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Mariposa Creamery Schools City Dwellers in Homesteading

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Urban farming is all the rage these days: some raised beds, a compost bin, and maybe a modest chicken coop are the new status symbols among Angelenos who have their doubts about mainstream agricultural practices in the U.S. In the foothill community of Altadena, Gloria Putnam and Stephen Rudicel have taken the urban (or in this case, suburban) farming concept further than most with Mariposa Creamery, the goat farm and dairy they run on the grounds of the old Zane Grey estate.

Gloria and Stephen didn't set out to run a dairy ... they just really like goats. It's evident in the affectionate names given to each animal, in the tender way Gloria rubs their ears, and in their twice-daily hand milking ritual (no machines here). The farm isn't certified to sell the milk, so they mostly use it to eat and drink really well themselves, to share with friends and family, and to teach others about goat keeping and cheese making.

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I visited Mariposa with my son on a hot Sunday afternoon so that he could run around with the goats while I chatted with Gloria about animal husbandry. I like talking to farmers because they never fail to enlighten me about something I've always taken for granted. In this case, the topic that stuck with me was chickens.

As we watched her happy flock of Barnavelders and Turkens pecking around, I mentioned that I had toyed with the idea of keeping a few chickens myself, but was concerned about rodents and flies near the house (I don't have much yard space). Gloria pointed out that the bigger issue with keeping chickens as a hobby was the fact that they typically become infertile after only a few years, which means backyard chicken keepers could end up with unproductive -- and likely unwanted -- pet birds for a good 10 years or so ... if they aren't willing to kill them.

What's more, chickens generally aren't good to eat once they've matured, meaning their carcasses can really only be used to make stock. I didn't realize that the chickens we buy at the store are typically slaughtered at six to eight weeks old and are of a variety called Cornish Cross that's bred primarily to put on weight quickly -- this means they don't do much but lie around during their sad, short lives. While many of us consider organic and free range to be responsible purchasing options when it comes to our poultry, Gloria simply won't eat any commercially raised chickens because "they don't really get to be chickens." As for commercial egg-laying chickens, they're usually just gassed after they're no longer fertile. It's just another example of how unnatural, and nontransparent, conventional agricultural practices have become.

Fortunately, the good people at Mariposa Creamery have partnered with the Institute of Domestic Technology to educate and empower us non-farming folks in the ways of food crafting. Gloria and Stephen built a gorgeous commercial kitchen on the grounds of the estate for their cheese-making classes, and they make the space available to other experts as well, thereby equipping students with the skills to make their own jam, bread, mustard and more.

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Mariposa's food crafting courses usually last for most of the day and include lunch and drinks. For those interested in a stronger dose of the agrarian lifestyle, farm stays are also available. Guests sleep in a diminutive Airstream Bambi, which provides a crash course in living small with its combination toilet/shower room and a dining table that transforms into a second bed. The cost is $169 a night, and guests may choose to enjoy a farm fresh breakfast in the Zane Grey mansion's solarium and/or private food making classes at an additional charge.

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