Written by Erin Rae & Photographed by Paige Green
“I want to tell the story of sheep.” states the bright, blue-eyed Robert Irwin, one of the owner/operators of Kaos Sheep Outfit. He looks up from under his ball cap and pauses to let that sink in while his hands continue to untangle a section of fence line. Robert’s accompanying grin suggests that he is well aware of his way of saying big things in short sentences and that he enjoys inviting people into their world of food and fiber production.
We are walking and working our way through one of the Bonterra vineyard properties in the heart of Mendocino wine country. Precisely trellised rows of dormant grape vines arc away from us to cover the gentle swells of the landscape and the view is a day-glow panorama of green. Nearby some of the sheep of Kaos Sheep Outfit are browsing on the dense ground cover that is the happy result of the wet winter. Though a vineyard might seem an unlikely place to find ourselves on a Fibershed visit, Kaos Sheep Outfit is knitting together these seemingly disparate landscapes, products, and communities to create a new narrative for sheep ranching.
Working towards us on the same fence line is Jamie Irwin, Robert’s spouse and partner in Kaos Sheep Outfit, and she is followed closely by Mic, one of their Border Collie employees. Perhaps a little immune to Robert’s pause, Jaime picks up where he left off “I really want to hit that home. I want people to understand the ecosystem restoration opportunities that sheep ranching could and should provide.” Building off one another’s enthusiasm, the Irwins describe their model of ranching that pulls from agrarian traditions of the past and present to create diverse, resilient agricultural systems that are the engines for ecosystem restoration for our future.
The Irwins are part of a burgeoning movement of shepherds bringing their animals onto croplands in a new/old version of pastoralism. These ranchers, shepherds, and farmers are exploring how the well-timed movements of animals through cropland can result in increased profit, enhanced ecosystem function, and produce more nutrient dense food and high quality fiber. The Kaos Sheep Outfit version of animal integration on cropland is not a new idea by any means, but rather, an extrapolation of some of the historic and existing sheep ranching models. “What we’re doing is not so different from what the mountain state sheep ranchers have always done,” Jaime emphasizes, “moving their herds frequently, never staying too long in any one area.”
Robert and Jaime keep up a spirited exchange over the rows of grapes between us while their practiced eyes and hands zero in on problems in the fence. The topic of landscape health and ecosystem restoration through grazing is on the top of their minds, right up there with the health of their animals and their financial bottom line, and, in fact, much of the conversation focuses on how these are all connected. At times they seem to change topics in order to make an observation such as how the sheep look today, when the next rain is forecasted, how far off bud-break is in the vines, etc. There is a lot of material to cover, and their practiced cadence is telling of their daily routine. With each new observation though, we come back to the health of the landscape as a whole as these daily monitoring exercises are used to inform their management decisions.
Jaime reminds us that central to these themes of improved ecosystem function, healthier animals, and more nutritious crops is healthy soil, and more specifically, an increase in soil carbon. An increase in soil carbon translates into an increase in soil organic matter, which is the hallmark for more productive and resilient agricultural operations. Equally important, an increase in soil carbon also means a decrease in atmospheric carbon. While the precise changes in soil carbon are difficult to track, it is widely accepted that soil carbon sequestration hinges on an intact relationship between microbial organisms and plant communities, and that this relationship is enhanced by the appropriate presence of animals.
For the first time since we came into the vineyard Jaime actually stops working, she draws our attention to the ground, to the recently grazed plants at our feet, and excitedly talks about soil health. She explains how the presence of the sheep, and their rumen in particular, acts as a catalyst for the nutrient cycling between the biological life in the soil and the plant communities. This knowledge leaves her eager to try tracking the changes in soil carbon in the areas that they graze. She adds that more research on soil health and soil carbon done on land where managed grazing is occurring amongst perennial crops, annual crops, and combinations of the two is a key component in empowering more ranchers, farmers, and shepherds to work together to create these dynamic “carbon farming” systems and solutions.
As we move closer together along the fence line they laugh as they tell their genesis story, Jaime shaking her head over the nerve they had to just keep knocking on doors and asking until someone finally gave them a chance and let them bring their sheep into a vineyard. Soon after their first “yes” a couple of managers from Bonterra saw Robert moving sheep in a small neighboring vineyard. They asked if he could do the same thing at their significantly larger vineyard, and with that Kaos Sheep Outfit was off and running. Well, almost. They were definitely running, but it was during the middle of the drought and a hard time to start a livestock business, not to mention increase your flock size. The Irwins persevered, relying on their experience and grit to get them through the long hours and slim margins. Moreover, they focused on maintaining their relationships with the communities surrounding their fledgling business, whether they were other shepherds, ranchers, farmers, vineyards, non-profit entities, or the end consumers, giving them a robust support network that helped them through the rough spots.
Kaos Sheep Outfit brings sheep into vineyards sometime after harvest and before bud-break, usually for a three-four month window from November to March. As Jaime notes though, “There are no rules, everything changes at least a little every year.” The fence Robert and Jaime are repairing sections off of is part of the vineyard, it creates a paddock, or enclosed grazing area, in the middle of the vineyard. In this way, the sheep are moved through the vineyard in small, concentrated sections focusing their impact on the landscape to the area where it is needed most. Depending on the time of year and particulars of the site, the flock is watched over by a livestock guardian dog, a human shepherd, or sometimes both.
On our drive into the vineyard we passed the tractor barn and Rob noted that they pretty much just “park their tractors” when the sheep are in the vineyards. The sheep act as lawn mowers, weed eaters, do some pruning, and provide much needed fertility. All of these services translate into fewer passes of a tractor through the vineyard. Every opportunity to decrease the number of tractor passes is an opportunity to save money and burn less fossil fuel, not to mention decrease the soil compaction that the weight of a tractor causes. Robert estimates that the current savings is an average of about $70 dollars per acre, and thousands of gallons of unburned fossil fuel.
That was about five years ago that the vineyard managers at Bonterra gave them a leg in the door and the opportunity to prove that their method of contract grazing would be both financially beneficial and enhance the ecosystem of the vineyard. Immersed in this bucolic scene, with sheep out browsing in between the rows of vines, it is hard to remember that this is not the norm, that most vineyards do not employ sheep to jump start their nutrient cycles and to eat the grass and other plants that they would alternatively spray or mow down. The Irwins are, in some respects, breaking new ground with this type of management and as such they have to allow time to show clearly the benefits of their presence. After the first few seasons together, Robert relays how he continually worked to build trust, “I was just flat out 100% honest with them. I opened my books for them, I showed them everything.” The vineyard management was able to see what the Irwins were making and balance that against what money Bonterra was saving and the value of the positive changes they were seeing in the vineyard. As before, this emphasis on relationship served them well; their partnership with the vineyard deepened and now the sheep play an integral role in the vineyard management plan.
With the fence fixed we pile back into the truck and make our way to another vineyard and flock of sheep, this one is located outside Middletown in Lake county. The drive is a non-stop mixture of at least two conversations at once, and sometimes three, and it is fun. Though Robert and Jaime leave a lot of room for laughter, they are serious in their intent and work, and serious in their ability to laugh at the inevitably comic moments. We go over more of the basics of their business. In addition to the meat which they sell through Superior Lamb, they produce roughly 47,000 pounds of wool a year. The majority of that wool (about 24,000 pounds) comes from their Rambouillet ewes and has a next-to-the-skin friendly 21-23 micron count. The rest of the wool ranges from 19-20 microns in the lamb’s wool, 24-26 microns in the wool from their Corriedale ewes, and 30-32 microns in the wool from the Black Face crosses.
They move their animals on a regular basis, usually at least two to three times a week, or more frequently if it is raining. The sheep visit vineyards, pear orchards, alfalfa fields, and other croplands at different times during the year. This year they are working with farmers to plant cover crops that the sheep will graze, thereby encouraging more farmers to incorporate soil health promoting cover crop and grazing rotations into their farm systems. All told, they have about 4,000 sheep that they move over approximately 15,000 acres of different crop and rangeland environments around Lake, Colusa, Mendocino, and Yolo counties. Plus, 2500-3500 lambs they graze seasonally for Emigh Livestock, another California rancher and friend. Running lambs for another rancher helps the Irwins graze the vineyard acreage they are committed to. “I always feel honored,” says Jaime of the trust and responsibility to care for these animals.
To accomplish these time sensitive movements of animals, Kaos relies on a team of dog and human employees, and they take the “dogs as employees” part seriously. As Robert puts it, “that dog is the best man at my wedding.” There are two types of dogs that they employ: Border Collies for herding the sheep and Anatolian Shepherds, also known as Livestock Guardian Dogs, for guarding the sheep from predators. The dogs get sick leave, have regular vet checks, and their overall wellbeing is considered top priority. The Irwins have come up with a whole system for tracking the needs of their team of dogs, and each dog has a medical file left with the owners of the properties they graze should anything happen when they are not there, or in case anyone has questions as to the well being of the dogs. The dogs are an essential piece of this operation and also a subject that generates lots of conversation.
There have been occasions when well meaning people assume that the dogs have been left uncared for, or perhaps do not have access to water, or any number of other unhappy circumstances. While the Irwins understand that these concerned people mean well, this tendency to assume the worst is a major hurdle in bridging the gap between urban and rural communities. Robert and Jaime understand why many ranchers feel frustrated by the public perception of their work. At the same time, Robert points out that it is good for people to ask questions, to be engaged with what it takes to produce food and fiber, and that sometimes the right questions encourage changes in practice that everyone — dogs, sheep, and shepherds — can benefit from. They are learning to walk this interesting path of ranching in the public eye, and in doing so they create more productive and efficient opportunities for dialogue between these rural and urban communities.
The ecotypes around us transition as we climb up out of the foothills of Mendocino to the higher and dryer elevations of Lake County, trading one watershed for another. Our conversation follows this progression of water and naturally shifts to fire prevention methods as we come in to the much more arid climate. Fire is on everyone’s mind here after the last few years of catastrophic fire seasons. Kaos Sheep Outfit works with officials from our public rangeland areas to reduce fuel load and fire hazard through targeted grazing. Jaime points out an area off the highway that they grazed last year as a fire prevention measure, she notes that when one of the recent blazes came through, that area was one of the few places where the fire stopped. In the coming years they plan to do more fire prevention work in partnership with the local agencies and communities.
The next vineyard is a whole new world. Where the first vineyard was held in the green bosom of the surrounding landscape and the transitions gentle, this terrain is dramatic. The vineyard lies in a bowl of rugged ridge lines that rise up with little vegetation covering their faces. In the basin the vines and ground cover are an island of green, protected from the extremes of the surrounding landscape by those stony sentinels. Differences notwithstanding, here again are sheep amongst the vines, browsing on the ground cover, utilizing the same system of electric fencing to create paddocks within the vineyard for concentrated animal impact; and encouraging the nutrient exchange between plants and the soil microbiology that results in increased soil carbon and improved health for all.
We unload from the truck cab turned interview room and are greeted by the sound of sheep in all directions. At this site there are multiple flocks grazing different paddocks throughout the vineyard and their calls to each other bounce off the sides of the valley. As our ears adjust to the varied bleating of the sheep, the higher pitch of an ATV engine heralds the arrival of Diaz, a shepherd from Peru who works for Kaos Sheep Outfit. He stays with one of the flocks of sheep, building fence, watching over them, and moving them through an acreage as the weather, forage, and landscape dictate. Diaz distracts us with his new apprentice and constant companion, a young Border Collie named Lucy.
Jaime and Robert check in with Diaz, going into that same cadence of information gathering that we witnessed in the last vineyard, collecting his thoughts about the flock, the forage, the dogs, and his personal welfare. Their approach to agriculture emphasizes, and relies upon, these nuanced daily observations of their team and their ability to respond accordingly. Rob walks over to get a closer look at the sheep, combining what he hears from the shepherds with what he sees in the animals to ascertain the health of the flock and landscape. Rather than fighting against the daily variation of the natural world, the Irwins embrace the inherent fluidity, and the unforeseen opportunities that change can bring. They acknowledge that producing food, and wine, is a reflection of that world- there are no one size fits all answers, you have to create solutions that effectively respond to the ever changing circumstances and preserve the relationships you are held within. In his usual matter-of-fact manner, Rob sums up this dance between generating a product and responding to the fluctuating environment simply as, “Well, the right thing to do changes on the daily”.
Accordingly, Jaime and Robert eschew prescribing to any one camp of agriculture, political outlook, or general label; challenging themselves to regularly take the measure of something to determine if it is inline with their own goals and values. They opt to solve for the needs of each new landscape, and to look for the overlaps at the edges of the standard agricultural models — where one form becomes another — that offer fertile and diverse opportunities for people willing to bridge those divides. In the process, they magnify the opportunities of consumers to participate in the creation of these resilient landscapes and agricultural systems. Not only through our purchasing of lamb and wool, but also through products grown in these grazed croplands, such as a glass of wine.
This is the inspired ‘story of sheep.’