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Cuyama Lamb, Stewards for the Land

Baa Baa Local Sheep

Cuyama Lamb, Stewards for the Land

Words and Photos by Rosminah Brown

Isn’t it interesting that our childhood storybooks and Mother Goose rhymes involved sheep and shepherds, but they are more like fairy tales because who actually has sheep? We function in a predominantly urban society. How often do we see sheep except at zoos and a few farms?

I’ve been lucky to grow up in the Santa Barbara foothills—and there were cows at least—in the area now known as San Marcos Foothills Preserve. Many years ago, it was simply the landscape of coast live oaks and chaparral where my brother and I played. The fields sustained a small herd of cattle that grazed the land until about 15 years ago when it was approved for luxury home development. Approximately 200 acres were given to the County as the public preserve we know today. When the preserve was established, the cattle were relocated, and the foothills were left ungrazed…until now.

In the spring of 2019, we got a notice that sheep were coming to graze for a land management project funded by the Channel Islands Restoration nonprofit (CIR for short). Sheep! With working dogs to protect them! The notice told us to beware that working dogs are working and barking. Very exciting!

A week later, I started to see little white dots moving around in the hills. One day I saw a man heading into the preserve with two unleashed dogs with him, and I marched straight over to him to warn him that there are sheep there and working dogs, and he needed to keep his dogs in check. We had about a three-second stare-down before he kindly said thank you for the warning, and he appreciated my vigilance. He introduced himself and his dogs…who actually were the working dogs I was warning him about.

The man was Jack Thrift, the actual shepherd. This broke the ice quite effectively, and I’ve been a fan of Cuyama Lamb ever since. I have visited the sheep up in the preserve and told all my friends about them. And I’ve helped with the “push,” where CIR volunteers lined up along the preserve to move the flock several miles from one end to the other.

Lucy, the Maremma Sheepdog, guards her flock at Elings Park.

Lucy, the Maremma Sheepdog, guards her flock at Elings Park.

Cuyama Lamb is a recent business development, based on traditional crop-livestock integrated agriculture, a practice that had fallen by the wayside in favor of large-scale monocropping. Its home base is in the Cuyama Valley on the eastern side of Santa Barbara County, and it’s headed up by Jack Thrift Anderson, Jenya Schneider, and their staff of very good boys— the working dogs.

Jack started out at Quail Springs, a permaculture collective based in the Cuyama Valley of eastern Santa Barbara County, eventually becoming their rangeland manager. He was inspired by their 200-year development plan that included grazing in its dynamic approach to creating a sustainable community. And he started to form his own plans to operate a land management grazing business.

In 2014 he relocated to Oklahoma for a year to gain ranching experience initially for cattle. He returned with a hint of a Midwestern accent and the decision that sheep would be more effective for his long-term goals. This brought him back to Quail Springs, just before jumping off to get his chops within the lamb industry, so to speak, from Kaos Sheep Outfit in Lake County, near Mendocino. This rounded out the background needed to start his own integrated lamb business, which he formed in 2018 with Jenya Schneider at Quail Springs.

Jenya, on the other hand, started out as a regenerative ecologist, graduating from Brown University. She spent a decade in this field, bridging the gap between natural ecosystems and healthy human communities with a focus on mentorship programs for girls in northern California. She seemed destined for an educational position at Quail Springs, but she was lured (or was that wooed?) into co-founding Cuyama Lamb with Jack. The two met at a class at Quail Springs just before Jack went to Lake County. They hit it off and, while she resided in Oakland at the time, they found many reasons to visit each other. Their first official date was to a native grassland exhibit at the Oakland Museum. Jack’s initial business plan was to start as a one-man operation, but as their relationship grew, they both got on board with the idea that their experience and vision combined was greater than the sum of their parts. Now, Jack is incredulous that he ever thought he could run Cuyama Lamb without her. And there is indeed a lot of work involved with running a business with a flock of sheep.

Jenya Schneider holds one of the new lambs at Elings Park.

Jenya Schneider holds one of the new lambs at Elings Park.

Jack, Jenya and Rocco enjoy a moment before sunset with their sheep at Elings Park.

Jack, Jenya and Rocco enjoy a moment before sunset with their sheep at Elings Park.

The company has three distinct components to its operations. The most visible is the land management through sheep grazing. Here, grazing offers many layers of benefit. If the sheep graze through orchards and vineyards, they offer integrated crop management by eating the weeds and naturally fertilizing the soil. Sheep grazing on wildlands not only reduces fire hazards through weed abatement, but their foraging habit also mimics the original herbivore grazers like deer and helps restore natural habitat.

Goats have often been used for weed clearing, but sheep graze differently and select for different plants. This behavior helps clear out invasive exotic weeds, leaving room for native bunch grasses to return. Their hooves help scarify native seeds that depend on trampling and dispersal to create better growing conditions. In the San Marcos Foothills Preserve, the restoration project to bring back the native bunchgrasses should also bring back the Meadowlark and Grasshopper Sparrow, grounddwelling birds that had been pushed out by the invasive exotics.

As a nearby resident of the preserve, seeing the sheep coming by and hearing them in the hills was such a joy, especially when the young lambs were there. So we benefit from their presence, too.

The second component of Cuyama Lamb is meat production. They started an initial flock of 400 yearling ewes. Over the years, they follow a natural cycle of growing, having babies and culling out the young males, called wethers, while retaining the ewes to expand the headcount. Their lamb is organic and pasture-raised through their grazing projects. And as anyone who has passed by the evermoving flock throughout Santa Barbara County can see, the sheep are living happy, enriched lives.

Finally comes wool production. It might seem to be the least visible aspect of the company, but wool is a part of nearly all our lives. Wool socks, sweaters, rugs, dryer tumbler balls and felted toys all come from sheep. Much to my surprise, I learned from Jack and Jenya that all the wool produced in the world is hand sheared. No machine can do the intricate work of shearing wool from a sheep’s body. And shearing must be done yearly to keep a sheep’s wool maintained from overgrowing, matting and simply to remove its winter coat for the warmer weather. Much like how we must keep our own nails and hair trimmed, so is a sheep’s fleece periodically cut.

Currently, their wool is sent away wholesale, but anyone who would like to buy an entire fleece from them is welcome to inquire. Shearing is a springtime activity and took place at Orella Ranch in Gaviota in late February this year. Last year the shearing took place right on the preserve, an easy walk up Cieneguitas Road, where a multimillion-dollar luxury home now stands.

Unlike a business with a brick and mortar location, or even a farm that is generally confined to a defined plot of land, tending sheep is a nomadic experience that cannot follow a rigid schedule. Cuyama Lamb’s ability to move around the county requires coordination of trucks to haul the sheep, a watering station and food for the dogs, as well as daily construction of electric fencing as the sheep move around to new fields. Much of Jack and Jenya’s days are spent building fences, taking down fences and talking to people who wander by with questions. It is sometimes chaotic, and unforeseen issues pop up constantly that must reprioritize their time. In the month the sheep spent moving around daily at the San Marcos Foothills Preserve, the couple dealt with a rattlesnake bite on one of their dogs, moving a portion of their flock to Summerland for a short grazing project, co-hosting a regenerative agriculture educational session with the White Buffalo Land Preserve (in the rain) and coordinating all the sheep shearing operations with the shearers who traveled down from Mendocino.

With so many moving parts in a highly dynamic environment, it can be hard to unwind and recharge. Their home was an RV parked in various locations near the flock where they would cozy up with each other and their herding dogs at night.

The dogs themselves are critical contributors to the whole operation, Cuyama Lamb couldn’t function without them. Jack and Jenya have four dogs, and each plays a different and vital role in caring for the flock.

Lucy and Yorae are the sheep protectors. Lucy is a Maremma, and Yorae is a Great Pyrenees, breeds with natural herd protecting instincts. They are bonded to the sheep, live and sleep with them and guard them.

These creamy white dogs are the ones you’re most likely to encounter if you visit the sheep in any publically accessible spot. The dogs will see you and race right up to the fence to bark at you. Then they immediately back away to say: This is my crew and do not come any closer. They are lovely sweet dogs, and there’s no need to fear them, but they are still working dogs— not pets—and they shouldn’t be approached through the fence as if they were. At night, they keep away predators. Not a single sheep or lamb has been lost yet under Lucy and Yorae’s watch.

This recent springtime, just as the novel Coronavirus put the county into lockdown, Yorae gave birth to six puppies. As the rest of us sheltered in place, uncertain of our future, Jack and Jenya shuttled Yorae between the offsite flocks and her litter of wiggly pups. Since then, five of Yorae’s offspring have moved on to other farming families while one male, called Bruno, is growing up with Yorae and Lucy. He’s destined to be a very big boy and already a natural at protecting the sheep.

Rocco is a herding dog, who stays with the shepherds and follows their commands to assist moving the sheep around. He is a gathering dog who specializes in herding sheep back into the flock. Sherman was Jack’s longtime pet (since he was still a teenager), who became a natural driving dog—the dog that herds the sheep away from them. Sherman, being an old soul, sadly passed away earlier this year. When the time is right, they’ll bring another herding dog into their lives.

The dogs are like family. Working alongside the dogs with unconditional love and trust is a special bond between all of them. But when they’re not working, these dogs have plenty of love to give and receive with others. Rocco, in particular, has no shame in seeking attention and will climb up onto you to clearly state his need for scritches.

Sheep queued up for their first shearing.

Sheep queued up for their first shearing.

Jenya holds up an intact fleece. This is where our wool comes from. There exists no mechanical way to shear sheep, it is entirely done by hand.

Jenya holds up an intact fleece. This is where our wool comes from. There exists no mechanical way to shear sheep, it is entirely done by hand.

Snack break! Jack, with the assistance of volunteers through the Channel Island Restoration nonprofit, herds the sheep across San Marcos Foothills Preserve.

Snack break! Jack, with the assistance of volunteers through the Channel Island Restoration nonprofit, herds the sheep across San Marcos Foothills Preserve.

This year’s newly shorn sheep cast an inquisitive eye while grazing at dusk at Elings Park. Did you get a chance to see them? If not, they will be back.

This year’s newly shorn sheep cast an inquisitive eye while grazing at dusk at Elings Park. Did you get a chance to see them? If not, they will be back.

The crew has two semi-permanent homes. The first is at Quail Springs in the Cuyama Valley, where it all began. This year they took up residence in Gaviota, on Orella Ranch, where their business model works complementary to Orella’s regenerative and permaculture operations. The move will allow them better access to the Central Coast, and let them return home at night rather than pack into a small RV with their dogs.

While they do enjoy the semi-nomadic nature of their work, both acknowledge that this lifestyle makes it hard to build strong, stable relationships outside of their shepherding bubble. For Jenya, it’s having the time and space to grow a garden she misses most. Moving around doesn’t let her put down roots, literally or figuratively. For someone so passionately devoted to nature, getting her daily food from a store instead of growing it is a hard compromise. For Jack, who is naturally extroverted, he values the friendships from Quail Springs. He misses those community connections when he’s away, tending the sheep for months at a time.

Cuyama might be just 30 miles away from Santa Barbara as the crow flies, but is over a two-hour drive as it lacks a direct route. Likewise, bringing the sheep out into our coastal communities has created new friendships. Returning to Cuyama for the months the sheep graze the high desert puts those new relationships on hold.

Thankfully, their new home in Gaviota has organic farm produce onsite and calming ocean views. Its more central location will allow them to commute around the county more easily, returning to Cuyama as needed. I spoke with Jack just a few days after they moved, and he was already building new garden beds for themselves. Since then, the garden has flourished with lettuces and other vegetables from their favorite seedling farm, Yes Yes Nursery.

This year, they plan to have the first round of meat produced in whole, half and quarter shares. All the meat will be available via Gaviota Givings, Orella’s retail side, and will complement Gaviota Giving’s selections of pork, beef and chicken.

I got my hands on a midsection primal of one of their lambs last spring. One of their “ewes” turned out to be a boy, and he was culled from the flock. From this, I dry-cured the loin cuts into charcuterie. One became lomo with traditional spices of garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns and rosemary. The other was basturma, a Middle Eastern dish using cumin, fenugreek, and paprika. Both cured in about a month, and I brought them to Orella Ranch, sliced them thin and drizzled with olive oil for a dinner at sunset. For a couple surrounded continuously by sheep, they haven’t yet tired of eating lamb, and we thoroughly enjoyed the charcuterie.

Cuyama Lamb is more than just sheep. It’s more than breaking beyond the borders of assuming that being a rancher requires having your own ranch. Jack and Jenya’s sheep are going into spaces where machines and neglect drained resources, and they have put life back into it. The fact that they are going into public spaces adds much to our personal delight.

As Jack puts it, “We as humans are inherently connected to landscapes. And we are in a crisis of belonging. Pain and indecisiveness come from feeling you don’t belong, so feeling a part of your surroundings is important to the well-being of all. Imagine a world where we are a benefit to it, and we can be a part of our landscape. Being a better steward for the land is better for everything: people, soil, plants, and animals. It is possible to provide for it while also receiving from it.”

That’s the underlying thread of Cuyama Lamb. In this time of Covid-19, hiking through Elings Park or the San Marcos Foothills Preserve provided residents with joy in rural life, and hope in seeing newborn lambs steady their legs under the protective care of their mothers and the guardian dogs. Next year, let us hope for the same.

But I know what lingering question weighs heavy on your mind. And the answer is: Yes, Jack and Jenya have and use a shepherd’s crook. It is a real thing. The crook is used to reel a wandering sheep back into the flock. It goes to show that very little has changed from the nursery rhymes and fables of our childhoods. Sheep graze, they have shepherds and dogs taking care of them. Wool is still hand-sheared and is still a well-loved and useful textile.

Jack and Jenya are bringing this literally into our backyards through integrated land management that replaces industrial crop machinery and synthetic fertilizers with natural ones. Being shepherds is a semi-nomadic existence that often moves contrary to modern society and requires discipline to thrive in solitude. Still, with the right teammates and a supportive community, they are never alone.

Rosminah Brown is a Santa Barbara native who types fast and eats slow. When she isn’t fleeing wildfires in the foothills, she can often be found around the San Marcos Preserve, especially now. She hopes everyone is staying safe and looking after each other.

To Find Out More

Want to see where the sheep are grazing? Follow them on Instagram @cuyamalamb. Their multi-year contracts at publicly accessible spaces include the San Marcos Foothills Preserve, Elings Park and the Tea Gardens in Montecito. So we won’t have to travel far from our shelters-in-place to visit the sheep and working dogs.

This summer, they are offering whole, half and quarter shares of their Santa Barbara County raised lamb with plans to have ground meat and sausage later on. They are eager to work with people who share their approach to being connected to the food they eat and the land that provided it. Ordering and inquiries are available on their website: www.cuyamalamb.com/lamb-orders

To request more information on their meat, you can also email meat@cuyamalamb.com.

EdibleSantaBarbara.com SUMMER/FALL 2020