Sense and Sustainability at Yellow Tree Farm
Upon arriving at in Affton on a recent Thursday morning, we were greeted by Sam Ashlock, the farm’s intern who came on fulltime only a couple of days earlier, offering us a cluster of grapes. Following him to the back yard, ducking under 6-foot-tall stalks of sunchokes hanging over the front path, we sensed we might be in for an interesting visit. What we didn’t know then was that the conversation would extend beyond that day, over the next few weeks, through dinner at one of St. Louis’ best restaurants, to outside a dumpster, and finally at a monthly animal swap meet in Waterloo, IL.
After a quick introduction, farm owner Justin Leszcz disappeared in search of his dog who had just escaped. The interruption gave us some time to check out the garden in its overgrown, end-of-summer condition. One corner held several bee hives, and another revealed rabbits and a couple of compost piles. Chickens wandered about, foraging, while a comically large pigeon (a Texan Pioneer, proving that old adage about Texas and size) attempted without success to join his larger kin, ambitiously trying again and again, only to be chased away each time.
Once Abe the dog was secured, Leszcz returned, slightly winded from the morning chase, excited to have discovered an apple tree in a neighbor’s yard. Apologizing for the state of the garden, Leszcz explained that it will soon be broken up and divided among several urban farms and the rented farm in Fenton—something he had always planned to do, now made necessary by the dissolution of his marriage.
The rabbits in the corner became the focal point of our conversation branching out into the humane treatment of animals, religion, chefs, cannibalism (non-human), slaughter, food activism, and poop. “The rabbits give us food and everyone else food,” Leszcz noted. Situated over beds of dirt, the rabbits produce waste that feeds the worms below; the worms feed the chickens and the plants, making the whole process self-sustaining.
When we discussed the slaughtering process, it became clear how seriously both men take ensuring that it’s quick and humane. Ashlock has been watching Leszcz harvest chickens and rabbits as he prepares to take over that part of the operation. Ultimately, Ashlock will be in charge of the animals, while Leszcz will take care of the plants.
Specifically, Leszcz will focus on garlic, dent corn, and wheat. “Wheat and corn are commodity crops I can turn into a specialty crop,” he said, noting that access to a stone mill will help him do so. The mill works especially well for his purposes, Leszcz shared, because it doesn’t overheat the glutens as steel mills do, thus preserving more nutrients.
In addition to growing microgreens (left) and sunflower shoots for local chefs, YellowTree has a long-standing deal to provide sweet potatoes to . for their Morning Glory, a seasonal brew. Although Leszcz doesn’t like to eat sweet potatoes, he appreciates their hardiness as they’re one of the few crops that thrived on the summer’s punishing heat and drought.
At only 24, Ashlock has “done a little bit of a lot,” including playing lacrosse in college on a scholarship, joining (and leaving) the army, and working as a sales rep for a surgical instrument company. All of these experiences left Ashlock disenchanted, and he found a like-minded sensibility in Leszcz, who gave up a lucrative career in car sales several years ago to start YellowTree. “I jumped ship and latched onto Justin and we’re running hard,” Ashlock summarized.
On slaughtering chickens for the first time, Ashlock called the experience “traumatizing.” He continued, “Doing it: I wasn’t very pleased with myself, and then afterwards, I thought about it: what is the way we can do it—it has to be done—which is easiest for the chickens? We don’t want anybody suffering before we eat them.”
Leszcz has more experience killing animals, both for consumption and protection, and his stories range from the humorous (he’s sure a turkey would watch him slaughter chickens and warn the other birds, acting as both sentinel and judge) to the horrifying (he once had to use multiple methods to kill a rabid raccoon caught in a trap that, zombie-style, would not die). It’s never easy to do, Leszcz said, and he makes sure, perhaps thanks to that turkey, that harvests take place out of the other animals’ sight. And, he no longer names them.
Talking about meat with the average person often results in the statement “I don’t want to know” when it comes to how a steak ends up in a grocery case, looking nothing like the animal from which it came. Leszcz and Ashlock want to offer an alternative way of thinking about animal slaughter that moves beyond blaming the consumer; Ashlock elaborated, “People don’t want to know, but I think we’re all morally complicit when we eat factory meat. So many times we only highlight the problem when we should be talking about the solutions.”
For Leszcz, it’s about more than humanely treating the animals; it’s also about knowing that the plants he cultivated fed the animal. “It’s a special meal when I have my chicken with my own potatoes and veg,” he said.
What are those solutions that Ashlock mentioned? On a small scale, continuing to raise chickens and rabbits, while tweaking conditions, when necessary, to ensure humane treatment. And raising fish: at one urban farm in the city, Leszcz and Ashlock are currently building an aquaponic system that will both grow fish (tilapia, hybrid blue gill, and sunfish) and produce nutrient-rich (poop, again) water for a rooftop garden.
Both men stress that outreach will become a priority, returning to YellowTree’s original mission of teaching others how to grow their own food. With Leszcz’s winning optimism and Ashlock’s youthful earnestness, they’re primed to spread the dirt . . . and the word.