Edible Marin and Wine Country Spring 2012 : Page 16

A TALE OF THREE SHEPHERDS BY KIRSTEN JONES NEFF Don Watson: Wooly Weeders Here I find myself, 5,000 years back in time, standing amongst the fabled hills of Anatolia. The land stretches out like a painting around me as layers of grassy knolls roll into the horizon. I climb up a rise to watch the silhouetted shapes of a shepherd and his dogs follow sheep as they descend from lush grassland into a steep canyon laced with white stone. The winter sun and a few clouds hang motionless in the sky of this idyllic scene, and time slows to the easy pace of the moving sheep. Then, suddenly, a loud whining sound breaks the quiet, and I am reminded that it is a modern-day Thursday, and I am still in the Bay Area. Something fast and bright catches my eye at the base of the hills, 200 yards below. It is the red stripe of a high-speed race car, whizzing around the track of Infineon Raceway, which is tucked into this pastoral Sonoma County landscape. This is a down day at the track, a day for practice laps. Thankfully Chaco, the little collie I just watched herd the meandering sheep into the canyon, has been trained out of his unfortunate habit of chasing cars. The sheep keep the racetrack looking tidy. Not just trimmed—much better than that! Somehow the flat land around the track and the 1,600 acres of grass-and forbs-covered hills above are so cleanly mowed that they look surprisingly close to a golf course. Don Watson, owner of the Wooly Weeders herd I’m following, acts as my guide on this journey from ancient to modern. He stands beside me, pointing out the special attributes of his hybrid ewes, a mix of East Friesian, Dorset and Suffolk breeds. As we watch the herd cross a wet ravine, his favorite ram just happens to truck by. “That’s him!” Watson says with pride. “He’s probably the main reason this whole herd is so successful.” With a long low body and a lazy bearded expression, the guy is not pretty. But Watson claims he’s got what it takes. “He’s a Dorper, which is a hybrid of Dorset and Persian Fat Tail. He is very hardy, and his offspring thrive.” 16 | EDIBLE MARIN & WINE COUNTRY SPRING 2012 Watson introduces me to Oscar Ortiz Palomino, an immigrant shepherd from the Sierra Central in Peru, who carries the around-the-clock responsibility for the 600 sheep mowing Infi-neon Raceway. Watson believes that Ortiz Palomino, who is living in the United States on a special three-year shepherd’s visa, could train and manage any animal, as evidenced by his results with the car-chasing Chaco. Ortiz Palomino, one of about 1,500 Basque, Mongolian and Peruvian herders working the grazing land across the country in three-year stints, was raised in one of the very few shepherding cultures left in the modern world. Their skills, not replaceable by machines, are hard to come by. Watson also gives significant credit to his border collie and Great Pyrenees working dogs. When we stop walking to chat we hear a bark, deep and low enough to indicate a very large chest cavity. Watson points to a shaggy white creature reigning over the hill opposite from where we are standing. That is Kimba, Watson tells me, the “matriarch” of his Great Pyrenees guard dog crew. “There’s a biological control for everything,” says Watson, a native Californian and graduate of UC Davis School of Agriculture. “You just have to find it.” Many of his “Aggie” classmates believed that traps, poisons and shotguns were the way to protect sheep from predators. But Watson dis-covered that nothing works as well as the magnificent bark and imposing size of a dog like Kimba. She is the biological control for coyotes and mountain lions that are looking to make a midnight snack of Watson’s sheep. Oh, and here come Kimba’s illustrious colleagues, Droopy and Goofy, to check me out. This is their territory after all and they will need to give me the once over. They are a little more, well, droopy and goofy than Kimba (and a little more drooly too), but they are equally large and clearly take their security job quite seriously. Watson, like many 21st century shepherds in the Bay Area, has found a strong market for milk-fed, pasture-grazed lamb. Northern California, unlike many grazing areas in the country, has a temperate climate where it is possible to provide a true “spring lamb” in the spring. Spring lambs Photo: Gibson Thomas

A Tale Of Three Shepherds

By Kirsten Jones Neff

Don Watson: Wooly Weeders

Here I find myself, 5,000 years back in time, standing amongst the fabled hills of Anatolia. The land stretches out like a painting around me as layers of grassy knolls roll into the horizon. I climb up a rise to watch the silhouetted shapes of a shepherd and his dogs follow sheep as they descend from lush grassland into a steep canyon laced with white stone. The winter sun and a few clouds hang motionless in the sky of this idyllic scene, and time slows to the easy pace of the moving sheep.

Then, suddenly, a loud whining sound breaks the quiet, and I am reminded that it is a modern-day Thursday, and I am still in the Bay Area. Something fast and bright catches my eye at the base of the hills, 200 yards below. It is the red stripe of a high-speed race car, whizzing around the track of Infineon Raceway, which is tucked into this pastoral Sonoma County landscape. This is a down day at the track, a day for practice laps. Thankfully Chaco, the little collie I just watched herd the meandering sheep into the canyon, has been trained out of his unfortunate habit of chasing cars.

The sheep keep the racetrack looking tidy. Not just trimmed–much better than that! Somehow the flat land around the track and the 1,600 acres of grass- and forbs-covered hills above are so cleanly mowed that they look surprisingly close to a golf course. Don Watson, owner of the Wooly Weeders herd I'm following, acts as my guide on this journey from ancient to modern. He stands beside me, pointing out the special attributes of his hybrid ewes, a mix of East Friesian, Dorset and Suffolk breeds. As we watch the herd cross a wet ravine, his favorite ram just happens to truck by.

"That's him!" Watson says with pride. "He's probably the main reason this whole herd is so successful." With a long low body and a lazy bearded expression, the guy is not pretty. But Watson claims he's got what it takes. "He's a Dorper, which is a hybrid of Dorset and Persian Fat Tail. He is very hardy, and his offspring thrive."

Watson introduces me to Oscar Ortiz Palomino, an immigrant shepherd from the Sierra Central in Peru, who carries the around-the-clock responsibility for the 600 sheep mowing Infineon Raceway. Watson believes that Ortiz Palomino, who is living in the United States on a special three-year shepherd's visa, could train and manage any animal, as evidenced by his results with the car-chasing Chaco. Ortiz Palomino, one of about 1,500 Basque, Mongolian and Peruvian herders working the grazing land across the country in three-year stints, was raised in one of the very few shepherding cultures left in the modern world. Their skills, not replaceable by machines, are hard to come by.

Watson also gives significant credit to his border collie and Great Pyrenees working dogs. When we stop walking to chat we hear a bark, deep and low enough to indicate a very large chest cavity. Watson points to a shaggy white creature reigning over the hill opposite from where we are standing. That is Kimba, Watson tells me, the "matriarch" of his Great Pyrenees guard dog crew.

"There's a biological control for everything," says Watson, a native Californian and graduate of UC Davis School of Agriculture. "You just have to find it." Many of his "Aggie" classmates believed that traps, poisons and shotguns were the way to protect sheep from predators. But Watson discovered that nothing works as well as the magnificent bark and imposing size of a dog like Kimba. She is the biological control for coyotes and mountain lions that are looking to make a midnight snack of Watson's sheep. Oh, and here come Kimba's illustrious colleagues, Droopy and Goofy, to check me out. This is their territory after all and they will need to give me the once over. They are a little more, well, droopy and goofy than Kimba (and a little more drooly too), but they are equally large and clearly take their security job quite seriously.

Watson, like many 21st century shepherds in the Bay Area, has found a strong market for milk-fed, pasture-grazed lamb. Northern California, unlike many grazing areas in the country, has a temperate climate where it is possible to provide a true "spring lamb" in the spring. Spring lambs are born in the fall (although in California the spring lamb season is extended to most of the year). They drink mother's milk and graze through the winter, and are slaughtered in the spring when they are still young, less than 6 months old. This is the lamb, tender and subtle in flavor, that chefs dream of serving. Many diners who are resistant to lamb have eaten an older, "confined lifestyle" lamb, often imported from New Zealand. More and more, in recent years, our local shepherds bring chefs their dream lamb, straight from the fields and mild in flavor.

Cindy Pawlcyn, who has gained a reputation for championing sustainable practices that support local businesses (see A Whole New Compost in this issue), was Watson's first customer. Now his lamb is sought by high-end restaurants all over the Bay Area. Standard setter Sam Mogannam, proprietor of Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco, has been a huge supporter and promoter, and chefs as renowned as Michael Mina have featured his lamb.

It was on an airplane that Watson met Infineon's vice president of operations, Jim Stark, and convinced him that he could get rid of the gas-guzzling lawn mowers, become more environmentally friendly and save money all the while. Four years and 3,000 sheep later, the sheep and Infineon management are equally happy. The racetrack is a model of sustainable weed control practices.

Watson describes the growth underfoot as we walk back over the hills toward my car. "We've got subterranean clover, medic or burr clover." Shaved close to the ground, the grasses and forbs look like an intricate kaleidoscope of green jewels.

"Remember," Watson continues, looking over his sheep and the Elysian Fields that surround this Bay Area racetrack, "this place was first named Yerba Buena, meaning 'good grass.'"

Don Gilardi: Redhill Farms

Due west about a dozen miles, another herd of sheep enjoys the offerings in a gorgeous stretch of lowland valley tucked below a ridge crowned by massive oaks. Don Gilardi grew up on this 80 acres of extended-family farm but, unlike Don Watson, he had no intention of getting into the herding business. Ten years ago, he was a realtor working out of nearby Petaluma, helping his family out on the land in the evenings and on weekends. Every once in a while his mother would travel and he would help out managing her small herd of 10 sheep.

"One day she called me and said, 'They're yours.' I said, 'But I don't want them,' and she said, 'Well, as of tomorrow, they're yours.'"

You never know how things will turn out, and, in this case, Gildardi's mother did know best. In the following years, as Gilardi grew his herd of sheep, the market for local, organic, pasture-fed lamb took off. Gilardi made his own luck over the next decade as he repaired fences, fixed pumps and secured organic certification, which he says was easy because his family had always worked the land in a natural way. His luck now had momentum and when Helge Hellberg, former executive director of Marin Organic, came by one day and saw Gilardi's young herd, it was a perfect match. "When you've got product, you call me," Hellberg told Gilardi. So, later that spring, when Gilardi's sheep were ready for harvesting, he called Hellberg. "Within a half hour," Gilardi says, as if he still can't believe it, "I had chefs from all over calling me. All of a sudden I was 'The Lamb Guy.'"

When things make sense, they tend to fall into place easily, so what happened next is no great surprise. "I had a herd of sheep and Jeff from McEvoy Ranch next door had land that needed mowing, so I took them up there." Suddenly, Gilardi was also in the landscape management business, letting his sheep mow and fertilize McEvoy's orchard land. Since then he has begun keeping another large property in Bolinas fire safe, and trimming along the fire roads around a new subdivision in Petaluma. Gilardi's 19-year-old nephew, Tyler Tuck, who has followed Gilardi around the ranch since he was 7 or 8, learning to build and repair fences and manage the animals, is now in charge of the containment and protection responsibilities of the landscape management business. The sheep graze rotationally on these additional properties, so Tuck and a small team set up fencing around temporary four-acre sheep "buffets," and respond to any predatory encroachments.

Gilardi has recently added 4,000 chickens to his ranch's menagerie, and in doing so has added "Chicken Guy" to his burgeoning resume. Gilardi sells these through area Whole Foods markets under the Redhill Farms label.

He has come a long way from that day his mom handed him the keys to her herd. As successful as he has been, he still seems a little dazed by his luck. Dazed, and proud. "It's amazing to me that this is even working," he says, surveying the herds and flocks enjoying various pasture on his land. "Our dream was just to have 700 sheep some day! And all of a sudden we do–and it's the best-tasting lamb around."

John Fritschen: Fritschen Vineyards

By the time I make my way up East River Road toward John Fritschen's vineyard in Healdsburg, I am beginning to really enjoy this gig. It turns out that tracking down herds of grazing sheep means I get to spend time on some of the most glorious land, enjoying the most dramatic vistas, in the greater Bay Area.

Fritschen's 19 sheep, which will spend most of their days until March winding in and out of his rows of Pinot grape vines, look particularly happy. And who wouldn't be? They enjoy the steep, rocky terrain of the two rises that frame this property overlooking the Russian River. Behind them the golden leaves of the Russian River vineyards stretch out for miles in the afternoon sun. Best of all, they are safe and doing what they most love to do: eating grass and weeds.

Fritschen originally mowed his vineyards with a herd of Baby Doll sheep, famous for their stature … or shall we say lack of stature. Baby Dolls are a favorite in vineyards because they just can't reach those tasty buds and leaves, so they tend to focus more on the ground cover. But they are not particularly hardy, which is a more serious problem when the herd is small to start with. So Fritschen has evolved his herd over the years. Now they are primarily Dorpers, which, as Watson pointed out, are very hardy. They have an additional advantage in that they "shed out" every year in the summer, eliminating the need to shear.

The sheep in Fritschen's vineyard will move to a lower pasture mid-March. Some will go to slaughter in Occidental and then straight to Barndiva restaurant in Healdsburg, where chef Ryan Fancher will do the butchering. Others will feed on grass and alfalfa, hang out with the ram and deliver new members of the herd until after harvest the following fall. In certain cases, vintners will continue to use sheep through mid-August, "employing" them to clear out the lower grape leaves before harvest. This allows sun and air to reach the grapes and prevents mildew, a concern for some grape varieties, and in some geographic regions.

In a world of inhumane slaughterhouse monopolies and fewer and fewer opportunities to get meat straight from the farmer, Fritschen's relationship with Barndiva's Chef Fancher represents a shining example of a humane model for local animal husbandry and meat consumption. "On Sunday I take the sheep over the hill to the Occidental slaughterhouse," Fritschen says. "On Monday the inspector comes. The next day I take the whole carcass in to Barndiva, where Ryan butchers it. By Wednesday, it is on the table in the restaurant."

Watson, Gilardi, Fritschen and other local shepherds are doing their part to keep our ecosystems and our cuisine healthy and humane. As the Barndiva proprietors point out so beautifully on their Eat The View blog documenting the butchering and preparation of one of Fritschen's sheep (http://eattheview.barndiva.com/2011/03/07/lambbutcher/), it is everything that happens between the bucolic field and the elegant dinner plate, the less appetizing and visually appealing parts of the meat-providing process, that we omnivores must consider carefully

Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist, poet, and middle school gardening teacher at the Novato Charter School. She feels extraordinarily lucky to live with her family in a small rural corner of northern Marin County. Links to her work and organic gardening and food blog can be found at www.kirstenjonesneff.com.

Read the full article at http://onlinedigeditions.com/article/A+Tale+Of+Three+Shepherds/981227/100920/article.html.

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