Recently, I got the opportunity to travel to California to soak up some new scenery. While there I reached out to Lynn Moody, owner of Blue Oak Canyon Ranch to learn more about her rare Santa Cruz Island Sheep. Having worked in design for many years experimenting with different fibers is one thing, but getting to spend time with the animals brings a whole new meaning to selecting a fiber and the relationship to that design. Luckily, Lynn was happy to have us and greeted us warmly with iced tea and lemonade at her incredibly scenic abode.
If you are not familiar with Santa Cruz Island Sheep they are originally from the Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California for which they are named. They are considered to have Merino and Rambouillet ancestors and tend to be smaller than most other sheep breeds. Despite an attempt in the early 1980’s to eradicate them on the island due to ecosystem concerns the Livestock Conservancy noted the importance of free-ranging sheep so conservation efforts were put into place. Currently, there is a population of about 150 that are registered.
This unique history and focus on conservation is what got Lynn started on her path raising Santa Cruz Island Sheep. Learn more in the interview below!
So how did you get into farming, was this something you had been around as a child or was a path you took later in life?
Lynn Moody: I was born and raised in a large city (Columbus, Ohio) but used to spend a week or two each summer with my cousins on their farm (tobacco, cattle) in northern Kentucky. That was my introduction to farming.
Later, after earning a Ph.D. in Soil Science, I eventually taught soil science, earth science, and geology at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. While there, I worked on a project where we compared two watersheds, both in cattle grazing but one employing intensive rotational grazing and the other conventional grazing. We documented that the rotational grazing correlated with improvements in water quality and that the rotational grazing began to shift the vegetation communities toward native perennials (compared with introduced annual plants).
That project made me aware that livestock, properly managed, can be a tool for land improvement. Also, continued study of soils got me interested in soil carbon, its many benefits, and how careful management can be a tool for sequestration of greenhouse gases and soil improvement.
At what point did you decide to raise Santa Cruz Island Sheep, what excited you about these animals?
Lynn: I was a self-taught knitter, then took up spinning, obtained French angora rabbits as fiber animals. After the rabbits, we moved on to llamas, then finally sheep.
We started out with Navajo-Churro sheep, but weren’t fortunate in our first flock of those, and eventually decided to give up breeding the N-C sheep (we still have a few, for wool and because we like them). I looked around for another “endangered” breed of sheep.
Reading about Santa Cruz Island sheep, I liked the interesting history and was intrigued by what I had read about their fiber, mostly from Deborah Robson, a very well-known fiber artist and writer. I contacted a breeder in Oregon, and asked to buy a fleece (to try it out), she didn’t have any fleeces to sell but sent me some small amounts to try. I cleaned and spun those, and learned the wool is challenging to process and spin but gives a really wonderful yarn.
In 2010, we found a breeder coincidentally near to us. Marion Stanley, who was one of the people who rescued the sheep from Santa Cruz Island, and bought our starter flock of 9 white sheep. I wanted some brown wool, so we acquired 3 ewes from a flock in Santa Paula, California. Later, we acquired two white and two brown ewes and two brown rams from a flock in Windsor, California.
What we like about them, is their history, their unique wool, and their small size.
What is so special about the fiber of these sheep and what characteristics does this fiber have that might be different from alpaca or cashmere?
Lynn: The fiber is next-to-skin fine and soft, with amazing crimp, very bouncy, and it spins into a very elastic yarn. When asked, I suggest people who are going to knit with it, to use needles one size up from what they would use with a less “stretchy”, elastic yarn.
I have knitted and woven with Santa Cruz Island yarn and I love it. I have blended it with cotton, with angora rabbit fiber, and with Navajo-Churro lamb’s wool, and the Santa Cruz Island wool lends its elasticity to these blends.
Most people understand the fiber aspect, but what else would you say is beneficial about having these animals in the region? Is there something people are unaware of?
Lynn: Santa Cruz Island sheep are very tough little sheep, excellent mothers, and will eat just about anything that grows. They are browsers as well as grazers, they eat brush and trees (as far up as they can reach) and are excellent weed eaters. We graze/browse them around the house before wildfire season, also we graze them here and there around the ranch to establish fire breaks.
I was amused one day to look out the kitchen window and see Sophia, a Santa Cruz Island ewe, standing on Sam, a Navajo-Churro wether, to reach higher up into an oak tree. Sam didn’t seem to mind.
What does a typical day look like for you and how does the weather effect raising the animals?
Lynn: In the late spring and summer, we get up at 4:30 or 5:00 am, feed the cats, dogs and have our breakfast, then we’re out by 6:00 or so. We check the livestock – sheep, a few llamas, chickens, turkeys – and feed whoever needs feeding. We do whatever chores need doing like brush control, sheep and llama shearing, irrigation, fence building or maintenance early before it gets hot (typical summer high temperatures are in the 100’s, Fahrenheit). Afternoons, I spend working wool (processing, spinning, dyeing, etc.) and gardening, or making preserves, or whatever computer-type stuff.
Jim spends that time on vehicle and tractor maintenance, as needed. We do an evening feeding/watering of the livestock, and just after dark, close up the chicken houses for the night.
In the winter, we do the above plus discing and planting of three fields. We plant in barley, for additional grazing for the sheep and llamas. Of course, days are a lot shorter in the winter so we can sleep in a little later (but usually we don’t), and if we have good rains, we don’t need to irrigate.
The animals handle the heat of summer well, we make sure they have water and shade, and they are fine. They are fine in the winter, too, we get pretty cold (in the teens, typically) but by then they have wool. When the rainy season comes, we cover their shade structures with tarps or sheet plastic so they can get out of the rain if they choose (the sheep don’t like rain and will use the shelters, the llamas don’t seem to mind it).
Farming isn’t easy and it often seems you really have to love what you are doing to go this route so would you say this is more of a personal endeavor or do you view it as a business? Or maybe a little of both?
Lynn: We do love it, and take it very personally! But it’s a business too. With respect to the livestock, I sell wool and llama fiber in various stages of production (raw fleeces, roving, rolags) and, with a wonderful partner in the San Francisco Bay area, have a yarn business in which we sell only Santa Cruz Island wool yarn, handspun. The yarn business is named Ovis Rustica.
How did you get connected with Fibershed and how does working with them help build your business?
Lynn: A few years ago, I was contacted by Rebecca Burgess, who started the Fibershed, and she invited me to come to their Wool Symposium and give a talk about Santa Cruz Island sheep, as part of a joint presentation on “Drought Tolerant Sheep.” One of my casual interests is regionalization of economies (as contrasted with globalization) so I was interested in the Fibershed concept.
My local Fibershed Affiliate seems not to be active and the Monterey Bay Fibershed Affiliate wouldn’t let me join so Rebecca let me join the Bay area group. I met Sandra Guidi at that meeting. Sandra and her husband bought four Santa Cruz Island sheep from us, one of them just had her own lamb! We became friends and (a couple of years later) started Ovis Rustica. We share a vendor’s table annually at the Fibershed’s Wool Symposium in November. In addition, Fibershed has a website which features fiber producers, and I have a page on that.
Have there been any challenges in running the farm or fiber processing that feel like an impossible task to achieve sustainably or financially?
Lynn: We have not ever yet made a profit on the farm, it is definitely a labor of love. Thank goodness, we have outside income!
To my knowledge, no one around my area makes a living just off farming, someone has to work outside the farm or have businesses on the side (cattle hauling, for example, as one of our neighbors does, or having people pay to hunt game animals and birds in the appropriate season). An exception to this is the wine grape growers and, since marijuana is now legal in California, maybe Cannabis growers? (for the record, I don’t know of any around here).
Isn’t it ironic, folks growing food and fiber which are necessities have a hard time making ends meet, whereas people growing recreational drugs such as wine do just fine?
As far as fiber processing, it would be very nice to find a mill that would take our wool from raw fleece to yarn. Especially a mill in California, in keeping with the Fibershed concept. I love hand spinning and the preparation that goes with it, but it is a slow and very labor-intensive process and I haven’t been able to keep up with demand.
Typically, Santa Cruz Island wool is a short staple and most mills require a staple length of 3 to 7 inches (our wool, typically, is 1.5 to 2 inches). It is easy and fun to hand spin, but perhaps not so easy by machine.
What would you say are your goals for Blue Oak Canyon Ranch and/or do you have any future plans to use the fiber in other ways?
Lynn: I’d like to contribute to making people aware of how wonderful natural fibers are, especially locally sourced and ethically produced.
Locally, I haven’t been very successful because of the time and labor that goes into making yarn, I have to price it so that it is not price competitive with, say, acrylic yarn from Walmart. People also seem to be under the very much mistaken idea that wool is difficult to maintain and is unsanitary because it comes from animals (they should try hanging out in an oilfield, talk about unsanitary!). Sandra has much better luck with marketing in the SF Bay area, where people are more “into” fiber arts and sustainability. I guess one of my jobs is education.
Another goal I have, of course, is to preserve and promote Santa Cruz Island sheep and their fiber. And another is to preserve our little ranch as the diverse and beautiful open land that it is.
If you had one wish or goal what would you like to see happen in the industry?
Lynn: Right now, it seems to me that clothing and household articles sold through, for example, the Fibershed, are pretty pricey, and indeed they MUST be to sustain the fiber producers and artisans. I understand that, definitely, and relate to it. I just wish there were a way to make clothing and accessories more affordable and more accessible so that folks wouldn’t feel they HAVE to go to Walmart.
Maybe, encourage and educate people to make more of their own clothing and household accessories. Make THAT fashionable.
If you could use a time machine to go back 15 years what piece of advice would you give yourself?
Lynn: Start sheep farming earlier!
Lastly, after a long day what is your favorite way to unwind or cut loose?
Lynn: Usually, I am spinning yarn right up to bedtime. While I’m doing that, we listen to public radio or watch movies (no television reception out here, “50 miles from nowhere!”). I love going to art galleries, we do that once in a while. I love county fairs. I love to read. In the winter, when days are shorter and our outdoor activities are limited, I often will weave or knit.
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