Written by Erin Rae and photographed by Paige Green
In front of us is a strong, precise woman trying to keep her hands still. Robin is modeling a sweater that she made and it is clear that empty hands are out of place on her person. In their idleness, they become small birds, flitting about the surface of her sweater, scratching and pecking for a pilled bit of fiber or stray piece of lint. Thankfully our photographer notices and suggests that she be doing something in the pictures. Almost immediately Robin has carding tools in hand and fleece between them, she is visibly more relaxed in front of the camera and is smiling easily again. Our conversation picks right back up “So [our] farm club started when … and they are all my best friends now.” and the previous excitement and drive for talking about all things Meridian Jacobs Ranch is renewed afresh; as if we had just arrived at the ranch and were not at the end of our Fibershed visit.
We have enjoyed the better part of a morning walking around the ranch with Robin and her three dogs. The ten acre property on the western boundary of the Sacramento Valley is a postage stamp of green decorated with the signature black and white markings of the Jacob breed of sheep from which the ranch derived its name. We were greeted enthusiastically by the ranch dogs as we emerged from our car, and after an easy and functional hello with Robin, we were quickly off, headed towards the large, rambling red barn, with Ginny, the ‘Ferrari’ of the the Border Collies (she is even red), leading the way. As we walked, Robin told us “People say well what do you do, what is your job? And I kind-of feel like there are three jobs here. One is the farmer part…, and one is weaving, and the in-between is the shop. Any one could be a separate job, but they all relate.”
When we stepped into the busy activity of the barn, with the flock surrounding us in nursery pens, happily munching from feeders of alfalfa, and maneuvering through their daily social iterations, Robin as a farmer came to the fore. The conversation became a quick succession of animal husbandry facts and within the first ten minutes my vocabulary concerning all things ovine was dramatically improved. Throughout this exchange Robin always had her hands on the animals. To illustrate some particular trait she would clamber over a fence, sort through a number of ewes and lambs, and then emerge holding just the right lamb in order to demonstrate the characteristics in question. Descriptions did not seem to be enough if there was an experience available. When she mentions a ‘lilac’ Jacob- a recessive genetic trait that results in “a color pattern in which the markings on the face are gray-brown instead of black” it was in a blink that she had found a lamb that had inherited this trait, and then deftly picked up yet another lamb, a more standard Jacob, to illustrate the difference, holding them up for us to inspect their faces. They obliged, as if prepped for this moment.
The flock is primarily made up of Jacob sheep, but there is a small amount of Bluefaced Leicester sheep also, and occasionally Robin breeds them to each other. Jacob sheep are a “primitive” breed that Robin accidentally fell in with some 15 years ago. The breed is known for their black and white colored fleeces, multiple horns (often they have four), and the high quality of the fiber. The wool has a medium to fine micron count, which means it is a good option for textiles that will be next to skin. The Bluefaced Leicester genetics offer a better build for meat and can add a bit more luster to the fleeces.
In the winter and early spring the sheep are kept off most of the pastures until the ground starts to dry out and the forage increases. Instead the flock spends much of their time in and around the barn, the lambs are born indoors and they eat alfalfa from communal feeders. The building becomes a hive of their biology, humming from their energy. Then through the grazing season Robin practices a form of management intensive grazing where she “strip” grazes a section for 2-3 days, and then moves the sheep on to a new section, allowing for at least a month of rest before she brings the sheep back.
We ventured out to the pastures to take a look at the results of her land management and the early spring growth. Combing through the plants and the layer of soil cover with Robin readily offering their botanical names and respective nutritional values led to a string of questions that she has been pondering around the subject of soil health and land management. While we considered the interrelationships between grazing, plants, and soil biology; Robin’s inquisitive and observant mind encouraged us to go deeper into the subject, a pattern that repeated itself throughout our visit. It is part of why she is an instant and effective teacher, as her good-natured questioning of her own perceptions encourage people to walk a path of discovery with her.
Our time with Robin the farmer blended in to our introduction to “Robin the weaver” as the talk of nutrition, lambing, breeding, and pasture management naturally gave way to a conversation about fleece quality, color, and processing. Here again Robin had us quickly immersed in another hands on learning experience. Each new question we put forth was answered with another bag opened to reveal yet another example of fleeces for us to experience. We plunged our hands into the lanolin redolent fibers and squeezed gratifyingly squishy handfuls of the wool or held small clumps up close to our eyes to inspect the differences in crimp.
From our field walk we continued on to the fiber studio and shop. Inside it was a quiet balm after the noisy din of the barn in the middle of lambing season, the wood on all the handles, spindles, and looms glowed in the late morning light, encouraging us to come in and explore. On a large Dobby loom in the back of the shop Robin was in the middle of weaving a blanket. The loom was strung with wool from the neighboring Timm ranch that Robin had spun into yarn at Mill Creek Fiber Works in Oakhurst. She assumed her position at her instrument and began the percussive melody of the click-clacking back and forth rhythms of the loom. Even over the song of her weaving, she was simultaneously explaining how she used old pomegranate husks to dye the ochre colored yarn, and how this particular loom functions compared to some of the other looms in the shop. The ranch fiber shop is a unique opportunity worth the drive for any fiber enthusiast, but Meridian Jacobs products are also available at a range of other outlets; the Fibershed Marketplace, the Artery in Davis, and on the Meridian Jacobs home website, just to name a few.
Going through the yarns, fleeces, sheep skins, and hand wovens for sale in the shop is a whirlwind touch-tour of the fiber products from Meridian Jacobs and a number of other local fiber producers. Robin’s enthusiasm for the various products was an endearing initiation to the world of “Robin the entrepreneur and shopkeeper”. Here she blends her pragmatic tendencies and creative spirit to continually develop new products and new ways to introduce people to life on the ranch, some of her more recent additions include horn buttons, and authoring a ranch blog from the perspective of her dog Rusty. Which is how we come full circle to the beginning of this story, with Robin modeling a sweater she wove, happily carding wool, and finally explaining one of her most creative strokes of business/ farming genius, her “Farm Club” program.
Faced with the very real need to build a customer base (which we often tend to overlook when thinking about farming) and sensing that many people want to feel genuinely involved in the ecosystem of the ranch beyond the traditional consumer scenario; Robin started the Meridian Jacobs Farm Club. The program offers three different types of membership: you can join as a Fiber member, a Yarn member, or a Gourmet member. In addition to the actual products that members receive (ie; yarn, fiber, or meat), they also get a photo of each animal on the ranch, a lambing list, newsletters, and access to a no-holds barred lambing journal that Robin updates every night, “so they hear the nitty gritty of what’s going on”. There are four official farm days a year when the farm is open for visitors, but many other unofficial days when members show up and pitch in with whatever tasks need doing.
A core group of these farm club members have taken Robin’s original vision and evolved it even further, and as a result this farm club has become the secret sauce of Meridian Jacobs, and as Robin put it “the smartest thing I ever did.” They help organize and staff the Meridian Jacobs booth at education and agricultural fairs, and other Fiber and livestock events around the state and further afield. They show up for shearing, they show up to help shovel out the barn, they staff the tables and such on those open farm days, and some have decided to raise animals too, extending the influence of the ranch to their home landscapes.
Meridian Jacobs is an intensely personal endeavor and Robin’s touch is everywhere; and yet she has managed to share it open-heartedly with a wide world, creating a place that many people are personally invested in and feel a very real and proud sense of ownership of. Cradled in this network of relationships, Robin continues to adapt and evolve her farm, and while she may forge ahead into unfamiliar territory, this strong community will support, encourage and journey forth with her on this adventure of discovery. Here she is in the familiar territory of full hands and full heart.