Building Community at the Homesteader’s Convenience Store

Lately I’ve been realizing that I married well. Not in the typical, societal ladder, Downton Abbey kind of way. Far from that. More like in a homesteader’s kind of way. Forget investment accounts and family crests, when it comes to spring water, pickles and chicken coops, we are set! And most recently, we hit the jackpot. My husband just landed a job at our local feed store, which in itself doesn’t sound like the most lucrative position, but this isn’t your basic feed store.

Mountain Feed and Farm, owned by Jorah Roussopoulos and his wife, Andi Rubalcaba, opened eight years ago and has since become a talk-of-the-town destination around these parts. “We really just want to be a homesteader’s convenience store,” says Jorah, of the unique inventory he has come to offer. But instead of cheap malt liquor and junk food, this “convenience store” offers books and kits on how to brew your own beer and heirloom seed potatoes to grow your own. “Planting seeds to canning jams, our goal is to be able to take people full cycle from production to preservation,” says Jorah. That means you can walk in and easily find the standards that most feed stores provide: pet products, livestock feed, seed propagation supplies, soil amendments, and anything for the home garden. But wandering in deeper will uncover the homesteader’s playground it really is, stocked full of inspiring project starters, hard-to-find resources, and just the right touch of crafty farm aesthetic to invoke admiration in the whole package.

As they grow and shift (and they are growing at a crazy pace, partly due to knowing good business and partly due to our economic times and the public’s increased DIY inclination) there is an obvious need to make sure that all staff are well versed in every department. They now staff 12-15 full time employees and each department has a “specialist” who is truly expert at helping the customer find what they are looking for and can offer tips and advice on any given project. This level of genuine skill, personality and service is one of the main things that Jorah is concerned with offering. That, and a diverse assortment of items put together with intention to make his business known as the “Sustainable Living Country Store.”

This is where my personal benefits start to become clear. A new series of staff workshops, focusing on anything from canning to pickling to bread baking to beekeeping, are on tap almost every week. And as a spouse, who likes food and happens to write about it a lot, I get a free ticket in.

The most recent class was at our house, and was all about cheese. Our tome was the user friendly, concise and informative book called “Home Cheesemaking“ by Ricki Carrol. It offers practical guidance, clear-cut recipes and a lot of background on the science involved in making cheese from bacteria to rennet to temperature requirements.  It’s a great resource for anyone who wants a comprehensive view of the processes, even if they decide to chuck it over their shoulder and opt instead for making their own coagulator from fig tree bark or scraping stomach lining from a sheep’s intestine to make traditional rennet.  The book tells you about these things too, at least, so you can decide for yourself.

Our long butcher-block counter was quickly crowded with half gallon canning jars of fresh goat milk, each one labeled with the date of milking and the name of the goat who contributed the bounty. Michael Zlotkin is the goat farmer who generously donated the milk to the cause, who also happens to be on staff at Mountain Feed. His little farm is in the beginning stages, but he has already figured out how to raise and butcher a cow, tend to a herd of goats, and acquire a live-in apprentice to start the crops.

A couple of pregnant ladies, a few tradesman, a skilled chef and marathon runner, two little kids, an Aikido disciple, a filmmaker and a bunch of excited homesteaders crammed into our little kitchen. Milk steamed, curds formed, cultures flew as we stretched and stirred and cut our way through much of those jars. The end result was two types of mozzarella (one more successful than the other spongy mass), a kefir and a feta, one brined, one not. All goat and all contributing to a sense of education, accomplishment, and ultimately, community. What’s more is that the consistency of these seminars serves as infective motivation to keep the ball rolling. My husband is now on a weekly cheesemaking mission. He’s been turning the compost way more regularly, initiating a large-scale red wine vinegar project and tending to our garden with renewed vigor. The trend of proactive capability and knowledge gathering spreads, from staff member to staff member, and I think that is really the true gem. Those ripples are spreading from one great business in our little mountain town out into our community and beyond.

Portions of this article were adapted from an original piece in the Spring 2012 issue of Edible Monterey Bay.

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