On a secret hillside in Aptos, a small group of young people imagined their own version of a “21st-century Hobbit village.” Then, they built it.
A network of tree houses, huts, domes, a goat paddy, an orchard, and most recently, an organic farm, the small neighborhood named Trout Gulch is really only just beginning to sprout.
Built on the wilderness that surrounds animation filmmaker Isaiah Saxon’s mother's house, Trout Gulch is the creative sanctuary of Encyclopedia Pictura, a three-man animation company made up of Saxon, Sean Hellfritsch, and Daren Rabinovitch.
Encyclopedia Pictura is working on countless ambitious projects, and they have been called the "directors of the future" by Esquire Magazine. Their successes—which include a very successful music video for Bjork—fuels a unique project as imaginative as their films.
Trout Gulch is becoming a mecca for DIY culture and sustainable living, with 18 friends now living cooperatively and productively amongst each other there. They also use composting toilets and make their own cheese from their flock of French Alpine goats.
“Everything is happening magically, nothing is forced. The people who are brought in are brought in from meeting people at the right time,” said Ryan Hett, the resident farmer who has been living and working on the organic farm for the past several months.
Hett is one of those people who was in the right place at the right time. The inspired farmer came into contact with Trout Gulch at the same time Trout Gulch was looking for a visionary farmer to help start their organic farm.
A couple of weeks ago, Trout Gulch Farm invited members of the community to share food, conversation and knowledge on their organic farm, which culminates at the highest point of the property, with the magical combination of an organic garden and an outdoor kitchen. Naturally, it's the space everyone gravitates towards each day.
"A Day at the Gulch" was something like a farm-to table-dinner without the pretention, followed by demonstrations in acorn tanning, wild mushroom scavenging and herbal tinctures. Two long tables overlooking the valley set the scene for a gourmet lunch, which included a shaved apple and fennel salad, whole sardines from the Monterey Bay and roasted root vegetables and other tasty offerings like bay nuts, the seeds of the Bay Laurel tree, which taste like a mixture of chocolate and coffee and can get you jazzed if you eat more than a few.
Hett took the time to tell Patch about the organic garden which he has been putting his back into since he was invited to live at Trout Gulch. Instead of paying rent, he planted a garden that the community now pretty much lives on.
"We've been eating a lot of Kale." said Hett, looking over the winter garden lush with leafy green kales and other brassicas.
The garden began with back-breaking work parties where everyone got "sweaty and alive and beautiful" digging massive holes in the not-so-fertile soil, only to fill them up again with nutrient-rich soil—a necessary component if you want your plants to survive.
Now, it's a flourishing patchwork of beds planted in the french intensive style— Hett cuts the recommended plant spacing by half, and since the residents of Trout Gulch are constantly grazing on the vegetation, the plants never end up crowding each other.
Hett also groups plant species with their symbiotic 'companions,' which helps eradicate bugs and bring nutrients to their roots, among other benefits.
“I didnt go to school for any of that stuff. I feel like the more time you spend in nature, the more you begin to recognize it and understand it,” said Hett.
Hett grew up in North Dakota, where farming is done a lot differently. He moved to Minneapolis, where he worked in restaurants during the winter and worked on farms and natural restoration projects during the growing season. Then a friend told him "California is like, the 'Mecca of Food,"' and so he landed in the Bay Area, found work at a farmers market. This led to a few acres of his own, and before he knew it he was making "cold calls" to restaurants and delivering flowers and vegetables.
“I come from a lineage of farming and agriculture, it’s definitely very present in North Dakota. But it’s all 'Big Ag'. As a youth it wasn’t attractive for me to get involved in,” Hett said.
Trout Gulch Farm couldn't be further away from 'Big Ag'. It's on the other side of the universe next to permaculture. In the summertime, greywater is diverted from the kitchen for irrigation.
There is no question that the progress accomplished at the Gulch is a result of multiple hands pitching in to get things done. Like the golden round loaves of the best bread you've ever tasted in your life that they pull from a homemade cob oven every day.
"They are actually pretty easy to build, and really fun to build together. You can build one in a day," said Cole Bush, a resident at Trout Gulch. The cob oven is built from stones, mud, and straw, and is centrally located next to the tables.
Bush specializes in the multitude of medicinal herbs she has found around the property, and gave guests a lesson on how to make herbal concoctions, including cleanses and tinctures.
“It’s really great. Someone mentioned earlier that there have never been more farmers who are artists too, and that’s really how it feels,” said Carsten Schwesig, 42, who showed up for the Day at the Gulch.
You can find out about the next Day at the Gulch, plus get the latest on the farm by visiting the Trout Gulch Farm Blog.