Written by Terra Christian; Photographed by Kalie Ilana Kassel-Feiss
A stark January day, one of those that California is famous for, when the sun comes out after a rainstorm and the sky and clouds and hills all glow. Everyone tends to breathe a little deeper and smile more readily at one another. A reminder of: winter will end. On one of these afternoons Carleen Weirauch gave us a tour of the land in Sonoma County where she and her husband, Joel, keep their flock of dairy sheep. She met us in the driveway and walked us across the talkative creek, on the other side of which the land opened up, giving a clear view to the west.
The sun poured down: an ideal afternoon to tour the Sonoma County property where Carleen and Joel own and operate Weirauch Farm & Creamery. The two share the shepherding responsibilities for most of the year, but during the 5 month milking season Carleen operates the milking side of the operation while Joel makes fantastic cheeses. They moved their flock to this land just over a year ago from a different farm in Petaluma. It is beautiful and open; the ewes and lambs spend most of their time in an open-ended barn with free access to pasture. The open end of the barn looks west, and frames the rolling pastureland and oak trees beyond strikingly.
Dairy sheep were introduced to the United States only in 1994, and there are still very few sheep dairies. The Weirauchs got their first two dairy sheep as a wedding gift fourteen years ago. The operation began as a hobby, but grew in scope (as hobbies involving living things that multiply tend to do), and after eight years of figuring things out, the Weirauchs have been in business for seven years as a licensed sheep dairy.
Carleen grew up in Sonoma County, and spent some time raising sheep through 4-H. She describes her parents as hippies, saying that they were a part of the back-to-the-land movement. Growing up, she said, “We always had a few animals, a big garden, stuff like that.” She went on to study Environmental Studies, and her passion and concern for the environment continue to be a source of motivation. Joel also was raised in Sonoma County, and learned to make sheep cheese in France many years ago. He returned to the States filled with passion to make a regional sheep cheese.
The Weirauch’s sheep and dairy are located on land owned by Workhorse Organic Agriculture (or WHOA). WHOA is a Sonoma County-based nonprofit that grows organic produce and donates it to families below the poverty line who otherwise would be unable to afford it, as well as to homeless shelters in the area. The Weirauch’s flock of sheep has been certified Animal Welfare Approved by an organization called A Greener World, which ensures that the sheep have humane living conditions, including free access to pasture. The Weirauchs also donate cheese and lamb to local organizations (and through WHOA).
These conscientious practices are important to Joel and Carleen, and seem to be even more so as the political infrastructure of the United States has taken such a drastic turn. “It’s really making me think about what we are doing, and how we can actually help,” says Carleen. Indeed, it seems that a majority of people these days are reflecting on similar ideas. Carleen sees sustainable small-scale agriculture as a defiant act, a rebellious act. She is happy and grateful to be collaborating with and nurtured by WHOA, ensuring that some of their products go to people who are in need.
The sheep flock is composed mostly of the dairy breeds East Friesian and Lacaune, with a small percentage of Polypay and Columbia bred in for genetic diversity and hardiness. Their flock consists of approx 65 adult ewes, with 4 breeding rams which are kept separately. The ewes are bred in late fall, and will give birth starting in mid-March. After 35-40 days, the lambs are weaned and milk production in the dairy begins. Sheep are only milked for half the year, but once it begins, Carleen laughs, “my life is over.” The sheep are milked twice daily; the milking itself is done with a machine and takes an hour and a half, but none of the setup or cleaning is automated, so the whole process is quite time-consuming. The milk is then transported to the creamery where Joel produces a variety of fresh and hard cheeses.
What, then, of all the wool that must come from a nearly 70 head flock? The sheep are shorn once a year, and produce an abundance of wool that may be best suited for felting or bedding. Quick access to wool mills has not been easy, meaning the Weirauchs would have to drive hours in order to have their wool processed, which is not easily done given their busy schedules. Carleen would like to see the growth of regional infrastructure for processing wool, and envisions investing in a small felting machine that could be shared between various local wool producers. She has had blankets made in the past, and a sleeping bag-esque cozy that one could wrap up in while sitting on the couch on cold nights. The wool and the vision are there; the machinery is currently lacking, but hopefully it will only be a matter of time until local wool processing is more realizable.
As Carleen put it, “So much of how you manage animals has to do with your own set of restrictions.” The same can be said of life at large: much of how we each make our way is defined by our personal and historical restrictions. Given the current constraints we are collectively working with, Carleen and Joel’s humane and sustainable operation does a fine job of tending land, animals and people with respect and care. The motivating force behind their efforts can be summed up plainly: states Carleen, “We’re still yearning to make amazing cheese.” With such a simple motivating force, it’s no wonder they’re able to do just that.
If you’ve yet to try Weirauch Farm & Creamery’s products, you can find them at the following farmer’s markets: Downtown Berkeley, Saturdays 10am-3pm; Marin Civic Center, San Rafael, Sundays 8am-1pm; and North Berkeley, Thursdays 3pm-7pm; as well as select grocers throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
Visit them online at www.weirauchfarm.com
And on Instagram: @weirauchfarm