Written & Photographed by Kalie Ilana Cassel-Feiss
Follow the road to the end and you’ll meet a wide stretch of caramel-colored sand and the wild ocean. The air is cool and the colors classic to Northern California’s coastline.
This is Point Arena, one of the smallest incorporated cities in the state and one of the furthest points West in the continental US. Just up a mile from the sea (Manchester Beach), there’s a flat parcel of thirty acres covered in large old pine trees, healthy plump grass, and healthy plump sheep to match. John Gorman and Sandy Stark keep their flock of Rambouillet and Romney sheep here.
John started raising sheep in Vermont when he was in high school. Taking a break from farm life to earn a degree in economics, he went away to University and took a job at a local bank. “I found myself leaving the city every weekend and heading back to the country to hang out with people who had sheep,” he says, “which seemed pretty weird to everyone else.” Circa 2007 John met his future wife Sandy and they started a sheep dairy together in California. The dairy was challenging, since sheep have the highest protein content and are the most nutrient dense out of all the ruminants, they produce the least amount of milk and have very small udders. After closing the sheep dairy they continued to raise sheep in a few different places and finally came to purchase The Paddocks in 2014.
When asked which breed of sheep John prefers, “I would have to say that the Romney are my favorite. Well—they’re all my favorite children. I don’t have a favorite child…” he says as he gazes into his baby Jack’s blue eyes, who was born only six months ago. “The Romney sheep are here because they are a marsh sheep. They are an old world breed that come from England. In this climate it doesn’t get above eighty degrees—it stays really moist. A lot of sheep like dry conditions; not a lot of sheep like high humidity and there aren’t many marsh sheep. But Romneys do really well here because their wool and their demeanor can hold up to the high humidity. If you don’t want to use a commercial wormer all the time you gotta pick a breed that’s resilient.”
Sticking to the old world theme, the “Paddocks,” John explains, “is what people in England used to call the Fields. “It sounds a little more romantic.” The land is comprised of thirteen 2.5 acre paddocks. John fenced everything himself, then added cross-fencing: subdividing each paddock in order to rotate grazing. There’s a water trough in each subdivision, and John swiftly opens the fence of the new paddock for the sheep. It’s time to move and they know exactly where to go: a few two-day old lambs, one born the day before on New Year’s Day, and many pregnant ewes gladly follow John to greener pastures.
Romney wool is beloved by hand spinners and felters. “We’re gonna make Jack some booties” says Sandy, bouncing Jack on her front in his baby carrier. They plan to collaborate with the Mendocino Wool Mill to make children’s felted rain ponchos.
By trade, Sandy is a graphic designer specializing in presentations, and John runs a vineyard in Healdsburg. Their future goal is to plant raspberries where the sheep can graze in between the rows, working with the land vertically as well as horizontally. For tourists on Highway One as well as for campers at the KOA campground just next door, a You-Pick Raspberry Farm with sheep seems like a sure hit. The continual activity from the KOA also offers a helpful barrier and protection against coyote attacks to the flock.
John and Sandy do most all of the land and sheep work themselves. The Paddocks “is here to make sure that at least our son Jack, and whoever else comes, has that ability to work with their hands.”
“Rains are coming tomorrow,” says Sandy, looking towards the cloudy sky. More sheep births are ahead. “Twins are fine. It’s the triplets you gotta worry about” says John as he points to a very pregnant ewe. Sitting with John, Sandy, baby Jack and their dog Otis, old stories roll out about their trials, tribulations and adventures with the animals over the years. “Just look at the beautiful places that the sheep have taken us!” exclaims Sandy. The sun sets over the ocean, gliding past the Point Arena lighthouse in the distance. A beautiful golden hue casts itself upon the Paddocks, as the old world marsh sheep graze happily and quietly in the last of the winter daylight.