realized that the row crops pretty much take a lot of the water, so we’ve done different things like invested in more water storage and gotten a pool so we could irrigate our crops. We were in the process of irrigating our crops with the pool, but the pool really had no water in it or else we would have stayed. We had nothing to fight the fire with.

And our ewes were lambing. We had like five lambs already on the ground, and at least seven more ewes pregnant. So I couldn’t justify staying here with all the smoke and the hazard with all the babies.

So we loaded up as many animals as we could. I got 60 ducks. I ran out of space basically. I couldn’t find anything else to put them in. And then my father-in-law’s car had all the meat products and tubs and his saxophone. My mother-in-law’s car had all the domestic animals, including cats. Cheetah’s car had more ducks and sheep and baby lambs. We had an intern at the time, a farmhand, so he hitched up a trailer to his jeep, had ducks. All my herbal products were in my fridge at my house. So I was like, “Oh my God. Well, let’s load this up too. If anything happens we can at least sell it and make some income.” He also managed to get a freezer on his trailer, and a bale of hay. And then we were like, “Okay it’s 1 o’clock, it’s time to go.”

CHEETAH: We started hearing propane cylinders exploding on the other ridge. We started seeing some flames lick over. We’re right across from Paradise, basically just over Lake Oroville from there. When we saw flames in central Paradise, and we had law enforcement and fire department tell us to get out of here. Indeed, as we went up the road, we saw the fire rolling down the hill. They had set up dozer lines actually the year prior, and so I was feeling pretty secure still that they were going to hold this line. But in the end that didn’t turn out to be the case.

SAMANTHA: When we evacuated, my car had our guardian dogs and Haro because we needed him until the very last moment to get everybody in. So we couldn’t take half of our sheep flock, which was all of our lambs ready for butcher, and we couldn’t take 26 pigs.

We went in to Oroville, regrouped. Because there was such a huge traffic jam, we couldn’t wait in traffic. We went all the way around into Biggs so that we could get to our friend’s farm. We didn’t even get there until five. So it was a very long journey there, and then we still had to go to North Chico because we didn’t bring any electric fences at the time. We had to unload our sheep in our friend’s horse corral, and my ducks.

Down the street from where we initially landed our freezer, my best friend’s farm was there, so we stayed with her because she had an extra room. There were seven dogs in her house and five cats for a week. Then we moved all the sheep, all the ducks, because it was just too much driving across town with all the traffic and everything, everybody transitioning to living in Chico and getting to work.

Q: When were you able to care for the animals left on the farm?

CHEETAH: Typically, in the past, when we get evacuated it’s like two, three days maybe, that we’re out. So you split a couple sacks of feed, leave in a bale out, and you can feel pretty secure that you’re going to be home in a couple of days. But something about the Camp Fire, they couldn’t get it out, and even when they were starting to get to containment they were reluctant to let people back in.

Thankfully, our Ag commissioner went to bat for commercial farmers and they got us this special permit that got me back into the active burn area. So I grabbed the sheep dog, Haro, loaded up on feed and hay. I knew a neighbor that had a pretty strong well and a generator, and he was coming in at the same time. I networked with him and started trailering water from his property to mine, because our whole water infrastructure had burned to the ground, so like two 5,000-gallon tanks, the pump house, all the electrical had completely burned to the ground. Even if I could fire up the pump, there was no real way to wire it up, at least at that time.

And so yeah, just drove straight back into the burn scar. To my great surprise, all the sheep and all the pigs had survived. There was a big livestock trough that I’d filled with butternut squash that I’d gleaned from a friend’s farm. He was about to rototill all this squash in. And the trough had melted just enough that all the pigs and the sheep could jump in and out of it. And so that’s most likely what saved them in those few days is the moisture in the feed from these butternut squash. Just serendipity there.

SAMANTHA: And the u-pick cherry lady down the road from us, she never left. She has a spring. So she was taking care of everybody’s animals on this road. There’s over 100 animals, and she dished what water was left out for the pigs. I think that wasn’t until day five or something though.

CHEETAH: Yeah. It was pretty much chaos. By all accounts, for the first several days they weren’t exactly fighting the fire, they were just trying to get people out. There wasn’t an option for containment in a very real way.In the circumstance of our house, it wasn’t until much later that the winds changed and it just came and took our house one night.

My job during those 26 days was to ferry materials back and forth. Basically all of the fences were smashed by a tree that had fallen with it. So, day two, I came up with my chainsaw and started removing trees from the fences, gathering up what electric fences hadn’t burned, any materials that I could rebuild my gates with, and basically herded all these pigs and sheep back into one big pen. And then from there I figured out a clever way to get my trailer onto the property so that I could export the last of the sheep and just get them harvested, get it done. Because there was too much to handle.

SAMANTHA: While he was doing this, I was in town. We were basically separated the whole time, that whole 26 days, because he was up here taking care of all of this. And I was in town taking care of all those animals because we were still evacuated and not allowed to bring anything back. I was taking care of all the sheep, I was putting them in my best friend’s landlord’s orchard, that wasn’t taken care of. So, I had to cut back all the trees before I could even get the sheep in there.

And they were still lambing. I had a premature lamb at the time, so I had a bottle baby, and I had to put a diaper on it. It’s the first I’ve ever diapered a livestock animal. But it was okay. I got free diapers, thank the Lord, or else I wouldn’t have done it. And I got goat milk from a crazy goat lady in town. And we traded. I traded her cat food that I was getting, so it all worked out.

I was basically just finding us relief. Everything was gone. We were left with basically nothing. I grabbed some socks for him and sweat pants and a pair of shorts for me. So I was getting clothes and toiletries and lots of donated items.

We immediately came up with our story in email form and sent it out to all these people, because we had just made huge purchases. We had just purchased a steel roof for our side barn, we had just purchased and re-fabbed a laminar flow hood for mushroom cultivation… Basically what my role was, was like, “How are we going to be able to pay to get our lifestyle back again?” Because if you had insurance – we were not insured – then you have a chunk of money that you can just go and buy your life with again, buy the things that you need for your business again. And then it’s relatively easier to go on with business because you can get back to your life faster. But there is a big delay in what normal will be for our experience because we’re living on bubble gum and toothpicks.

Q: What else have you done to recover from the fire?

CHEETAH: After the 26 days, basically marshal law was lifted. The military police left, the cops abandoned their blockades, and we were allowed to come home. We were able to buy a fifth wheel trailer and get it brought on to the property –

SAMANTHA: The day that the evacuation was lifted, so that was really lucky –

CHEETAH: But still no functional running water or power, really, on the property. And then as this all happened, FEMA and Butte County got into a disagreement about what could happen in the burn scar. Basically, Butte County said “Paradise residents, you’re welcome to go home, hook up to your septics and re-establish your life there even though it’s in the burn scar.” FEMA turns around and says, “Well, Butte County, if you’re going to allow your citizens to return to a disaster area, we’re going to pull our funding.” So basically it was like a $1.4 billion threat from FEMA to pull out and not do the clean-up program.

All these people that had moved their trailers home were now forced to leave. And I myself had pulled a permit to re-establish our power to put in a new power panel, and basically Butte County was not going to come out inspect. Even if I did the work, they weren’t going to come and take a look until our debris removal is done, because we have our burnt down pump house, burnt down trailer that housed our intern, and our own home and barn that were all lying in a pile of ruble, and all potentially toxic debris.

I saw that potential when I first got home and set these wattles, these straw tubes that they use in disaster recovery and erosion control. While our mushroom greenhouses had burned down, the mushrooms actually were still alive. So I set up these bunkers surrounding the burned vehicles and burned structures that hopefully when the rains hit, these bunkers would be collecting that run off. And fungi can actually break down some of these persistent toxins like poly-cyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and dioxins. Certain fungi can hyper-accumulate heavy metals. As soon as I got back I figured out that, “Yes, we’re sitting in this toxic pool for the moment,” and set up these stop-gaps at least in the meantime.

Now had the task of we had to get debris removed to get off of generators to get back connected to the grid and have the option of really re-establishing our water system. So for basically six months we were trailering water onto the property, running generators for both my needs and my parent’s needs.

Thankfully, I’ve got a friend who’s a contractor and he helped in the Katrina recovery so he was really well-poised to take on the situation. So him and I teamed up and we started going to county offices and figuring out how private contractors could be eligible for the clean-up program. It’s not a rapid process, but rather than waiting nine months to a year to get debris removed and then to start in reconstruction, we were able to get our debris removed pretty quickly compared to a lot of people.

SAMANTHA: We had to pay out of pocket for it.

CHEETAH: Right. Yeah. Because he’s my friend, he probably didn’t make much money off of us at all, if any, but we were able to scrape up all the debris, get clean soil samples, get a power panel installed. We had electricity again to run power tools. Then we began rebuilding the pump house and starting to think about getting some normalcy with the farming operations.

All of our electric fences had melted, so we had to start buying new fences so that we could house the animals we already had. We borrowed some electric fences from elsewhere. The other thing that we kind of made a priority right away was getting the mushroom program back on track. So even before we were approved for debris removal, I purchased a cargo trailer and began to retrofit it as a mushroom cultivation space. We now are producing mushrooms again. We’re getting them back into restaurants and farmers’ markets. We took our burnt-down greenhouses and put them on the slab foundation of our home, just for a little bit more hygienic, clean setup. That’s a small luxury in the face of the disaster. It’s kind of an upgrade for the greenhouse setup.

Q: Have there been any new opportunities to arise after the fire?

CHEETAH: As a by-product of this experience, I’ve gotten a nonprofit sponsor and I’m attempting to do a program which offers free bio-remediation services to individuals living in the burn scar. They may have a situation where, perhaps, their main structure didn’t burn, but say, they lost vehicles or outbuildings. In this circumstance, you might not be eligible for the CalOES clean-up, the public clean-up program. Instead, Butte County gives you a little certificate that says you’re allowed to take your own ash and debris to the dump, and you’re on your own for removal of that debris. So you’re paying someone to take your burned car away, you’re hauling your burned sheet metal to the dump yourself.

The problem I see there is that no requirement for soil testing is there. And even if you did soil test, the notion of removing soil is cost-prohibitive. It’s so expensive to take soil to the dump right now. The idea I’m working on and seeking sponsorship from a couple different organizations is, basically, I would come to your property. I test your soil for heavy metals, as well as persistent organic contaminants, and then custom-grow the fungi to break down or uptake those specific heavy metals and toxic hydrocarbons. That’s kind of the new non-profit branch of the farm.

Grant writing is slow going, and the people allocating grants move even slower, unfortunately, so we’re still waiting for money to drop for this program. But in the meantime, I’m also doing a no-cost workshop on mushroom cultivation, bio-remediation using fungi.

Q: What about next steps?

CHEETAH: Hopefully, we’re getting out of the trailer. We’re hoping to sell our trailer and get into our yurt for this winter, just so we can get back to using wood fire heat as opposed to propane. We were bleeding propane money pretty hard last winter.

We’ve had to downsize our flock and are working on downsizing our pig operation, at least in the short term, so that we can have a little bit more energy for re-establishing infrastructure. We’re definitely turning the farm site a lot more towards mushroom cultivation, diversifying there, and increasing volume. We’re also at least tapping the brakes on the flower program right now, sticking with just dried cultivars so that we don’t necessarily need to be as dependent on the farmers market. And then, Sammey’s been making a whole host of value-added herb products as well.

SAMANTHA: We’re expanding the hydrosols to have different varieties, and I am coming up with a big collection of essential oils, so I do hope to sell my own essential oils as well... Perennial herbs are hardy and they don’t take a lot of water after they’re established. So that’s nice. And I do some art too. I’m focusing more on the art so that I can just relax.

Q: What lessons did you learn from the fire?

CHEETAH: The fire department is greatly underfunded. They never had a chance with this fire to get a handle on it right away. The Global Supertanker is a great step in the right direction.

 I’ve talked to a lot of firefighters since this event and I’ve always been on the philosophy that when the fire comes and they say to evacuate, you leave. Just get out of their hair, get out of their way, they don’t need another consideration. The more I talked to firefighters, we’ve decided (next time) to stay. We honestly, physically can’t afford to go through this again.

In rebuilding the farm, I’m building in multiple redundancies for firefighting. There’s gravity feed systems for filling tanks, multiple generators and backup pumps so that we could either pump out of the pool, pump out of a separate storage tank, have a mobile trailer as a firefighting rig that way. And then, I’ve also built in a switch on our main pump house that basically, at any time we can throw the switch, when the power goes out, and still be able to run our entire pump system. That’s 10,000 gallons worth of storage, which is far more than any water truck carries.

SAMANTHA: We’re always going to leave one of our tanks full. We’re always going to leave the pool full now.

CHEETAH: We plan to be more prepared. We’re continuing with our brush management practices, building in redundancy with firefighting abilities. And thank goodness, I left the keys in the tractor when we left, and the firefighters actually used it and then put it back out in the open when they were done. So keeping the tractor in great running order is going to be another part of it.

Q: What other precautions do you plan to take? What about insurance?

SAMANTHA: We’re looking into purchasing insurance, even though it’s incredibly difficult now. Even before the fire, it was hard to find insurance. But now, there’s only one company, after three months of two agents searching for me, and it’s almost $3,000 a year. So it’s gone up a lot, but it’s worth it. It’s taught us that it’s worth it, and it won’t always be that high.

CHEETAH: Well, it might go higher as we buy more stuff, that’s the thing, the more infrastructure we build. But yeah, coming back to your original question, it’s like my mentors always taught me, that a good farmer adapts.

This is trial by fire, literally. Everything we’ve built in the last 10 years is basically gone. We have to radically change our approach if we’re going to continue to want to do this. We’re going with a rapidly growing organism like mushrooms, and perhaps striking the poultry program from our farm for a while because it requires a lot of infrastructure. It requires a lot of time, and we know we need that extra time to rebuild our home.

Q: It sounds like even the definition of being a farmer is changing. And you always have one eye out toward potential disaster.

CHEETAH: Yeah. We’re forced somewhat to be jacks of all trades. If the tractor breaks down, I’m not taking it to a mechanic. Now that we’re rebuilding the farm the second time, I found that I’m a lot better carpenter than I used to be and I’m a lot better electrician. And it’s saved us thousands and thousands of dollars in the process. It is arduous work but somewhat rewarding to know that I can do all this stuff and we do have the ability to recover.

Q: Are there other threats from climate change above and beyond the constant threat of fire?

SAMANTHA: Drought.

CHEETAH: Season extension. The fact that we had such a horrible forest fire in November. November is our month when, typically, the rains are going to hit, the Aquifer recharges. Then August is our scary month where we try and ramp everything down and kind of take a little downtime because, yeah, it’s 103 degrees out.

There are some climate predictions that say our region is going to get more precipitation in the future, that kind of the San Diego latitude is going to move up. But at the same time, I know almond farmers and fruit farmers that they’re not getting enough chill degrees anymore...

Being that we’re a small scale and diversified, I think we’re a little more nimble than other farms, but probably don’t make as much money as those farms too.

Q: Going forward, what do you see in the next year, three years, five years?

CHEETAH: We have our business meetings every Monday and it’s always interesting, being married and running a farm at the same time. Never mind doing it through to a natural disaster. I’m glad we made it. We’ve seen a lot of marriages get torn apart in the last couple of months. But, yeah, the farm, in some ways, is a divide-and-conquer operation.

SAMANTHA: I got the herbs and the garden and the sales. I do all the sales, pretty much, all the farmers’ markets and pop-up shops, and I initiate sales on social media.

CHEETAH: Ducks are pretty much all yours. We kind of share the sheep. Pigs are mine and then mushrooms. I’d like to see the program go really mushroom strong. I feel like there’s economic opportunities in our region. There’s a couple of natural food stores that we haven’t gotten to, and our restaurants have been pretty eager to pick us up again. It’s another product that can be dried and also turned into value-added products. I’ve been branching out into some medicinals that I’ve never attempted before and starting to see some progress with that.

Q: Can you describe your property?

CHEETAH: We live on 40 acres. We’re about 1,200 feet vertically. I’d best describe it as an oak savannah. So we’ve got mixed oaks, so live oak, blue oak, black oak, manzanita, toyon, and a couple of different species of pine. Compared to a lot of our area, we’re fairly open and park-like setting. There’s been a lot of gold mining on this property historically, and so you can see what the original gold miners definitely did clear things out initially, after that, it was put into cattle for a long time.

SAMANTHA: It was also used for limestone mining.

CHEETAH: There is a limestone kiln just off the property… And so, when we actually got to the property, it had been in winter grazing cattle, and so the pastures were absolutely piss-poor. It was bare soil, no strategic grazing. They just turned them loose, and then the cows would go find their hangout spot. And since we do have these rolling hills, they would just run out the hill sides where they like to walk.

Something that was miraculous right after the fire, I thought we were going to have a terrible grass here, but all of our rotational grazing practices really had paid off. We do these fairly high-intensity, low-duration grazing that’s all the rage right now, but especially the poultry and fowl, make a huge impact on the land. We have these mobile pens that they move on to ground every day or so –

SAMANTHA: And electric fences so that they can do that –

CHEETAH: So when the fall rains hit, you can see these vibrant green squares on the pasture where the pens had been each day.

SAMANTHA: With grass that’s head high.

CHEETAH: Yeah, I was blown away. I thought the fire would have totally devastated our grass here, but it was totally flush. We had late rains, and so that’s really helped us out and not having a huge feed bill this spring, because typically, we supplement alfalfa and things like that during the summer months just for animal welfare and get the weight back up, back on them after lambing, stuff like that. But yeah, I’d say oak savannah, rolling hills...

SAMANTHA: We overlook the west branch of Lake Oroville. We have a view of the lake. And it was all at the top for a long time, longer than it’s ever has been. I think they were afraid to use the spillway. So it was really, really convenient because our pool wasn’t fixed from the damage that the fire did for seven months. We just got the pool fixed and filled up, which has also been a blessing, a little bit of recreation.

Q: You're planning to move into a yurt. Is that for the long-term or are you planning to rebuild?

CHEETAH: We’re trying to figure that all out right now. The yurt’s really small, so it’s not super conducive and it’s really hot in the summer, so it’s kind of our quick fix, inexpensive thing.

We’ve purchased a steel garage, basically, so that we can get our freezers back on site because my friend is kind enough to house two six-foot chest freezers in his garage for the last 10 months. So, we’re going to get freezers back on site, I’ve already run electrical back down there. We were donated a washer dryer so I just have the substation that’s like, sink, maybe a kitchenette, just something to get us rolling for now. Physically, I’m not sure how we’re going to pull it off. FEMA didn’t really give us any kind of assistance.

SAMANTHA: FEMA gave us nothing. We’re waiting. We have a case manager with the long-term recovery group, but she works part-time.

CHEETAH: And she’s been fantastic. She’s finding us resources that we didn’t know were available.

SAMANTHA: This whole game has been hurry up and wait. Hurry up and wait for FEMA to get back to you, hurry up and wait for CalOES to get their plan together to clean up your land, hurry up and wait for your soil tests, hurry up and wait to get a contractor, materials, money, everything.

CHEETAH: We’re still figuring it out, unfortunately. It was a labor of love. And like I said, it was paycheck to paycheck to get our first home just because we love what we do, but we’re not making money hand over fist doing it. Hopefully, if my grant takes off, that would provide some income. But yeah, the future is very unsure.

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