Barinaga Ranch — Inspired by Ancestral Traditions

Overlooking Tomales Bay, in the hills above the small town of Marshall, lies Barinaga Ranch. This special place in the Marin countryside grew out of a vision inspired by Basque ancestors and plenty of hard work by Fibershed producer member Marcia Barinaga and her husband Corey Goodman, a neuroscientist and biotech entrepreneur.

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The Barinaga family began sheep ranching in this country in the early 1900s, when Marcia’s paternal grandfather, Valentin Barinagarrementeria, traveled from the Basque village of Markina to Mountain Home, Idaho, to become a sheepherder. Eventually Valentin and his wife, Eulalia, ran a ranch in southern Idaho, with up to 5,000 ewes and their lambs. Theirs was a typical American sheep ranch, the products being lamb and wool. At the time there was as much demand for wool as for meat, so Valentin ran merino-cross ewes for wool quality and bred with Suffolk rams for lamb quality.

Marcia’s father, John, grew up herding sheep and tending sheep camp, but he left the ranch for a career in engineering, and moved to upstate New York, where he met and married Marcia’s mother, Stephanie, and where Marcia grew up.

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Marcia’s entry into the world of sheep followed an education as a biologist in San Diego and a career in science journalism in the Bay Area, while Corey was a professor at Stanford, and later UC Berkeley. Having spent weekends at their shore house on Tomales Bay for several years, they became part of the community and purchased their ranch in 2001.

Marcia and Corey were looking for a practice that would be healthy for the land, help sustain the ranch economically, and that would contribute to the agricultural economy in the area. Taking inspiration from the lives of her grandfather and her Basque cousins, some of whom live in traditional baserris where they milk their sheep and make cheese, Marcia decided to become a cheese-maker. Corey maintains a science career, but consults and advises Marcia on all aspects of the business.

Marcia got her first flock in 2007, before having much direct experience with sheep. Now it’s immediately apparent that she has a close connection with her animals. In the photo above she spends a few moments with Gracie, one of her retired milking ewes, and a provider of fleece for spinners.

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Barinaga’s flock of East Friesian dairy sheep, with some Katahdin mix, currently numbers around 30 ewes that graze year-round on over 100 acres of hilly, certified-organic pastures. At one time the flock was quite a bit larger, but Marcia wanted to model her business on the Basque shepherds who care for their sheep, do the milking and make the cheese. When the flock was too large she found that she was unable to be involved in all aspects of the operation and was becoming more of a manager, so she reduced the flock size by selling some of her animals to a dairy in Tomales.

Three Great Pyrenees livestock guard dogs — Big Otis, Oso and Shep — provide the flock with protection from predators. Two are with the ewe lambs and one with the ewes, as they work well alone or in pairs. Marcia sleeps well because her dogs are on guard; they have had zero predator kills thanks to the dogs and the predator-tight fencing. The presence of guard dogs reflects a change in the livestock industry, which has relied on traps, bullets and poison to control predators. At the Fibershed Wool & Fine Fiber Symposium on November 15th, 2014, there will be a presentation by Project Coyote on predator-friendly practices such as those used at Barinaga Ranch.

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The Barinaga Ranch mission is “to produce high quality, wholesome food in a way that sustains our land and our community, and to sell that food locally to enrich our community.” There are two dedicated employees that help run the business, José Cortéz (above, left) and Lisa Radke (above, right; photo courtesy of Marcia Barinaga).

Award-winning cheeses are produced by Marcia and her crew — Baserri, a West Marin interpretation of the Basque cheeses you can buy from farmhouses in the Basque country, and Txiki, a smaller version of Baserri with a different relationship of paste to rind. You can read more about these incredibly delicious cheeses, and learn where to buy them, on the Barinaga Ranch website. Or, make a reservation for a tour of the ranch and dairy that’s both educational and fun, with something different happening in each season.

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Although cheese is the main product from the ranch, Marcia has produced beautiful yarn and roving from her sheep’s wool. Some of the fiber has a lovely crimp and long staple length, so those fleeces are sold to hand spinners. According to Marcia, “the medium-coarse wool from our ewes has been praised by spinners for its ease of spinning, and yarn from our wool is especially good for weaving, felting or knitting a variety of projects.” Other products include lambskin rugs, pasture-raised lamb (sold as whole carcasses), and hogs raised on the whey from their cheese making. To learn more about the fiber and other products, email Marcia at lists@barinagaranch.com.

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While raising sheep at Barinaga Ranch offers continuity with the past, Marcia and Corey are also active participants in creating a positive future for agriculture in Marin County. Their ranch has been protected by a Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) easement since 1988; it was one of the first ranches to be protected. According to Marcia, “MALT’s stewardship advisors have a wealth of knowledge and have been very valuable advisors in all of our stewardship decisions. They have helped us with mapping invasive French Broom on our ranch, and in the early years that we owned the ranch, we received a grant from MALT to fence off our stock pond to make it a wildlife habitat, and develop a nearby spring to provide an alternative water source for the cattle, in a location that was less prone to erosion and runoff to Tomales Bay. I really feel that our relationship with MALT is an ongoing partnership.”

Marcia also feels that MALT, in its work of securing conservation easements and making sure that ranches remain in productive agriculture, as well as its work with stewardship of the land it protects, is competely aligned with her and Corey’s values of sustaining the land, sustaining the ranch economically, and sustaining the health of the West Marin agricultural community. They recently set up their estate so that when they die, their ranch will be left to MALT, which in turn assures that the land will remain in productive agriculture, with an owner who shares their values. Such values benefit not only the agricultural community of West Marin, but have a positive impact on us all. Thank you, Marcia and Corey, for your vision and your generosity.

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Photography by Paige Green (except where noted)

2 thoughts on “Barinaga Ranch — Inspired by Ancestral Traditions

  1. marcia it is so good to see what you are doing and to see a fellow classmate who went back to their family roots and the land. I went to Ag College and left my hospital reserach days to have devotedmy life to preservation of small family farms.

    I am now the owner of the remaining 67 acres of a 2000 plus acre farm, land granted to my 5xgreat grandfather by King George, for his victories in the French and Indian War. Sir William Pepperell was his name and it was on this farm that our family imported the first Merino Sheep to what would be come the United States of America. These last 67 acres are in “forever agriculture” conservation deeding. How I would love to return the sheep to this land, but since I do not live there and must lease the land, I have not found a way.

    Kudos to you!! I hope our paths cross either in upstate NY or in California. 🙂 BTW, I LOVE sheep cheese!

  2. Suzanne, what an amazing story! And so nice to hear! The first Merino sheep in the US! That is quite something. My father’s sheep were their descendants. So nice to hear another story of connecting with family roots and preserving family farms. What I tell people is that, considering how ancient our relationship is with sheep, the second domesticated animal after dogs, domesticated 10,000 years ago, we can be sure that we are all descended from shepherds and have “pastoral” genes. Think of all the iconography in our culture about the shepherd and his flock. But some of us have more of those shepherding genes than others. I hope you do find a way to return sheep to your land and your life.

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