Justin and Danielle Leszcz chucked the 9-to-5 in favor of a 3,700-square-foot farm in Affton

Mar 17, 2010 at 4:00 am
A view from the roof of the Leszczes' house in October 2009.
A view from the roof of the Leszczes' house in October 2009. @YellowTreeFarm Twitter

For the two weeks before he was to kill his Old Bourbon, Justin Leszcz took the turkey in his arms, trying to get her used to the motions that would precede the moment he slit her throat. An animal stressed at slaughter makes for chewy meat, so they say — and this was a bird Leszcz planned to eat.

The night before the kill, the 32-year-old former car salesman went out to the coop for one last stroke. That's when his wife, Danielle, a paralegal, looked at him and lamented, "I think this one's going to be the hardest for you."

"This one" was to follow a pig and a pair of goats, a slew of rabbits, ducks and quail — in all, a hundred or more animals that have gone under the knife in the Leszczes' Affton back yard over the past year. At roughly 3,700 square feet, their "urban homestead" is smaller than a farm, bigger than a garden — and surrounded by suburbia.

YellowTree Farm, as the couple dubbed it, boasts beehives on the roof, a freestanding greenhouse lined with seedlings and shoots, row crops like lettuce and tomatoes, ducks and chickens, and a bed of vermiculture (that's worms) feasting on rabbit excrement. While most of the livestock they raise goes directly to their own table, their produce in particular has begun to attract a following among St. Louis area chefs.

Jim Fiala, owner of the Crossing and three other local restaurants, placed a few orders last year and did the Leszczes the honor of plating their vegetables for Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and a hero to locavores everywhere, when the famed writer came to town for a lecture. This year Gerard Craft, owner and executive chef of Niche, wants Justin Leszcz (it's pronounced lesh) to raise squab for him. And Josh Galliano, executive chef at Monarch, has tapped him to design and plant a garden on the Maplewood restaurant's premises.

"I had no idea what to make of Justin when I first met him," says Galliano. "He's so intense — to the point where I'll be in the middle of the workday, kind of tired, looking for a jolt of caffeine, and in walks Justin, and my head just starts spinning because he starts talking so fast. It's like, Jesus Christ, are you really doing all this crap at your house in the middle of St. Louis? Really? And your wife lets you do this?"

The Leszczes were actually plotting a move to De Soto two years ago in order to open an organic blueberry farm. They'd whetted their appetite for country life by keeping backyard chickens and ducks.

"There was a little tragedy when I was moving something and Dinner [the duck]'s leg got broken," explains Justin, an avid cook who teaches the occasional class at Kitchen Conservatory in Clayton. "I killed it right away, literally, because I didn't want it to suffer, and that was really sad. But then Dinner had the most beautiful fat in a duck I'd ever seen! It was bright yellow and delicious. So I guess at that point we had a taste for all this."

The couple's house had been on the market for a month when they saw a Slow Food St. Louis showing of Homegrown, a documentary about the Dervaes in Pasadena, California. The family went off the grid in the mid-1980s and now harvests 6,000 pounds of food annually from a 4,350-square-foot patch of suburbia. "That was really the first time we thought, 'Oh, wow, we could do what we want right here,'" says Danielle.

"We came home, called up the Dervaes, and I said, 'My husband and I just saw your movie, and we're gonna do this!'"

Justin quit his job selling Audis for Bommarito Automotive Group three days before Christmas in 2008. The Leszczes cut their household income by more than half, sold one car and acquired a vintage Vespa. Instead of researching their next gourmet vacation in San Francisco, they began counting down the days till the monthly Midwest Bird and Animal Breeders Association Swap in Waterloo, Illinois.

Soon the larder began to fill with myriad homemade delicacies: dried chamomile; preserved orange peels; sunchoke wine; goose "prosciutto." Last fall Justin broke down and cured a 123-pound heritage-breed pig.

Some of the year's lessons were tougher: Rabbits can be cannibalistic, goats high-maintenance. Oh, and not every neighbor takes a shine to a guy sowing corn in his front yard.

The couple says that keeping in good stead with the human inhabitants on the block may be the thing they worked the hardest at. (According to the St. Louis County Department of Health, all of the Leszczes' livestock raising, and slaughtering, is legal.)

One of the neighbors turned over his entire lawn for the Leszczes to garden. Another has been filming some of the animals for fun. Whenever a hawk is spotted eyeing the chickens from the tree line, the neighbors are quick to put out the alert.

"We're trying to get them to be more interested in the food part of it," says Justin, "but we're not there yet."

It was the neighbors Leszcz claims he was considering on the night he had second thoughts about killing his Old Bourbon. The guys on the block had fallen in love with the bird, he reasoned. Plus, they seemed keen on the squawking she did at the sight of strangers in her midst. Why disarm the free neighborhood security system?

Then Leszcz thought about the sausage he'd make with the turkey's neck, the lip balm he'd craft from her fat. The heart and the stomach tempted him too.

He took his chef's knife, slit the Old Bourbon's throat and plucked every last of her chestnut-color feathers by hand. Scalding the bird to shake the feathers loose was out of the question.

As he puts it, "There's something more intimate about doing it this way."

See a slideshow of pigs, goats, chickens, fruits and vegetables grown at YellowTree Farm