PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif.—Carl Kepner, 48, owner of Kepner Farms, says his career is in his blood.
With Jewish-German farming ancestry on one side of his family and Spanish and Apache grocery store owners on the other, Kepner has found a happy medium as a small-scale rancher selling high-quality products at local farmers markets. And his customers are eating it up.
“It is as fresh as if you were living at the ranch,” said Kepner. “So if you were to buy a chicken today, it was walking early yesterday morning.”
At the Pacific Palisades Farmers Market on Sunday, Kepner sold fresh chicken eggs, whole chickens, chicken breasts, legs, and thighs, and ground lamb from his 25-acre ranch in west Riverside County and east Orange County near Lake Elsinore. Sometimes he also sells duck eggs.
Kepner Farms doesn’t use any GMOs, antibiotics, or hormones, and the land has never been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides. Kepner says his products exceed the qualifications needed to be certified as organic, but he doesn’t plan on going through the organic process. He believes the certification is not strict enough and allows many loopholes.
“The way I farm, it’s called permaculture, which is kind of the old-fashioned way of farming, which they do really all around the world. It’s just now they’ve tagged it as this new term,” he said.
Permaculture, which means “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture,” was coined in the 1970s by Australian Bill Mollison. It’s a way of mimicking the self-sustaining balance naturally found in nature. Supporters argue that the principles, which focus on caring for the earth and other people, while using resources fairly, can be applied to all aspects of human behavior.
“It’s really farming as it was 80–100 years ago,” said Kepner. “It’s not reinventing the wheel. It’s rediscovering the wheel.”
Kepner allows his animals to run freely in open pasture and benefit from the extra nutrition of the wild plants and insects in the soil. He said he can see the difference between factory farming and his ranch just by looking at the demeanor of his animals. They know his voice, don’t run away from him, and even allow people to pet them.
“When you do farm more naturally like permaculture, the whole circle of life is tremendously happy,” said Kepner. “That’s not being mystic. That’s just how people live, I think how you’re supposed to live.”
Kepner also places a strong focus on water management, especially amid the recent California drought. He doesn’t dare import water to irrigate the land and instead supplements his sheep herd’s diet with organic alfalfa if the foliage becomes too scarce. The ranch’s water needs are taken care of by three wells on the property.
Since the land sits at 2,000 feet in the mountains facing the ocean, the ranch does experience enough rainfall to keep the wells filled, but in recent years the normal 25–30 inches of rain has decreased to about 16 inches. As a result, a stream running through the land has been dry for the last few years, and the farm has had to be extra prudent with water use.
It helps that the sheep at the ranch are drought-tolerant and shed their fur, so they don’t need to be shorn to escape the summer heat. The species of sheep is called Doper, and while popular in South Africa, it’s relatively new in the United States.
“People love the meat. It’s sweet,” said Kepner. “We can’t even keep it stocked. When we take the lamb to market, it’s sold out within eight weeks, and then we wait another twelve before we take more.”
Customers also rave about Kepner’s products online.
“They have the best eggs I have ever had!” said Reyn H. from Los Angeles on Yelp.
Patrick H. from Long Beach said his company’s booth is next to Kepner’s booth at Long Beach’s Wednesday farmers market.
“From day ONE they have had a steady stream of happy customers,” he said.
Kepner recently left town for a four-week trip through Asia and Europe in search of some fresh new ideas to make the ranch and his farmers market strategy even better, especially regarding his sheep herd.
A highlight of the trip will be Mongolia, which has 2.8 million people and a sheep population at least several times that number. Kepner will visit remote nomadic tribes who raise sheep, reindeer, and horses using traditional methods and investigate how they sell their livestock at local markets.
Kepner also plans to soon open up a drive-through organic market somewhere in the Los Angeles area.
Overall, Kepner hopes to influence the food culture in the United States by educating his customers on the health value and other positive outcomes of buying local, sustainably raised food. He has found plenty of people who appreciate his philosophy.
“That’s why I love farming,” he said. “I’m not lying. I’m not exaggerating either. I love it. I love farming, and I just can’t believe it.”