Da-le Ranch: Not your usual animal farm


By Claire Harlin

Leslie Pesic used to be a vegetarian, but when she and her husband, Dave Heafner, decided to go remote nine years ago and start a worm farm, he said he wanted to raise livestock for meat, and he wanted her to try it.

“I gave her a bite of our first homegrown pig, and it took her a second, but her face lit up, all surprised,” said Heafner in an interview at his Lake Elsinore home, which is nestled on the 22-acre Da-Le Ranch — “Da-Le” meaning Dave and Leslie.

Pesic added, “That was when I switched to omnivore, and at first I would eat it dead with no red, but now I eat it rawer than he does.”

Pesic knows exactly what goes into her pork, beef, chicken and lamb because she cares for her animals day in and day out, feeding them things like alfalfa and organic vegetables from the farmers markets where she and her daughter, Ashlie, sell Da-Le Ranch meats. Those who frequent the Solana Beach or Rancho Santa Fe farmers markets have likely spotted the meat enthusiasts standing by their freezer, and those who have chosen and taken home a cut have likely gotten a passionate lesson on local, humane, hormone-free farming.

Or maybe Leslie Pesic has shared with you her motto: “God put animals on this Earth, and if you treat them well, they will feed us.”

The Da-Le Ranch isn’t like commercial farms. Not only does Pesic name each and every sow and sheep, but she brings the baby animals inside when they are sick or when the weather is too cold or hot. Not one animal at the farm is confined in a small pen, except for the occasional rooster that goes into “time out” for fighting.

“They are all like my pets,” said the North Carolina native who previously worked as a dog groomer and church administrator.

Heafner, a South Carolina native, is in his third — “and hopefully last” — career, he said. He was a Marine for 20 years and then a financial planner for another 20.

After falling ill for several years and losing his business, he and Pesic decided to move somewhere she could breed Lhasa Apso puppies, a passion of hers, and he could try a new venture — worm farming.

“We wanted to move out in the boonies,” she said.

Selling worm castings (the excretion used as a nutrient for plants) proved successful until the economy took a hit in 2009. Around that time, the couple had an over-abundance of meat they had only been raising for personal use, so Heafner sold six pork shoulders to a nearby family for a large, six-family cookout.

“They had a block party and each family cooked a pork shoulder in all different ways,” he said. “The following Monday I got a call from the manager of the Bonsal farmers market and he said ‘I had six different dishes made from your pork and it’s the most unique tasting pork I’ve ever had.’”

Heafner agreed to sell at that farmers market, and soon he was contacted by one of the biggest San Diego farmers markets — Little Italy.

Da-Le Ranch now has a presence in about a handful of weekly farmers markets, and many more seasonal markets.

With only one full-time farmhand, the family stays busy as popularity grows. Heafner often only sleeps only a couple of hours a night on the weekend, when many of the markets take place, and Pesic serves as the animals’ primary caregiver, waking up around 6 a.m. daily to feed and water them. During the hot summer months, she replenishes water and hoses off the animals at least every other hour to keep them cool.

Heafner, who is at least twice the size of very petite Pesic, describes his wife as “a miracle on two feet.”

“She’s a tiny little person,” he said. “But when God made her, he put a heart my size in her little body.”

For those interested in seeing where Da-Le Ranch meats come from, the couple gives tours several times a year. For more information, to set up a tour or to become a mixed-meat Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) member, visit The Rancho Santa Fe farmers market takes place on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 16079 San Dieguito Rd., and the Solana Beach market is on Saturdays from 1 to 5 p.m. at 410 S. Cedros Avenue.