Modesto-area dairy farmer learns from SF guitar maker
Brian Fiscalini traded the wide-open spaces of his dairy farm near Modesto for a neighborhood packed onto a San Francisco hillside.
He took part in an exchange to learn about sustainable practices from his host, who turns old skateboards into electric guitars. The city businessman, Nick Pourfard, ventured east to see how Fiscalini puts manure and other waste to new uses.
Their adventures over four days in late May were captured for an online video series that will debut in August under sponsorship of Dairy Management Inc., which promotes the industry. The three-part series, “Acres & Avenues,” will feature three pairs of farmers and urban business people from around the nation who share ideas on sustainability, entrepreneurship and wellness.
Fiscalini, 30, is the fourth generation at a Kiernan Avenue farm that was established in 1914 and has been producing artisan cheese since 2000. Over two days, he showed Pourfard, 23, how to milk the cows, make the cheese and shovel manure that ends up being converted to electricity.
“Any time I get the opportunity to tell the story of what we do and why we do it, I think that’s great,” Fiscalini said as the shoot neared an end on an overcast Sunday afternoon on the city’s west side.
He had just helped Pourfard complete one of his guitars, which sell for $2,500 and up and retain the colors of the skateboard pieces that went into them.
Pourfard enjoyed himself, too, going so far as to play a little guitar for the cows during his visit to the farm.
“They’re social,” he said, “and you can tell that they have a really nice life.”
Dairy Management hired a production crew of about 15, which did many retakes as it tried to capture the sights and sounds of these two businesses. The series is hosted by Jax Austin, who is based in Venice Beach, near Los Angeles, and is also a food and travel blogger.
Passersby at San Joaquin Valley dairy farms might grimace at the sight of cows standing in dirt in close quarters, but Austin said his inside look provided a different picture.
“It’s so organized and so clean, and the cows are so friendly and curious,” he said. “I think if everyone toured a place like this, they would have a better idea of where their cheese comes from and where their milk comes from.”
High tech and low
Fiscalini was among the first farms in the region to build a digester for manure, where bacteria turn it into methane that is burned to make electricity. The digester also consumes the whey leftover from cheese production.
Pourfard also saw how the farm uses high-tech Fitbit devices to monitor the cattle, but something much simpler impressed him, too – the hand tools that Fiscalini crafts himself.
“He made every single shovel,” Pourfard said. “He made every rake on the farm. He didn’t need to do that.”
The visitors spent nights in motels after each long day of shooting, then returned for more. Early on his second day on the farm, Pourfard visited the cheese plant, after donning a disposable smock and hairnet and wiping his Converse sneakers with disinfectant.
“We have taken milk, and now we have curds and whey,” Fiscalini said as master cheesemaker Mariano Gonzalez used a paddle to stir the latest batch in a 2,000-gallon vat. The whey soon drained off, leaving curds that were pressed into cheddar that will age at least 14 months.
The farm has about 1,500 cows currently in production and a total of about 3,000. It sends 12 percent of the milk to the cheese plant, which produces about 350,000 pounds a year, mostly cheddar. The rest goes to the Nestlé evaporated milk plant in Modesto, but Fiscalini said he hopes to eventually use all of the milk for cheese and other dairy products made on site.
The farm employs 26 people, and the cheese plant an additional 15.
Pourfard’s company, Prisma Guitars, is a one-man operation in the basement of his 17th Avenue home. It’s in the city’s Sunset District, built on sand dunes early in the 20th century and often cloaked in fog. There’s not a cow or alfalfa field in sight among houses that stand shoulder to shoulder.
Pourfard said he started working with wood about five years ago as he recovered from an ankle injury he suffered while skateboarding. He has just graduated from San Francisco State University, where he studied industrial design and marketing.
Hundreds of battered skateboards without wheels are stacked in his garage. They were made with seven-ply maple, which happens to be a common material for guitar necks.
Fiscalini took part in the process – peeling off the strip that kept the skater’s feet from sliding, sawing the board into pieces and assembling them into a guitar. He even drilled tiny holes into the instrument and filled them with mother-of-pearl.
“I never thought you could take a beat-up skateboard that has zero life left and make a phenomenal guitar out of it,” he said.
Pourfard adds strings, knobs and other elements to each guitar before turning it over to the buyer. He does not do acoustic guitars, but they could be in his future.
Fiscalini is neither a musician nor a skateboarder, but he tried a little of the latter for a shoot at a San Francisco skate park. He also helped Pourfard build a jump known as a quarter-pipe out of plywood in his driveway, but he declined to join his host in trying it out.
The production wrapped with Pourfard and his guest eating tacos on a curb outside the house.
“I think the cows are calling,” Fiscalini said. “I think it’s time for me to go back to the farm.”
John Holland: (209) 578-2385
At a glance