A Lesson in History: AgTech Innovation Meets a Local’s Poultry Past

I recently attended the AgTech Micro Conference, hosted by Nevada County Tech Connection, in Nevada City. The micro conference brought together a variety of participants, including farmers, software developers, and people interested in the latest Agtech trends that address practical ways to improve efficiency and profitability for our regional farmers. Guest speakers had my full attention as I learned about the first ever agriculture bio-control experiment in space; Aerial spectral imaging for agriculture; and perhaps the most exciting for me, BoxPower, a company bringing clean, affordable energy to off-grid sites in durable, portable shipping containers. This company excited me for a couple reasons: The founder was raised in Nevada County and his start-up participated in the Valley Ventures program – A BluetechValley Accelerator.

The BlueTechValley Innovation Cluster program identifies entrepreneurs who are developing solutions to address the region’s acute needs in the energy-water-food nexus and provide them with tools and direction to bring the technology to market. Sierra Business Council is part of the BlueTechValley team,hosting an Innovation Cluster Hub. 

If you or someone you know has an idea or product within this nexus, we can help connect you with technology assessment and testing, commercialization and funding, networking events and workspace, advisory support, and training and education. For more information you can contact me at cwalterscheid@sierrabusiness.org.

Discovering the technological advancements happening in the agricultural industry reminded me of a related topic, although this falls under AgAnalog, not AgTech Business! Originally published in Moonshine Ink, July 12, 2018, “Chicken Business” was written by myself to introduce people to part of Truckee’s agricultural history. I thought it would be interesting to consider both where the future is taking our food systems along with the past we’ve come from.

Chicken Business
Truckee Was Once Home to a Large Chicken Ranch COMM CW Kearney Chicken Ranch 2019 03

My Grandma and Grandpa Heise’s first home was a chicken coop. Seriously. As a child, this made me picture my grandparents ducking into a small coop-like home with hens sharing the space. This wasn’t really the case. A new Quonset hut was moved onto my great-grandparents’ farm in North Dakota, likely from government surplus after WWII. The intended home for the farm chickens was turned into a one-room house with a kitchenette for the newlyweds. I think my grandma had fun telling people their first home was a chicken coop.

I thought about this as I sat with my friend, Jess, on her back deck in full view of her chicken coop, a sturdy structure that could, indeed, be a small home. Her hens were pecking away at the grass and moving about the yard. Jess showed me a beautiful ginger-colored hen nesting on a batch of eggs. This particular hen was showing signs of wanting to nest, but without a rooster in the bunch, there were no fertilized eggs to hatch. So, they indulged the hen by ordering fertilized eggs for her to nest on. We peeked in on the mother-to-be as she quietly rested atop her delicate package. I asked Jess how many chicks they are about to add to the family and she reminded me that you “shouldn’t count your chickens before they hatch.” Touche. 

Many years ago, my husband told me that his family raised chickens in Truckee; I had never known anyone in town with chickens. I naively asked how they kept the chickens alive in the winter and he sarcastically told me they had a coop, of course. My husband grew up on acreage, out in Juniper Hills, and I believed his chicken story to be an anomaly. So, when I met the Kearney family at an Old Timers’ Picnic twenty years ago, I was fascinated to hear about their family’s chicken ranch in Truckee. 

In 1869, David and Bertha Kearney were one of a number of couples who set out to be married at Promontory Summit during the Golden Spike Ceremony, where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads would officially meet up, forming the first transcontinental railroad. In the early 1880s, David and Bertha lived and worked at Lake View, above Donner Lake, where David was the foreman of a crew that took care of the snow sheds, and Bertha cooked and cleaned for the track crew. David abandoned Bertha and their three young children. Bertha placed the oldest two in foster care while the youngest, Frank Francis Kearney, stayed with her.

Frank Kearney took odd jobs as a young man, including delivering the mail to the north shore of Tahoe. He was once held-up by robbers while carrying the mail near what is now Squaw Valley. Frank Kearney and Elizabeth Finnigan, a Truckee girl, took the train down to Sacramento, where they were married in August,1900. Frank and Elizabeth spent $890 on a stove, bed, and other household furniture which they brought back to Truckee and set up home. It was this same year the chicken ranch was opened. The young Kearneys built the ranch to the east of town. The Rock & Rose Nursery on Glenshire Drive sits on the property now.

The Kearneys grew the chicken ranch into a large operation, selling eggs and chickens in Truckee, North Tahoe, and the different mill and ice towns in the area. Frank could be seen riding his bicycle with eggs carefully packed in buckets on each side for delivery. Elizabeth took pride in her operation and upheld a very good reputation. She would candle the eggs early in the morning, viewing each one to ensure there was not a chick in the eggs to be sold. The Kearneys ran the chicken ranch for fifty years. When Elizabeth passed away in 1950, Frank closed the ranch and moved down to Sacramento.

Currently, there are many people in town raising chickens. Having chickens in Truckee is not the sensational story I once thought it was; these modern-day chicken ranchers are resurrecting a piece of Truckee’s agricultural history.

As we move toward innovative technologies and new solutions to agricultural challenges, to find what’s possible, I’m reminded how much we can learn from the opportunities seized in the stories of our past. 

Photo courtesy the Kearney Family