Written & Photographed by Kalie Ilana Cassel-Feiss
Bright and luscious, glowing from within. Reflective and plump in the piercing winter light — this is how the grass shone verdant on the day I arrived at Wild Oat Hollow, a small homestead situated on a flat two-acre parcel in the tiny town of Penngrove, California. Wild Oat Hollow is home to Sarah Keiser, mother of two, wife, and caretaker of 25 chickens, 7 sheep, 4 dairy goats, and 2 dogs who run to greet me. Just off the cemented busyness of Petaluma Hill Road, as soon as I crossed through the wide wooden gate and let my eyes land on the color of the grass, I felt transported to a different place.
Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Sarah had grown up with livestock and always loved taking care of animals. Once she started raising a family in California she knew she wanted sheep but had to first find the land. She found these two acres three years ago and shortly after stumbled across a few Romney sheep. “Back then I had no real understanding or passion for fiber or all that is possible with wool.” But after the Romneys came, her awareness and passion grew quickly. Fascinated by the different breeds of sheep and what each type of natural fiber can bring for its best uses, she has grown a dedicated skill for breeding.
Sarah’s sheep include Romney, Wensleydale, and a four-way cross of Wensleydale-Cormo-Lincoln-Merino. She has a Romney ram, and she bred her crosses to a Corriedale-Wensleydale cross ram. “My breeding process is multifaceted,” explains Sarah. “First and foremost I want sound, hearty lambs. I want my ewes to be able to lamb in the field by themselves without assistance. My first priority is a vital, hearty animal, that doesn’t need help for basic functions. Then I bring in rams or an occasional ewe to bring in some color.”
She produces around 55 pounds of raw fiber/fleece per year, and as soon as it comes off the sheep it sells at the shows or to the handspinning market. Her fleeces won the Supreme Grand Champion Award at this year’s California National Wool Show. “I want to breed a vital animal and also a nice fleece and I don’t think you have to give up either. I grow very slowly because I am very selective about the lambs I keep.”
We discuss the history of livestock breeding, its strengths and its perils. In the past, livestock were bred to be dual purpose animals for both fiber and meat, or even triple purpose for fiber, meat and dairy. “I think it’s still possible to have all. Nowadays we’re seeing problems with animals everywhere because people aren’t paying attention to the breeding process. They’re cute, but not concerned with the quality, vitality and robustness that you’re passing on with genetics. I like to continue to improve animals in my breeding and continue the qualities that I like — vibrant and sturdy animals who have good conformation.”
Our conversation leads us into the ethics and emotions of the animal-human relationship. “It is multifaceted.” says Sarah. “You have to act as the person who is their caretaker, but you’re also acting as the predation factor. You have to be able to assess and say, these five are my weakest links. Wild animals are robust and strong because all the weak die. You have to back off and let a little bit of that natural knowledge go and have that confidence and wherewithal to separate the emotional attachment.”
She not only feels a responsibility for improving the animals but also the earth’s vitality by asking the bigger picture questions, “‘What am I also doing for the earth, for the atmosphere — am I improving the soil by the way I’m practicing? Because,” she points out, “grazing animals can either add topsoil or demolish the pasture. Am I improving everything around me?” As we walk around her pasture, Sarah shows me the food and flower gardens that feed her family. She leads me to the willows and water-loving plants that she has carefully introduced alongside the creeks, and tours me through all the native species she has planted to “bring back as much wildness” as she can around her. Yes, I believe that improving vitality is evident at Wild Oat Hollow.
We take a short drive up the road to where her ram and wether live on a neighbor’s pasture. Over the three years of living at Wild Oat Hollow, Sarah has befriended many neighbors who in turn have befriended her sheep. “I’ve managed to make relationships with so many neighbors that I’ve added on six grazing acres… for a total of eight acres that I’m grazing.” We drive by a neighbor where a worker is using an old lawnmower to painstakingly mow down the lot, and the irony sets in. We pass another lot covered in dead, brown grass. “These guys used Roundup to not even deal with the mowing,” Sarah explains.
We pull into the driveway of another home, where her ram and wether have actually become companion animals for the solitary elderly gentleman who lives there. I understand then that Sarah is not only improving the quality of the soil and the animals but further improving the quality of life for the people in her community.
“A lot of typical agriculture doesn’t work this way or focus on what’s actually happening to the land or paying attention to seeing what’s going on around you. When you have healthy animals and healthy land you also improve healthy wildlife. You have cleaner water and better sources for them to live in. You have native plants that feed the animals, provide housing and root depth as well. With all of those things you just continue to support the environment and the world.”
To learn more or to purchase farm products, visit Sarah’s website at www.wildoathollow.com/