Q&A: A farmer who runs a chicken shtetl

Name: Todd Gettleman
Age: 50
Lives: Rumsey, Yolo County
Position: Farmer, tribal cultural resources manager

You grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and now you grow your own olives for organic oil, organic walnuts, as well as berries, fruits and grains. How did a city kid get interested in farming?

Todd Gettleman: I joined the Brooklyn food co-op as part of a program in my high school, and then I became a vegetarian while attending Camp Kinderland [a progressive Jewish summer camp in New York]. While at Hampshire College, I worked as a manager at a food co-op that had a greenhouse attached, so I started studying it and began farming in western Massachusetts after I graduated.
You describe yours as more of a homestead than a farm, calling it the Gettleshtetl Garden, and you sell your olive oil as well as your walnuts under the “Gettleshtetl” label. What is your operation like?

Most people either have gardens or large farms. We’re in between those. We have just a few acres. My wife and son and I try to grow all of our own food, including grains, vegetables and raising chickens for eggs. We have fruit trees and a greenhouse. I just harvested a white guava, which makes the whole kitchen smell amazing. We’re on a small scale growing just for ourselves, though when we visit friends, we like to bring them a box of fruits and vegetables. We sell our olive oil and walnuts at various stands and festivals.

Todd Gettleman with a crop of olives

You’re the only person you know who grows your own wheat for matzah, your own potatoes and olive oil for latkes and your own apricots for hamantaschen filling. Why is that important to you?

Growing food is both my hobby and pastime, and it connects me to my culture and history. Camp Kinderland was immersed in Yiddishkeit, and I started a gardening program there, where we raised chickens. I now have a sign at the Gettleshtetl over my chicken coop that says the “Meshuganeh Hindl Hoiys,” which means “Crazy Chicken House,” reminiscent of Camp Kinderland.

With Jewish food, I am always thinking about the holidays and which traditional foods I can grow. For Passover, I like to use my own wheat for matzah whenever I can. It’s a way to genuinely connect through space and time with our food and take it to another level from making knishes or blintzes. Using our own flour and eggs and being responsible for making them adds another level of connection.
Many people may not be aware of Capay Valley, a rural area in Yolo County about 40 miles west of Sacramento. Do you know of many Jews in the community?

There are a couple in Esparto and one other family in the Rumsey area. Another one lives in the Bay Area and part time here; he was one of my closest friends at Hampshire, so we have holidays together. There are no celebrations as a community.
You have a master’s degree in Native American studies from U.C. Davis. How did you first get involved in this subject?

I started working for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in 1998 as a lead teacher at the tribe’s school and became interested in Native American studies. When I learned that U.C. Davis had a program in it, I thought having a master’s degree in it would benefit my work.
After teaching for nine years, you went on to run the school’s cultural resources department, preparing lessons for the tribe’s Patwin language and history teachers, among other duties. It seems these might be more suited for someone within the tribe. How did you get the job?

The [Wintun] tribe was building its school in the late ’90s and I had been coming out visiting farms here. I had been through a divorce and was looking to move to a rural location. I cold-called asking if they were looking for a teacher … and started that fall. I’ve now been with the tribe for 17 years. I began helping to bring in native artists and develop the cultural resources. I didn’t know the language at all, and I don’t teach the culture, but my role is to bring in teachers who do, to assist the cultural resources committee and help inspire the language teacher and the kids.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."