Written by Caroline Spurgin, Producer Program Intern. Photos by Alycia Lang.
Sebastopol’s Capella Grazing Project was conceived and realized by the stunning Ms. Marie Hoff, one of Fibershed’s youngest producers. Marie is confident and grounded as I interview her on a fresh and warm Wednesday afternoon in March. Her cheeks are rosy after having had the pleasure of pushing her new old cherry-red pick-up into the driveway from halfway down the road. She is well aware of the fact that eight petite Ouessant/Shetland sheep are awaiting her attention in a nearby pasture; these sheep, the Capella Grazers, are Marie’s pilot flock for her new vineyard grazing endeavor. She hopes to expand the outfit in the future but is testing for project viability first. This means that since the sheep arrived in her care in November she has been in constant new-parent-mode—testing, troubleshooting and crossing her fingers. For these reasons, among others, I am deeply impressed by her fortitude.
Like the Grazers, who arrived in California after a cross-country trip commencing in Massachusetts, Marie is a transplant here in Sonoma county. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she migrated north after stopping over with friends in the area and being enchanted by the rustic atmosphere and hearty agrarian culture innate in our region. For years she has worked at various local farms and dairies, which she now continues to do while shifting her focus from the agricultural ventures of others to her own. She ascribes her recent commitment to the bucolic lifestyle of a rancher as her response to a realization that she “had to do more.” Serendipitously, it was not long after reaching this conclusion that Leslie Adkins, Fibershed producer and heartfelt fiber farmer, offered Marie the opportunity to purchase the little Ouessants from the same farm where she had purchased her own.
Marie’s little flock bears the brightest star of the Auriga constellation, Capella, as it’s namesake. Capella is the star’s Roman name, meaning “She-goat.” The star represents Amalthaea, the goat who nursed Zeus as an infant. The Capella Grazers, like the celestial animal they connote, have serious work to do. They nibble at the cusp of what shows all signs of being a revolution in American viticulture.
Marie illustrates how the sheep have been methodically nibbling their way through a couple acres of range land, farm and vineyard in Green Valley, located in Western Sonoma County. The Grazers provide weed control and fertilization for the crops and pastureland, while the sheep gain familiarity with the patterns and the sense of discipline requisite of professional vineyard grazing animals. After a few more months of career development the flock will be ready to provide maintenance services to larger scale vineyards and orchards. This practice of vineyard grazing is popular in Europe, where livestock have grazed down public and private greenery for centuries.
It seems that Marie was drawn to agriculture and life with the Ouessants through sheer force of gravity, but her situation cannot solely be attributed to providence. Marie has always been fascinated by the intersections between sociocultural and natural systems, and as she slowly fell into the agrarian lifestyle she found that it satisfied this fascination. For Marie, working in agriculture brings a sense of deep alignment with ecological systems while also immersing her in the sociocultural elements of life through direct involvement in the market economy. As global awareness shifts towards imagining and enacting a sustainable future, exploration of these intersections is becoming more clearly vital. The marketplace must learn to obey the laws and limitations of ecology if we hope to attain this imagined future. While working to capture these sentiments in words, she emanates a sense of profound promise. Her clear eyes express a grounded optimism, her voice the strength and intelligence required to sustain it. I leave the Green Valley Village with a deep confidence in Marie and her project; a deep confidence in a generation that is working hard to produce a more holistic future. We at Fibershed look forward to watching the the Capella Grazing Project unfold.
Many thanks to Marie and her flock for a wonderful visit!
Marie also operates two farmers’ market booths for Fibershed producers and artisans. You can find her at both the Marin Country Mart Farmers’ Market in Larkspur (2nd and 4th Saturdays) and the Temescal Farmers’ Market in Oakland (2nd and 4th Sundays) with a variety of handmade goods created with local fibers and local natural dyes.