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Wooly Weedeaters

Author: Richard Paul Hinkle
July, 2009 Issue

NorthBay biz reveals the adorable practice of using sheep herds to groom vineyards.

 

I have a penchant for paying attention to bumper stickers. My all-time favorite is one put out by the American Lamb Council a couple decades ago: Eat American Lamb: 10,000 Coyotes Can’t Be Wrong!

I have lamb on the brain today, not for the obvious reason—there’s nothing like a rosemary-encrusted leg of lamb with a good Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel—but for something that is, curiously, related. Increasingly these days, a smaller breed of sheep is being used for vineyard weed control. It’s an heirloom breed, small enough that they can’t reach the grapes and tender vine leaves; rather, they’re content to keep their heads down and mind their work.

“Actually, sheep prefer to eat with their heads down—that’s the way their bodies are structured,” says Deborah Walton, who breeds Babydoll Southdowns (yes, that’s really what they’re called) for work in vineyards and orchards from Santa Barbara all the way north to Oregon and Washington.

“When the Southdown breed was first brought to this country in the early 1800s, ranchers ‘supersized’ them by breeding them larger and larger for the meat market. Rams got to be 200 pounds or so. In the early 1900s, some of the original, diminutive sheep—only 24 inches tall and less than 100 pounds—were located in England and brought to the United States. They were named Olde English Babydoll Southdown to distinguish them from those that had been bred bigger for meat. They’re small enough that they can’t get up on their back legs to eat the vine leaves. They go into the vineyard during winter—usually around December—and they’re there until bud break in the spring. They eat the grass, eliminate the need for tractor mowing and thus let the soil remain aerated and add a little fertilizer as well. Couldn’t be more perfect.”

Today, Walton and her husband, artist Tim Schaible, breed sheep on their 28-acre ranch in Petaluma, then lease or sell them to grape growers and orchard owners who put the diminutive critters to work. Walton also conducts “lamb camps” to introduce farm folk to these eco-friendly animals and their talents. “We just had a lamb camp in April, and 15 people came,” says Walton. “Most were vineyard owners, but one has an olive orchard here in Petaluma. They grow olives on more than 500 acres and make olive oil. All were interested in either getting new lambs of their own or leasing them for the non-growing season to keep their weeds under control.”

Back to the land

Walton was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Mill Valley and New York—she earned a degree in English, with a minor in psychology from Russell Sage College in upstate New York—then returned to the West Coast in 1986. “My dad worked for Shell Oil Company, so we moved around a lot. When I came back, Marin County was way too expensive. We heard there was a lot going on in Sonoma County, so we moved to Santa Rosa, first, then to Petaluma in 2001. I really like what’s been happening to the downtown area here.”

She owned Genus Group Marketing Communications in Santa Rosa, with clients like Exchange Bank and Friedman’s Home Improvement, but after two decades, she’d had her fill of the corporate world and knew she wanted to do something with the land. In 2001, she pioneered the notion of breeding the smaller sheep for natural weed control. “I’d seen them in vineyards in France and Italy, and it made a lot of sense. People are so anal about their vineyards here in Napa and Sonoma; they want them to look pristine, clean. So I got a grant, did a study with the Fetzer folks at their Bonterra Ranch in Hopland—they’re very much into organic and biodynamic farming practices—and found out that sheep ate down the cover crop beautifully, created less soil compaction and significantly improved the grasses on the vineyard floor for the better. The field grasses change to clover, which helps prevent erosion. But the study was cut short when coyotes got a couple of our sheep.

“Getting into this business was just right for me. Turned out, I really like seeing these animals and being with them 24/7. We sell lambs and lease sheep—but not for meat. I eat meat, but I also like the idea that these gentle creatures are going to live a long life of usefulness to someone. We think of them as little weed whackers, and they can do their job for about one-third the cost of doing the same job mechanically with a tractor. And with much less soil compaction. I love talking with vineyard managers who are somewhat skeptical until they see the efficiency and the cost savings of our sheep, including how much more valuable they are as weed eaters than they would be as a meal or two—and how many visitors come to the tasting rooms to see them.”

Walton used to look at the ranch (where, in addition to the sheep, she grows vegetables for a 125-member CSA vegetable delivery program) as a sort of retirement, but the passion has leaked in so much that the sheep have become the be all and end all. “Yes,” she says with a laugh. “I spend my spare time working with the Santa Rosa Junior College Sustainable Agriculture Program, helping our local volunteer fire department with their newsletter and still doing some marketing consulting. I work hard, but I absolutely love it.

“I do try to find a little time to travel. I spent a month in Tuscany last year…living on a Cashmere goat farm! So now I raise Cashmere goats for the fiber. We have about 30 of them. We shear them once a year, in May. It’s fun! Wandering in a used book store the other day, I found a copy of Today I Baled Some Hay to Feed the Sheep the Coyotes Eat. Ha! I can’t wait to read it!”

Early adopters

Deb and John Kiger have a small, 3.5-acre vineyard of Syrah at the northern end of Sonoma Valley. “We bought our land here in 1999, planted our vines in 2002, then built a home and finally moved here for good in 2005,” says Deb, a Maryland native who took her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical and systems engineering and worked in the telecommunications and software industries for more than 20 years, mostly in Silicon Valley “Once we started living here and farming the land ourselves, we were determined to make the health of the land and our grapevines a top priority.”

Three years ago, Deb and John took in one of Walton’s demonstrations at a grapegrowers’ meeting. “We were immediately captivated by the notion and asked ourselves what roles the sheep could take on in our situation. We ended up buying a flock of seven initially, and we have eight of the Babydoll Southdowns now. They do a phenomenal job of keeping our vineyard mowed—it’s as short and clean as a golf course—and they greatly reduce our manual labor and eliminate chemical and fuel inputs. The hours they’re at work are hours we don’t have to put in! Plus, our vines are on a fairly steep slope, so in the wet season, we really couldn’t get a tractor in there anyway. You don’t want to destabilize the fragile hillside, so the sheep really are a logical solution.

“We put them into the vineyard just after harvest and leave them there until just after bud break; then we move them into a steep, fenced pasture we have just below our home. There they serve well as fire protection. It’s a steeply sloped and partially forested meadow, so we absolutely need to keep the grasses down through the summer.”

Are mountain lions, wolves, coyotes or bobcats a problem? “Our neighbors have had mountain lions and coyotes prey on their livestock; we haven’t,” she says. “We have Francesco, a livestock guardian dog that lives with the sheep 24/7. He’s a Maremma, which is an Italian breed that’s centuries-old and bred specifically to protect sheep. Francesco weighs in at about 120 pounds and is covered in long, white fur. He’s territorial and barks ferociously, but he loves his people.”

The Kigers sell their fruit to Robert Biale Vineyards in Napa Valley. The vineyard is almost entirely Syrah, but there’s a little Cabernet Sauvignon and a newly grafted block of Grenache, a variety that blends particularly well with Syrah. “We do make a barrel of wine for ourselves each year, and the Cabernet is a wonderful blending component with the Syrah.”

She says the Babydoll Southdowns have become quite popular, commanding prices four times that of market lambs for milk, meat or wool. “The ewes will go for $600 and up. We keep hoping for ewe lambs each spring, but as luck would have it, we keep getting ram lambs! The great thing about the breed for winegrowers is, they’re only two feet tall at the shoulder, so they can get under the lowest trellis wire easily. They can wander from one row to the next without having to go all the way down the row…assuming they were that organized!”

Over at Petaluma’s McEvoy Ranch, orchard manager Shari De Joseph welcomes about 100 milking sheep in January, and they munch the grass in 80 acres of (mostly) olive orchard and vineyard. “We’ve planted a little Pinot Noir and have plans to build a small winery in the future,” says De Joseph, who grew up tending a vegetable garden in her front yard in Southern California before heading off to UC Davis and a degree in agriculture. “We actually get the sheep at no cost to us, because the owner needs extra pasture, and ours is fenced to keep the coyotes and deer out. We get our land weeded and fertilized. It’s a good trade-off.”

The Ranch has since purchased six Babydoll Southdown lambs for year round weed control.

Vines and cheese

On the Napa side of the Mayacamas, Don Watson has been raising sheep for weed control for more than two decades. Woodland born, Stockton raised and UC Davis educated (economics, 1980), he worked as an analyst for farm credit banks in Sacramento and as a CPA in San Francisco for a half dozen years before deciding sheep would be far more interesting. “My wife, Carolyn, and I moved to Australia in June of 1986,” he says, his voice reflecting the excitement he felt at the time. “We landed in Sydney and put 50,000 kilometers on a car driving all over Australia and Tasmania. There, a typical flock was 10,000 sheep! The sheepherders in Australia are mostly of Celtic ancestry and were sent to Australia as prisoners of mother England. The founder of the station we worked for near Dubbo, New South Wales, stole a loaf of bread and was transported to the penal colony as a 12-year-old Irish boy.

“Back in the United States, we loved meeting the Basque shepherds. Every day for the Basques is a celebration! They would have some great sausages and a bota bag of wine, and they absolutely loved to herd sheep. And that was what we wanted to do.”

They might have stayed in central New South Wales if they had children. “If we had children, they’d have been able to keep their school open, but there just weren’t enough youngsters to justify having a teacher and a building. So we headed off to New Zealand. Australia looked a bit too much like our Central Valley for me—too hot, too dusty, too open and no mountains. We hadn’t been [in New Zealand] a day when a fellow we met found out I played rugby…and he took us out to dinner and recruited me to play for the town team the next day! The setting was spectacular, with snow-capped peaks and thousands of people showing up for the rugby in this tiny little town.”

He learned to shear sheep. “Heck, I learned all about sheep. Here you have this efficient little creature that can convert a little rainfall into clover, wool and wonderful lamb. And, as a business proposition, you can create capital without having to own a single acre of land. Buying land is the greatest barrier to farming, and here I can be involved without having to do that! [Watson’s herds usually inhabit land owned by his wife’s family.] It’s terrific. Our herd usually runs around 4,000 head, and most of the time they’re out at Infineon Raceway keeping the parking lots and hillsides fire-safe and perfectly trimmed.”

The Watsons raise East Friesian milking sheep, which are suited both for the ovine dairy industry as well as for vineyard (and raceway) mowing services. “We got into the vineyard side of things quite by accident,” Don relates. “We have a small place north of Calistoga. It had been scorched by that nasty wildfire in 1964 and abandoned. We moved there in 1987 and started fixing the roads and water system. We brought in some sheep to keep the weeds down, and moved them to Carneros to mow some weeds for a friend. A few of them got out and invaded a vineyard owned by Robert Mondavi. They ate a few leaves, or maybe some vines, so I took a couple of lambs down to the Mondavi place in Oakville [to apologize], and Robert himself received me. Mondavi’s vineyard management took an interest in the idea of using the sheep to keep the weeds down in his vineyards, and one thing led to another.”

He notes it would be near impossible, financially, to raise the sheep solely for meat and wool. “It just doesn’t pencil out. You have to keep them working and earning.” He says he’s considering the dairy side of the equation. “Cheese is good,” is his new mantra. “It would be a nice new revenue stream. We still do a lot of vineyard work, especially with Will Nord’s Carneros vineyard management company. Sheep are especially good in vineyards planted on the slopes, where tractors can’t get in effectively.”

There’s hardly anything better than seeing the symbiotic relationship between these shaggy, diminutive creatures and the land they manicure. And when there’s also the chance of a little goat cheese (or even the odd lamb chop or two), well, what more could one ask for without being greedy?

For more information about sheep as natural weed control, go online to www.kigerwine.com, www.canvasranch.com or www.woolyweeders.com.

 

 

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