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Vendor Profile: Kookoolan Farm

Sarah West

Farmers’ markets are a collection of businesses, a temporal grocery store where each shelf comes with a smiling face and a wealth of knowledge about the products they create and sell. We’re giving our vendors the spotlight to share more about their role in the Hillsdale market community.

By Sarah West

Hillsdale vendor since 2007, Kookoolan Farms has quickly built a name as the place to go for pasture-raised chickens and eggs in the Portland area. That same year, the farm was the first in Oregon to open a fully licensed on-site poultry slaughtering facility, allowing more vertical integration in an industry with notoriously low profit margins. Kookoolan has since expanded their product line to include pastured pork and lamb, grassfed beef, a vegetable CSA, and a year-round farm store. Oh, and for bonus points, they set up a kombucha and mead brewery, most recently opening their Mead Superstore and Tasting Room.

Just taking in all that is Kookoolan Farms requires a few deep breaths. The dynamic duo behind Kookoolan Farms, Chrissie and Koorosh Zaerpoor, met while working as program managers at Intel (Koorosh still works there). The couple married and began dreaming a world outside of Intel where they could work together on a project that integrated their engineering skills with more personal interests: Chrissie was an avid gardener and cook with a passion for home mead making, Koorosh still harbored dreams of becoming a farmer he’d hatched as a child in Iran helping out with his parents’ poultry flock.

While Chrissie’s first entrepreneurial aspiration was to open a meadery, the couple also saw a need for local, pasture-raised chicken and eggs in the area, and set to work building a farm to fill that niche. The road was not without pitfalls or unexpected turns, but, within two years of founding the farm, the persistent couple was able to accomplish something out of reach to most small-scale chicken farmers since the rise of industrial agriculture: the ability to legally process their own flock on their own farm for sale to farmers market customers, restaurants, and grocery stores alike.

This may seem like an obvious direction for a poultry farm to grow, but the reality of achieving it was far more difficult than the Zaerpoors initially realized. Though regulations have changed somewhat since Kookoolan’s 2005 startup (especially for farmers with fewer than a thousand birds), the USDA has strict codes that make it prohibitively expensive for small producers to operate their own slaughter facility. Kookoolan persevered and became the first farm of their size in Oregon to accomplish this feat. As their processing ability increased, they realized that the five-acre plot they purchased in 2005 would not be sufficient to produce the flock sizes required to build a sustainable business.

The Zaerpoors began to see their Carlton-Yamhill neighbors as potential partners, carefully selecting farms in their area willing to adhere to the same meticulous standards as they did in raising their chickens. With careful planning, Kookoolan Farms became a cooperative of ethical meat and poultry farmers, greatly expanding their product line, and distributing the labor to a network of specialists. Chrissie remains the hub of operations, coordinating the farm’s wholesale distribution, farmers market sales, and, of course, quality control. The cooperative model finally freed up some of the Zaerpoor’s time, allowing them to expand their vegetable garden into a summer CSA program and giving Chrissie time to get back into mead.

The original Kookoolan Farm site still houses a portion of the farm’s pastured chickens, their poultry processing facility, a serve-yourself farm store, the vegetable rows, a small plot of pinot noir grapes, and the new Mead Superstore.Visitors are welcome on weekends (or during the week, by appointment) to browse their selection of over 150 different meads and taste Kookoolan’s own farm-made Elegance Mead, kombucha, and Vin de Noix. What about those pinot noir grapes? Well, they may just show up in the Kookoolan lineup soon in the form of a pinot-mead blend known as pyment.

Though Kookoolan has been selling their chickens through New Seasons for a couple years, they recently decided to pull out of the arrangement. In the context of a grocery store meat counter (even a grocery store with a reputation for higher-income shoppers), local, pasture-raised chickens separated from their farmer’s story, sitting next to temptingly cheaper alternatives, are a tough sell. New Seasons requested birds under four pounds, but Kookoolan can’t make a profit raising such small chickens. They’ve decided to stick with direct-market sales here at Hillsdale and (on alternate Sundays) the Hillsboro/Orenco market. That’s a testament to the power of farmers market shoppers, who make a significant contribution to the viability of even the most outwardly successful small farm businesses.

Find out more at: www.kookoolanfarms.com

Note: A fire broke out on Kookoolan Farms on the evening of March 18th. Two outbuildings were lost in the fire. Read about the fire here (link).