How Angeles Crest Creamery (And Its Goats) Are Recovering After The Bobcat Fire
On Friday, September 19 in the early morning, Gloria Putnam's phone buzzed with an alert: "A wildfire is burning near Big Pines Highway and Highway 2. EVACUATION ORDER, LEAVE NOW." The Bobcat Fire, which has since burned through almost 115,000 acres and destroyed at least 80 homes, was in danger of destroying everything she had worked for. Putnam scanned her ranch. The 72 acres held her 60 goats, 50 laying hens, four fluffy Pyrenees, two roosters and two pigs. All throughout and around the property grew dense fiddleneck and chamise, the tall chaparral teeming with smaller fauna.
About a decade ago, Putnam, a physicist, was hosting farm-to-table dinners and cheese-making classes out of the Altadena home she shared with her then-partner. This wasn't your standard family home but the historical Zane Grey estate, where the house boasted eight bedrooms and four bathrooms situated on a little more than an acre of land. It was enough space for her to raise 20 goats.
"Wow, this is so sustainable," her guests would comment. But the truth tugged at Putnam. She had the feed for the goats sent in and it was a menace on her conscience. She knew enough, by that point, to decide she should be raising ruminants on land where they could forage for their food. So she began imagining an agricultural project, one where she could establish a water-appropriate foodshed for Southern California's environment and didn't require her to fly in hay.
In 2014, Putnam opened Angeles Crest Creamery, a 70-acre ranch with a barn that houses four milking stations, two classic Airstream trailers and a tiny, yellow homesteading cabin, complete with a porch and an outdoor clawfoot tub, for visitors.
A self-proclaimed "serial educator," Putnam hosts the agri-curious, people looking to learn about farming, animals and nature. (Before COVID, agritourism was a popular niche in the travel industry.) At Angeles Crest Creamery, guests can milk goats, hike in the foothills alongside them as they forage and eat food prepared by Putnam from ingredients sourced almost entirely on the ranch -- colorful eggs, braised goat meat tacos, cajeta (goat's milk caramel), goat milk smoothies, goat cheese and jalapeno dip for tortilla chips. She also roasts her own coffee and has taught coffee roasting classes.
As the Bobcat Fire approached her land, all of that threatened to go up in smoke. Moments before leaving, Putnam shot a video of the ranch with her iPhone.
Although she's holding it together, her voice cracks as she narrates: "Alright, these are the last goats remaining. I'm about to leave in this thing." Putnam pans over to an orange utility vehicle. "I'm not coming back and -- this might be the last time that I see this place -- looking like this."
When I spoke with her in late September, Putnam said, "Every farm has an evacuation plan. We have a plan for if we have an hour and we have a plan for if we have 24 hours. Luckily, this was the 24-hour version."
The day before she and the goats evacuated, she had sent her horses to Mea Ola's Place, a horse sanctuary in Phelan, 23 miles to the east. Because of biosecurity issues with moving birds around (i.e. Newcastle disease) she decided to leave the chickens in their metal structures in the barn. The firefighters were protecting the barn anyway, she thought.
Putnam owns a horse trailer that fits up to 25 goats, and a dump trailer, the kind that brings your trash to the landfill, which can hold another 20. Several trips between Valyermo and her evacuation camp, located six miles downhill, brought her goats, safe and sound but skittish, to a large, empty lot with water and solar power. She hopped in the little utility vehicle with her hundred-pound Doberman, Reno, and joined her goats, pigs, Airstreams and a couple of friendly neighbors.
When Putnam bought these 70 acres in 2012, it was just her, 20 goats and one wheel of two-year-old gouda. Living here with the goats and eating the cheese she had made was satisfying and, more crucial for her, sustainable. But she had a larger question, "Is it scalable?"
Her dream wasn't simply to make this feasible for one person, Putnam wanted to make this workable for everyone. Ultimately, she wants to give back as much as she takes from the land.
"If there were enough people who wanted to do this, if you filled these mountains with goats and shepherds, could this be a foodshed for Los Angeles? I don't even know how to figure that out but it's kind of an interesting question," Putnam asks.
It's a question that had pestered me since the day I met Putnam in 2018, when she said, "The earth has 50 more harvests."
She was referring to soil erosion caused by pesticide-dependent farming techniques. In 2014, United Nations Food And Agriculture reported soil degradation was proceeding at such a rate that the planet had only 60 harvests left. The number is an average. Some countries, like the UK, had 30 to 40 harvests left while others, like the U.S., had closer to 90. Regardless of the precise figure, the message is clear: If humans don't change the way we farm, build and live, we will run out of soil to grow the food we need.
The U.N. report spawned a sustainability movement among some farmers and food producers, including Putnam. I had come to Angeles Crest Creamery to learn about goats and cheese but I wound up learning about soil -- and that's exactly what she wanted.
Each day since evacuating on September 18, Putnam has snuck back to her ranch to check on it. In the wake of the Bobcat Fire, the barn and cabin had survived but much of the shrubbery that the goats fed on had burned. The ranch's water structure had also been destroyed.
"There's so much loss but I know it's rejuvenating. I know we need fire. There's just not enough room in my brain to process all this," Putnam says.
On one of her trips, Putnam took note of what had survived, paying attention to what could still exist in this habitat. She noticed a beautiful joshua tree surrounded by its pups. She spotted a large juniper bush, full of the berries that are best known for flavoring gin.
"A lizard. I saw a lizard. No ravens. A family of ravens live on the property but I haven't seen them. I saw quail on the ground looking for water. The water infrastructure burned down completely," Putnam says, ticking off items on her mental checklist.
Since evacuating, Putnam has had to cancel and refund all of her Airbnb reservations, an important source of revenue for Angeles Crest Creamery. This comes after a series of events that had set her back financially. She took three years off to take care of her mother then returned to work before her mom passed away in November. In March, she had to cancel bookings at the ranch because of the coronavirus pandemic and had only started taking reservations in mid-August.
Putnam says all her animals have adjusted well to the evacuation camp. Katie and Abby, the two pigs, who weigh in at a combined 500 pounds, were the hardest to haul but now they're settled and bored. They're stuck in the smallest pen they've ever had and spend their days eating, drinking and sleeping -- like a lot of people during the pandemic. The dogs are having trouble adjusting to the water at the evacuation site, which comes from a small company that provides water for a handful of households in nearby Llano. Because it's a shared source, it's heavily chlorinated. Putnam brought her own water trailer filled with 300 gallons of water, which she and her neighbors used in the first couple of days.
Putnam has been able to set up one milking stand but her access to refrigeration is limited so she can only milk and chill as much as she and her fellow campers can use for the day. Usually, she'd be able to keep at least a quart of milk and turn it into cajeta, which she sells on the creamery's website. The goats are fine, with their perky tails wagging, as long as they get their alfalfa. But Apple, an earnest white Nubian doe, spends all her time away from the herd, staring in the direction of the ranch.
Until her goats can safely forage the land-- Putnam has been feeding her goats alfalfa. She gets it from a local feed store, Van Dam Farms in Littlerock, where her feedbill comes to $180 per day. To offset the costs, Putnam has launched a crowdfunding campaign that allows donors to purchase feed in $20 increments.
On Monday, September 20, Putnam recorded a video of herself talking to Apple. She says, "So, Apple, listen. I know you've been pretty worried about what's going on but this morning. Jim drove up there and he was able to get a look at the ranch. And he said as far as he could tell, nothing had burned, really. Even most of the forage land was saved." She exhales and her voice cracks, again. "That's right, you're gonna get to go home. You're gonna get to go home and finish the food. On the land."
Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worst after that video. Through a camera on the ranch Putnam was able to make out the smoke barreling through the land. Her porch furniture burnt to a crisp along with an old bus and then the water structure.
Until further notice, Angeles Crest Creamery will remain closed while Putnam deals with the damage to the pump house/water structure, which is connected to her main living space (there's no water, and there were some electrical issues).
On Saturday, September 26, when evacuation orders were lifted for Valyermo, Putnam and her goats returned to the ranch. Now, begins the arduous process of habitat restoration.
Much of the area the goats once foraged has been burnt and the property has a huge red stripe painted across the center, a fire retardant called Phos-Check. "The way the Forest Service describes it is practically non-toxic," Putnam says, wincing at the word "practically."
Even worse, the chickens were gone. Animal Control took them after the fire. Putnam worries about bringing them back to the ranch due to biosecurity issues. Because they were moved and no one knows what kind of temporary conditions they live in or whether they were housed with other birds, the chickens may have to be destroyed.
Putnam, her dog Reno, and her partner have moved into the tiny yellow home they once rented to agritourists. In the meantime, she continues to buy alfalfa from her local feed store.
The need to purchase hay brings us back to the idea that launched this project in the first place. "Our current situation creates an economic hardship. I want to find food systems that are resilient against this," Putnam says.
She goes on, "The last five years have been about living with the goats and allowing them to be their natural selves. I've learned by watching them. The next five years will be learning about fire ecology. Learn to do the right things to help the land recover without getting invaded. This is complicated but not good or bad," Putnam says.
I think of Phacelia, an herbaceous species of chaparral known as "fire followers" because they require fire to allow sunlight to reach them. Listening to Putnam, filled with angst from checking on the status of her ranch, the smell of smoke heavy in the air, there's grief and gratitude, yet she's still grappling with the same quandaries she was considering when I met her. Can we build a water-appropriate foodshed for Los Angeles? Can we make it scalable? Can it withstand fires? I don't know but, like Putnam, I want to find out.
During the evacuation it costs Putnam about $180 per day to feed her goats. If you want to help the ranch, you can "purchase" feed donations in $20 increments.