Eye of the Stockwoman

Written by Traci Prendergast and photographed by Alycia Lang

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As I park at Spring Coyote Ranch, the first thing that comes into perspective is the sweeping view of Tomales Bay.  In between the water and myself is Kelli and Ken Dunaj’s home. From the outside, it looks like a modern house mixed with elements of wood and metal.  The garage door is open; Kelli steps out from within and welcomes me inside.

The space has been converted to an olive oil-bottling and egg-sorting workshop.  On the polished concrete floors rest tables with shiny stainless steel jugs of olive oil, hourglass shaped dark green bottles, and colorful labels with their namesake artwork, all waiting to be used.  Even the refrigerators are brand-new and spotless.  I watch Kelli put together a tiny carton of bantam chicken eggs; she moves the eggs around carefully until she is happy with the way the colors play off one another, then expertly labels the lid with a custom stamp.

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From the garage we walk to a nearby building where she sorts and stores her wool; her friends call it her woman-cave.  The walls are lined with tasteful artwork inspired by the surrounding landscapes and livestock. The workspace here is just as immaculate as the garage.  Tables are covered with old metal tools for inspecting and sorting the wool.  All the different colors and combinations are laid out in a myriad of beiges (her favorite color).  I am used to commercial kitchens where mostly everything is utilitarian: it’s inspiring how beautiful her workspaces are.
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On the voyage from corporate life at Williams-Sonoma to the running of a 210 acre ranch with over 100 animals, Kelli has developed a different kind of eye along the way; the eye of the stockwoman.I wonder how she manages to keep all the animals looking so healthy and well-fed with only one other dedicated helper. There are hardy Navajo-Churro sheep, regal otherworldly alpacas with their enviable eyelashes, watchful guard llamas that protect the sheep, and joyful angora goats that bounce away as she sets out hay, then come bounding back.She sought advice from other ranchers as she learned the ropes. A concept that stuck as she questioned how to know her job was from Tanya Carter, a longtime Navajo-Churro rancher in Cazadero: to develop the “eye of the stockman.” A stockperson’s job is to tend to livestock. Developing the eye of a stockman, or in this case, woman, comes with experience and careful observation.
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Over years of twice-daily rounds, she now understands what her sage advisers meant. She is attuned to normal and abnormal behavior and has learned to pay special attention to the latter. I follow her around on her afternoon feedings; today the pregnant alpacas are a bit testy (understandably so), and down in the chicken coop one of the molting chickens pulls feathers off of the other birds, a possible sign of protein deficiency. Kelli makes a mental note to keep an eye on the partially-feathered bird, and if the problem persists, to isolate the bird and give her some extra protein.It’s that attention to detail that makes all she does so remarkable: from putting the extra effort into making things beautiful, to the time she takes showing me around, to the watchful care animals under her guard receive.  What started with an intention to raise her son in a freer way, led to a real estate agent going out on a limb and showing her and her husband Ken the property.  From their hillside in Marshall are unobstructed views of the bay, revealing many of its secret beaches and coves. It was a far leap from living in Mill Valley and working in corporate San Francisco. Their move is a testament to following your heart and your gut; she says she’s never felt more herself than she does in her current role.

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Soon after buying the property, Kelli hired a land management consulting company to bring some sheep over and rotationally graze the land. As the sheep came running down off the truck, Kelli had a feeling that they were meant to be here. She immediately set out to do research and choose an appropriate breed, and came across the Navajo-Churro: diverse foragers known for being able to withstand dramatic changes in temperatures. Their multi-faceted wool lends itself well to a range of fiber arts, and their meat is subtle and delicious. Kelli was attracted to the breed for their wildness, intelligence, alertness, and independence.  She and her husband Ken have spent years improving the ranch and building its infrastructure. She is very passionate about heritage breeds; both for the community and camaraderie that exists with other small farmers of same breeds, as well as for their visual appeal. One by one, she has added new types of animals and the facilities to care for them. While the structures are now set in place, the work of rotationally grazing the animals between pastures is a constant adaption to nature.

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 Living on exposed coastal hills requires careful management of the topsoil. In addition to keeping the animals on the move, in the fall she reseeds and lays compost in areas of heavy traffic. This land and animal stewardship is the oldest form of carbon farming: small farmers working their land while being mindful of the impacts of overuse. The Carbon Farming is something Kelli is really excited about, as it gets folks talking about actionable work that has benefits both in the lands we steward, as well as globally.  In the three short years since they started the ranch it’s come pretty far.  Part of her vision for the next three years includes a lot more compost.Beyond tending to the overall wellbeing of the land and animals, Kelli’s visual talents are infused in every decision.  Each new animal brought in is done so with thought put towards wool color and texture, which is in part a function of how well they will thrive in the microclimate of the ranch.

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Spring Coyote Ranch currently offers the following yarns: a pure Churro lamb (soft for blankets), adult Churro lamb (coarser and stronger for warping a loom or weaving rugs/tapestries), Churro and alpaca in various colors (her personal favorite, strong but also soft, works for weavers and knitters) and Churro/mohair (Churro combined with Angora goat). This year she intends to add llama into the mix.Now that they have laid the groundwork, they are ready to begin bringing all of their gifts to a wider market: meats, eggs, olive oil, and their proprietary yarn blends. This year’s sheep shear is looking to bring in the biggest haul of yarn yet. I look forward to seeing what kind of beautiful rugs, art, and clothing Kelli’s offerings inspire.

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Spring Coyote Ranch products are available at the Saturday Point Reyes Farmers market, the Point Reyes Hardware store (that her husband Ken runs), and by visiting the Ranch. Follow along with Spring Coyote Ranch on Instagram and Facebook.

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