An Afternoon at Woolly Egg Ranch

Farming, bio-diesel manufacturing, canning, chicken coop building, these are just a few of  Kenny Kirkland’s many skills.  His generous and welcoming nature makes a visit to his farm, a lesson in sustainable practice.  Each time I stop in, it seems Kirkland has added another layer of value or function to his on-going land management practices.

He and his partner Judith welcomed us to his suburban homestead– the Wooly Egg Ranch, in Tennessee Valley, in Mill Valley, California.  The land has been tended by Kirkland’s family since 1867. His family’s continuity within the community is rare–and well-appreciated by his neighbors and friends–many of whom come to Kenny’s land to enjoy the presence of his many sheep, purchase some of his multi-colored chicken eggs, or to work in his shared garden.

I came to know Kirkland initially while investigating the potential of finding a wool source closer to my home.  I was told about his herd during a workshop, when one of the participants mentioned she had gotten a fleece from a farmer who was raising ‘meat sheep,’ and that the wool had been easy to process and spin.  I was intrigued by the potential, and so I set-up a in person meeting with him to see about the wool and find out more about its usefulness for the Fibershed project.

Kirkland had saved two years worth of fleeces in plastic bags, not knowing quite what to do with it, and yet, having some faith in its value; he stored it in the rafters of his garage and storage shed.  After pulling it out of its high resting places, and agreeing on a fair exchange–we stuffed my car full of those bags– and off I went to see if something could be created from this so-called ‘by-product.’

Kirkland’s flock, like many in our Fibershed– are raised for meat. Our region has a preponderance of these herds, most of which are not valued for their wool.  Thus, up to 20,000 pounds of the material is composted annually or goes to landfill in our county alone.

It would seem that this wool could have a more useful life.  And yet, until you begin to process it, there is no way to truly know what kind of yarn it will produce.  I wanted to believe that it had the potential to create a garment–despite what I’d been told that ‘meat sheep’ wool was no good for clothes.  This notion is grounded– as many farmers are not breeding for fiber, and they typically aren’t caring for the wool in how they tend their pastures, and are often shearing it without regard for its use as a fiber.

Perhaps if Kenny’s wool was in good enough condition, it could be turned into a useful resource for garment creation–creating yet another layer of value for his farm, while providing local materials for artisans in the area.  If so, our experiment might also illuminate the potential for other farmers raising sheep for meat–that they too might have a renewable, seasonally available resource derived from a once discarded material.

Some of Kirkland’s sheep– have unique names such as Saturday and Sunday, others are given numbers– but all are affectionately spoken to.  Kenny raises now 20 head, along with his 50 chickens. ‘The chickens and the sheep have a real nice relationship, once I put the chickens in pens with the sheep, I realized that there was no longer a need to get my sheep wormed (a non-organic practice many farmers take part in to protect their animals from parasites). My chickens peck through the sheep manure and eat the worms–this slowed and eventually eradicated the worm population.’ said Kenny.  Without having a permaculture certificate, Kenny has learned by experience how to stack functions. ‘Its a small farm, we are on about 2 acres here, I manage in ways that allow us to become increasingly more sustainable– in every way.’

With an investigative curiosity.. I took a variety of the fleeces from his flock– to the Yolo Mill for processing, to see if Kirkland did in fact have yet another layer he could add to his repertoire of value added products.

After some months at Jane Dreamer’s Yolo County mill, Kirkland’s wool was returned in a completely new form.  A large  bag of soft skeins emerged–a perfect material for our Fibershed project–and for any designer or knitter wanting to use bio-regional materials.

When we last visited Kirkland– we brought him a hat made from his own sheep’s wool, and also brought along Zara Franks— the designer who had turned his yarns into something quite extraordinary.

Franks and Kirkland met for the first time in the pastures of Wooly Egg Ranch– here she wears her 1920’s inspired hat as she gazes on the sheep who supplied the raw material.  We spent the afternoon together– admiring the product of a six month experiment–a process that we intend to share and replicate with many other farmers in our Fibershed.

The outcome is to be celebrated– a real testament to a local collaborative process, from the hands, minds, and hearts of many skilled practitioners.  All bringing their knowledge base together for tangible, utilitarian, and beautiful results.

As mentioned before–Kirkland has named his ranch Wooly Egg–a recent title, given to the land prior to the complete knowledge that the wool could be so easily milled– and so readily available for garment creation.  It seems in the back of his mind, he always knew that this experiment would go well.  I admire and thank him and his herd for their willingness to take partake in our Fibershed process.

This Fibershed process encompasses the visions of farmers and artists alike– and in the midst of this collaboration there are always unexpected co-benefits.  Like the re-building of any network or ecosystem, we are laying the foundation for a broad re-stabilization of our community.  Those who take part and contribute to our project are benefited by our documentation and communication of their story, and in turn our lives are consistently and  positively impacted by the transaction–via inspiration, new ideas, and exposure to new ways of living.  Kirkland is a model for suburban homesteading– his farm is a remarkable feature of the community reminiscent of a way of life that he learned directly from his grandparents and great grandparents, with of course the addition of some modern practices…

Kirkland is seen here filling his TDI volkswagon with homemade fuel.  He has been successfully making biodiesel for some time now.  On our last visit, his operation appeared to be in full swing.

With pumps and meters…

Gallons of recycled oil…

The whole process equals, a minimal $400 dollar a year fuel cost for Kirkland–side benefits include the recycling of used vegetable oil, and a means to create energy that does not rely on petroleum imports.  Along with the solar panels on his roof– Kirkland is living almost fully off the grid.  His life continues to become more of a closed loop.  If you’d like to know more about Kirkland’s projects, he’ll be teaching on October 9th, and giving tours of his Ranch.  If you’d like further details we’ll post the link–as soon as it’s available.  If you have a comment for Kenny, you can leave it here– and we’ll forward them on to him!

In the meantime, if you’re in Tennessee Valley–and in need of eggs, or a chicken coup– Kirkland’s front yard is clearly marked by his Renaissance-like mastery of many skills…