Good fortune shone on February 24. We were driving up the 101 freeway between L.A. and Monterey and stopped at the food-focused Templeton mini mall for lunch. We spotted the well-worn Windrose Farm truck, and Bill Spencer offered to have us visit the farm on our drive back down. That’s exactly what we did. After passing Cripple Creek (no, not The Band song, a road), we drove by draped horses and joined the Spencers at Windrose Farm.
Bill Spencer hails from Pasadena and farmed 5.5 acres in Monrovia for 12 years, herding steers and chickens, before moving north in 1962. He was working real estate when he eventually met Barbara, a retired cellist who moved into her “spinster’s retirement home,” as Bill described it, before friends introduced her to Bill the following day. Within 10 days, they co-hosted a dinner party for 36 people, and they’ve been together ever since.
Bill performed a study on his land. Serpentine, sand rock and shale are good for wine and qualify as Class 2. The plot that became Windrose Farm has granite and sandy, loamy soil, which is good for vegetables. The location is also 10-12 degrees cooler than the airport.
In 1990, Bill Spencer started with potatoes. Over the years, Gary Jones from Hortus Nursery helped them source heirloom tomatoes. They added cover crops like legumes, oats and winter weeds for nutrients. The U.S. houses 3000 kinds of apples, and Barbara and Bill Spencer grow 45, including Anna apples, which sprout twice a year. During our visit, they were planting carrots, French breakfast radishes, beets, and chicory, with plans for green garlic and leeks.
The Spencers also raise sheep. They graze on cover crops, which helps to prep the land for planting. Just before our visit, sheep gave birth to three sets of twins and one set of triplets.
They thought they were raising Suffolk sheep, with black faces, and Lincoln, with woolly faces. Now, they’re not sure what they have, so Bill said they raise “GOK,” god only knows. These animals are “fundamentally meat sheep,” and go to restaurants like Animal, The Eveleigh and The Huntley, but they don’t raise enough for wide distribution.
As Bill Spencer said, “If you eat meat, you owe it to that sentient being to respect it,” meaning eat all the parts possible. These are primarily hoggits, meaning the Spencers humanely slaughter the animals at 12-24 months. During our visit, the count was at 22 ewes, guarded by Louie and Sophie, two dogs.
Their chicken trailer once played a part in the raisin industry. Now it houses 10 laying hens, some of which produce green Aracona eggs. The eggs have intense orange yolks because the chickens eat a diverse diet, including bugs.
Bill Spencer discussed best farming practices. A big part of their approach involves biodiversity and balance. For example, they have guinea fowl to eat stink bugs. They add biodiversity by growing morels near apple crops.
He said, “The future of agriculture to some degree is protecting potable water.” Bill Spencer paid tribute to the Israelis, who do a great job of managing water in an arid land. They invented drip tape and blue Netafim microsprayer, helping to transform the country from an importer to an agricultural “paradise.”
We finished our tour inside the packing house, which housed items like squash.
Behind the packing house, they use a cinder block smoker for chilies, and occasionally, meat.
We’re happy that we ran into Bill Spencer in Templeton. He and Barbara Spencer have clearly put a lot of thought into how and why they raise fruits, vegetables and animals, and it comes across in the produce, which is available every Wednesday at the Santa Monica Farmers Market.