Written by Jenna Tico; photography by Paige Green.
Right at the crook of California, nestled between state lines like a secret, is a valley: and in that valley, at her own intersection of worlds, stands a woman. Her toes have crept over into the unknown, but her heels remain planted in compost-rich soil. That woman is Lani Estill, rancher and fiber artist behind the esteemed Bare Ranch located in “Surprise Valley;” a land that locals call the Tricorner Region for its seat at the border of California, Oregon, and Nevada. True its name, Surprise Valley presents a host of curious environmental factors—sagebrush, high mountain desert—that would send most people running; however, our most challenging terrains often yield the truest growth, and Lani is hardly most people. “We have the unique advantage that we can send our sheep out to the desert for the winter,” Lani explains, detailing their annual trek between the desert and Warner Mountains. “You’d think there was nothing to eat out there, but it’s perfectly suited for sheep.” Namely Rambouillet sheep, whose baby-fine wool makes Lani’s newborn yarn business a must-watch for fiber lovers everywhere. Along with their multigenerational cattle, lambing, and hay production, Bare Ranch is also a model for climate-sensitive practices: proving that the best things can come from the border of possibility, and in this case, (quite literally) the most Surprising places.
“It’s a good name,” Lani laughs, referencing the valley that she has called home for the majority of her life. Though she “married into” livestock production, she grew up with the biz in her blood: “It’s always been a part of me,” she says, with a tone of well-earned confidence. “My grandparents had cattle.” With her “dreamer and go-getter” husband John at her side, Lani acquired her first band of fine-wool sheep in 1992; and since then, has made a point to learn as she goes. Or rather, as she teaches. “I started to get involved in the classroom, and thought: what do I know that I can share?” she explains, recalling her foray into the tiny, 120-student school that her four children attended. “And it was definitely sheep.” She was appointed as a Farm Bureau ambassador for agriculture in the classroom, a position she holds to this day. “I started just learning enough [to] share with kids, and as I started to learn more about the wool, was like ‘Oh! This is cool… it progressed from there.” And progress it has, blooming in the form of field trips and friendships that underscore the four small towns—Eagleville, Cedarville, Lake City, and Fort Bidwell—that constitute Surprise Valley. “We’re so small that we make our own entertainment,” Lani starts, exemplifying the community warmth that so often—albeit paradoxically—rises from isolation. “We do our own thing, and it’s fun.”
Almost as fun as her yearly schedule, and aforementioned pilgrimage that begins on the alfalfa stubble close to the ranch and winds into the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) range on the Warner Mountains each year. “The alfalfa is really strong, so that’s where we buck them up,” Lani explains. Once the sheep are bred, they trail to Gerlach: a speck on the Nevada map that, beyond any potential inter-sheep conversation, is known primarily as a waypost for Burning Man. “Lovely,” Lani laughs, nodding to the population of feather-clad, goggle-wearing festivalgoers who—beyond their yearly perch on this unusual land—have little in common with the Bare Ranch contingent. Or do they?
Lani’s breed of use is Rambouillet, a variety with fine fur that gets matted down if the weather is erratic and damp: as it is, nearly invariably, on the Northern California coast. On the strange, studded range of Bare Ranch, however—relatively barren to the naked eye—this breed not only survives, but thrives. “It’s hard to believe that there’s enough for anything to survive out there,” Lani says, “but they eat the brush and the white sage… and they actually do better than the one band that we leave at the ranch.” Though the latter group eats more hay and has a higher lambing percentage, their wool doesn’t compare to the group that makes the annual journey. “Their health just isn’t as good.” Not entirely unlike the 60,000 Burning Man attendees who flock to an insensible patch of dust each year, creating a city out of thin air only to burn it—along with whatever birth and death the previous year held—to the ground. What rises from the ash is a direct result of having overcome the challenge of getting there. And deep down, perhaps all creatures—human or sheep—have that tendency to grow, and our resiliency comes from embracing conditions that others might deem unlivable. We search in the cracked earth for the things that allow us to survive; and emerge not only stronger, but softer as well.
And Lani’s sheep know soft. The superfine Rambouillet wool resembles Merino in its quality, and with its low 20 micron count, is supple enough to wear next to the skin: a natural invitation into Lani’s newest endeavor as fiber artisan. Born from her characteristic desire to engage fully with the ranching process, Lani has spent the past decade building up to the launch of her own yarn line: Lani’s Lana. “The alliteration ‘lana’ means ‘wool’ in Spanish… that ties back to our Peruvian sheepherders, who live with the sheep. It’s a nod to them.” Under the watchful eye of Bonnie Chase of Warner Mountain Weavers, Lani has begun selling white, black and natural grey combed top wool as well as superfine natural white yarn on the Fibershed marketplace; and if her mentor’s reaction is any indication, it will be a slam-dunk. “ [Bonnie] fell in love with my fiber,” Lani remembers. “She came to one of my shearings and decided ‘Gosh, I have to have this.’”
Due to the labor intensive nature of hand-washing en masse, Lani began processing through Zeilinger’s Mill: and when Fibershed came on the scene, sharing the desire for local products, “That got me excited.” She is also passionate about using natural dyes, though her colorful products aren’t available for mainstream purchase just yet. Of the wolf moss, black walnut, and assorted rock lichens Lani uses to formulate hues, the MVP is Dyer’s Woad: for Lani, yet another opportunity to take something that would normally be passed over and utilize it to create beauty. “Dyer’s Woad is noxious, it’s really terrible… but if you get the first year growth, it will dye blue almost as good as the Japanese indigo.” So it’s effective, sustainable, and free? “Yes!” Lani marvels. “It’s a weed.”
To take what the land naturally yields—to work with, instead of against—its natural tendencies is as ancient a practice as any; and paradoxically, also the forefront of sustainability. Lani understands this duality better than most. While the Estill family has spent generations establishing tried-and-true methods, and Bare Ranch is dedicated to upholding that tradition, they are also perched on the cutting edge of carbon farming practices. When they began working towards creating climate beneficial Wool, Lani needed to find a way to meet the requirements; and like that, an era was born. “First off, they had to educate us,” Lani laughs, describing her collaboration with Jeff Creque of Carbon Cycle Institute, her local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Fibershed. Over the past couple of years, they have mapped out plans for riparian restoration, grazing management, and began a composting operation this past July. An impressive heap of hot manure dotted with juniper chips—a sight for compost lovers and skeptics alike—the Bare Ranch pile is nearly ready to spread on the pivots. The first batch will most benefit the barn lambs, but eventually Lani hopes to replace the entirety of their fertilizer. “This is a trial year to see how much we can produce… but we’ve done the testing for months, so we know what our fields need and what the compost can help with.” Because she is an avid gardener—and rancher, mother, and artisan (but who’s counting?)—Lani is especially excited to watch the soil transform, pulling up a worm or three as she harvests her tomatoes and squash. “I’m totally excited about it. If we can do something for our planet that’s healthy, beneficial…and it helps us also, which it really should… I am just thrilled.”
Bare Ranch is in Lani’s blood, and her dedication to the land and its myriad eccentricities is apparent in every word that falls from her mouth. Along with their seven-year-old, the last of their brood still in the coop, Lani and John keep things running together: “He is on the production end, and makes most management decisions,” Lani relays, her voice smiling. “And then if he gets too far away or his wool gets too coarse, he hears about it from his wife.” The quality of that wool sets it apart, but it is Lani’s dedication to discovering new projects that keeps it there. The Fibershed Wool Symposium on November 7 will be her first opportunity to launch a “decent offering” of her yarn line, including black and white DK weight yarn, sport weight, fingering weight, worsted, and combed top wool. When asked whether she intends to market to larger distributers, Lani confirms that it is on the horizon—“just so I don’t end up with a bunch of yarn,” she laughs—“[But] I really want it to get to the Fibershed people first, who want something that’s local, soft, and wearable… the people who will really appreciate it. That’s my target.” After all, the more people know about her yarn, the better it feels: on both sides. “It’s really changed me,” Lani says, remembering her initial contact with Fibershed. “Since that first phone call, it’s just been rewarding… it’s been really fun to be on what I consider the cusp of a revolution. We’re starting to be more aware of our clothing and the impact we have on our world.”
“Surprise” has an assortment of dictionary definitions: astonishment, curiosity, bewilderment, wonder, and even disappointment. For Lani and the Bare Ranch team, their Surprise Valley is all of the above—the wonderful and the disappointing, the good and the rough—and better off for the fact that it is. Softer, too. “It took a while,” Lani shares, reflecting on the steps that led to this new chapter; yoking her experiences together just as her family has yoked themselves to this land, creating something that benefits our Fibershed and our planet. “…But as you’re learning more and more, you’re just like: ‘Oh wow, I can be a really positive piece of this puzzle.’” A piece of the puzzle at the edge of what’s possible; past, present, and future shaking hands like state lines. “And that’s exciting to me.”