Written by Taya Badgley; Photographed by Kalie Ilana Cassel-Feiss
If you ever find yourself in need of an inspiring excursion, or an excellent chutney recipe I suggest a visit to Sandra Charlton’s Sheepie Dreams farm. There’s a very good chance your outing will re-invigorate, and quite possibly leave you with a jar of chutney for the trip home.
There’s so much to tell you about Sheepie Dreams and Sandra, but first I really must take a small moment to discuss this chutney. Sandra and I spoke just as she was finishing a batch, and although we were several counties apart, I could very nearly smell the last of Summer and taste the beginnings of Autumn brewing in her 1870’s Italian farmhouse kitchen. The simmering blend of the farm’s own persimmons, prune plums, apples, cider and chiles sounded so delicious I wanted to drop the phone, pick up a large spoon and drive the three hours to Santa Cruz for a taste.
About twenty five years ago, when the Gorbachev era ended, Sandra left her job as a translator in Russia and flew back to the States. She returned home with little faith in community and looking for direction. “I started from square one – growing plants and arranging flowers. Then it grew into pasturing and raising sheep.”
Sandra started off with Barbados, today the Sheepie Dreams sheep are a tri- purpose Romney Marsh crossed with Wensleydale to yield better wool quality. Sandra’s sheep produce an inch of wool per month and shearing date is scheduled to custom for handspinners’ preferred staple length. Just this past year in 2017 Sheepie Dreams fleece won first, second and third places at the Monterey County Fair. The fiber was described by judges as soft, with excellent luster and uniformity of crimp. When I asked what made it such a good year, Sandra explained that a relaxed living environment, ideal weather on the day of the shearing and a smaller herd meant better results. Sandra saw this highlight as validation that the farm’s practices are supporting healthy sheep and healthy fiber.
Encouraging the importance of keeping sheep calm, she sites her guardian goose flock as the genius behind the mystery of managing delicate prey animals. Where dogs have been known to fail, resorting to pack mentality and/or aggravating the sheep, geese reliably sound the alarm for all predators and intruders, without disturbing a peaceful flock. They’re also a critical element to rotational management as they are the first line of grazers into new pasture and won’t damage young trees in orchards. The downy feathers are a welcome addition to the fiber palette. Always inspired to create more delight, based in functionality, Sandra is considering adding Suri alpacas to the farm, in hopes of blending the two fibers to create a soft, versatile hand knitting yarn.
It’s commonly said that we are what we eat, and it seems that sheep are no exception. Sandra’s sheep are provided a diverse diet that has a great deal to do with their splendid fleeces. By snacking on a plentiful supply of chestnuts and avocado pits the flock receives health benefits from good fats, antioxidants and fiber. The sheep maintain vital vitamin A levels by eating the farm’s persimmons (the same that went in the chutney) over a lengthy stretch of time. Sandra trusts her sheep, “sheep instinctually eat what they need” she says. They eat medicinal plants such as mugwort and calendula, and naturally de-worm themselves by consuming black walnuts when needed.
It was not only farming, but fiber work that fabricated the path that lead Sandra towards the purpose she had been in search of all those years ago. At the start, Sandra delved into knitting, weaving, and natural dyeing. As her interests and knowledge grew, so did her involvement. Sandra held fiber workshops and taught the storyteller’s craft of spinning. She harvested dye plants and taught weaving courses. When asked about upcoming fiber projects Sandra spoke of her plans to work with mushroom dyeing. This Winter, she’ll be harvesting mushrooms that will be used to dye the fleeces, roving and yarn produced by the farm. “That’s one of the amazing things about wool, it keeps, sheep hold their value. I’ve had one ewe for thirteen years, and each year she produces beautiful fiber.”
The fiber network is truly tightly knit, “we’re drawn together by passion for the craft ” reflected Sandra. There is something special about gathering with fellow fiber workers and sharing knowledge, skills, patterns and technique. “That’s why I love Fibershed, it creates the space to gather and share. It’s quite a long journey from sheep to shawl by yourself, but so much easier when we combine our skills.”
While we were talking, it began to rain and Sandra had to dash outside to take care of a few things around the farm. As she ran about in the rain, it was her wool sweater that kept her warm and dry. Made from Sheepie Dreams’ wool and knit by hand, Sandra prefers this natural and hardy winter garment to more modern rain and cold weather gear. “An ultra light down jacket is amazing, but not absolutely necessary for this sort of weather. My sweaters keep me perfectly warm and dry.” As she says “it’s clothing designed by nature, for nature.”
“My ancestors were peasant farmers”, she told me as we discussed her first steps back to the family’s land-based lineage and towards her own journey. “Some thought I was crazy to go back to what was considered to be a hard, challenging life. But the land is so rich, and its a gift to be here.”
Sandra sees her family’s five acre Northern California farmland and the privilege to work it as the greatest source of wealth. For Sandra and her family, wealth comes in the form of fruit trees, lambing season, biodynamic farming, mushroom hunting, growing the food her family eats, hosting farm dinners, wearing the clothes she makes from the farm’s fiber, and giving back to the community. Sandra and Sheepie Dreams regularly gifts produce, preserves and an abundance of other goodies to the community “it’s a joy to give back” remarked Sandra. She is as busy as a bee from one of the farm’s nine hives. She and her family are constantly building something new or fixing something old. Whatever it may be, the unknown, or fear of the unknown, doesn’t prevent Sandra from moving onwards. “It’s not perfect” she said “but everything always works out. We must be brave and go forward.”
What Sandra does on Sheepie Dreams farm, she does out of love and dedication to her work. She is fulfilled by a job well done, happy animals, thriving orchards, and rich soil.
To learn more about Sheepie Dreams, visit them online at Sheepie Dreams Organics