Written by Traci Prendergast and photographed by Alycia Lang
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.