Timeless Shepherding

Written by Marie Hoff and Dustin Kahn; photographed by Paige Green

For Bill Jensen and his son, Jim, ranching is in their blood.  Jensen Ranch has been in the family since 1856, when Jim’s great-great-great grandfather, Joseph Irvin, emigrated to Tomales, California from Ireland.  Irvin Lane is still the name of the street where the ranch is located.

Though sheep ranching remains a strong source of rural identity in West Marin, by 2012 it was largely dying out in practice.  Dropping lamb prices, negligible wool prices, increasing predation threats, drought, recession, and inflated land/cost of living pressures pushed many locals to either drastically reduce stock, or get out of sheep entirely.  Many transitioned to just cattle.  No problems with price or predation with cattle.  But no wool either.

Yet despite all this change, and increased drought in more recent years, Jensen Ranch is alive and thriving.  The Dorset — crossed with Suffolk — sheep are in beautiful condition, the grasses are growing freely and evenly, and Jim speaks about the sheep and landscape with avid, active interest.  He speaks of growing the flock, rather than decreasing.  He speaks of traditions and history, but also of experimentation and innovation.

Together, the Jensen family manages 300 ewes, plus their lambs (each ewe has 1-2 lambs), on their 240 acre ranch, plus Mitchell Ranch, a 290 acre property they lease.  “Dad and I,” is how Jim talks about their working relationship.  Bill is “retired” in the way a rancher retires yet continues to run livestock: he still gets up early to do farm chores.  He gives advice, monitors flock health, and helps to prevent any issues before they might become established. His experience on the landscape is critical to the operation. Yet a lot of management decisions and overall direction lie in Jim’s court.  Fortunately, Jim’s day job involves monitoring stewardship and conservation of sensitive environments for Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), so land management is not just in his blood, its his profession and training.

This balance of old and new, tradition and training, grandpa’s way vs 21st century science puts Jim in a remarkably promising position.  He understands the knowledge and perspective of the few remaining Marin County sheep ranchers, yet has interest in and access to cutting edge research and ideas, such as carbon farm planning.  With a foot in each field, its a best of both worlds situation.

This crux of tradition and experimentation is the quintessential expression of Californian agriculture.  Its the lifeline for ranching in the new millenium, through the challenges of climate change and land prices.

The 2013-2014 drought has resulted in some losses, but according to Jim, “it was a good year to assess the entire operation and look at ways to improve our water infrastructure and reduce risk.”  In 2014, winter was difficult.  Low rainfall caused the grass to grow in late, creating not ideal conditions for lambing.  As Bill pointed out, “people are becoming aware that grass is the most important product on a ranch.”  Jim agrees, but realizes that “people are your most important asset, active management decisions are what can save you in a drought, or flood. When you rely on mother nature to stay viable, you have to control the factors you can. Quality genetics and sustainable management practices will usually pay for themselves over time.  We are fortunate to have amazing technology and equipment available to us nowadays, but overall this small family ranch still runs the same way it has for multiple generations. We have ATV’s and a tractor instead of horses.  Dad has even learned to text message as another form of communication on the ranch to become more time efficient.”

All the animals are on pasture.  Lambs are born on pasture, and raised on spring growth until summer.  Breeding ewes live their entire lives on pasture.  The Jensens take care to stock the sheep at rates that allow them to graze grass year-round with little to no supplemental feeding.  Raised with care, using carbon farming and responsible land stewardship practices, sheep’s wool production can result in an exponentially positive impact on global climate. Jim is interested in experimenting with a more rotational system, with adding strategically – placed hedgerows and windbreaks, seeding more diverse and nutritious perennial grasses and productive forage species. and with implementing creek restoration as part of their carbon farm plan.

Their current sheep ranching operation is based on the sale of lamb for consumption through the commercial market, although they would like to see more of their coastal grass – finished lambs go direct to consumers, restaurants, or even through a CSA program.  The commodity price for their wool usually nets about zero.  It costs about $5 per sheep to shear the wool off, and each sheep yields about 5-8 lbs of raw wool.  The commodity price is 80 cents to $1 per pound.  And then there’s all the time and effort to round the sheep up, coordinate the shearing team, bale the wool, and transport it.  What once was the main product from sheep is now considered by many a byproduct.  Bill recalls how at one time there was a demand for wool from the US government, who used it to produce garments for the military.  There were subsidies for $15 per sheep and land prices were low.  Today, community and agency efforts to develop direct markets are replacing the subsidy model, and reinventing a market supply chain for Californian wool.

Jim expresses a hope in these new, more direct markets developing  for wool, and continues to raise his sheep for quality wool, meat, and land stewardship.  He and other ranchers are a living link between past and future: continuing traditions and moving into the future.