Patterns & Passions at Pont Family Farm

Written by Marie Hoff & Photographed by Noelle Gaberman

The Fibonacci Sequence is an enchanting and mythic mathematical pattern. You might be familiar with it. Starting with 0, each number in the sequence is the sum of the two numbers before … so 0,1 and then 0+1, which is 1. So 0,1,1, and then 1+1, which is 2. So 0,1,1,2, and then 1+2, which is 3. Things start to get interesting at the next step of the sequence, because instead of 4, the next number is 5, which is the sum of 2+3. From there, the pattern diverges from a plain 1, 2, 3 sequence into 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so on. The pattern is so intriguing because its found in nature as a spiral, and represents such structural phenomena as the arrangement of a pine cone, the family tree of honeybees, and the unfurling of a fern. As Joan Pont, from Pont Family Farm in Petaluma, CA, can tell you, our understanding of the Fibonacci sequence comes from the Italian mathematician who brought the concept from North Africa to Europe in 1202. Today, a little over 800 years later, Joan shows us the blanket she wove using the pattern of the Fibonacci sequence.

A fascination with intricate mathematical patterns and natural systems flow through Joan’s passions of farming and weaving. At her 6 acre farm on the northern edge of Petaluma, Joan, along with her husband Allan, and son and daughter-in-law, raise sheep, cattle, fruit trees, vegetables, wine grapes, California native plants, blueberries, natural dye, and olive trees. Joan spins, weaves, and cooks. But it’s not just food and fiber that Joan raises and works with, it’s the underlying natural system at hand — the coordination of interrelated and interlocking natural elements that create a diverse and healthy farmscape. For instance, there is an owl box for the owl that hunts the gophers that would otherwise wreak havoc on the vegetables, which feed the Pont family, who in turn take care of the sheep who graze the grass that maintain the pasture that brought the owl to make its home in the owl box in the first place. This series of relationships displays the interconnectedness to be found on a diverse farm landscape, or farmscape, and as Joan describes the variety of projects happening on the farm, her fascination with it all is evident in her voice.

Raised in a small rural area of California, outside Los Angeles, Joan grew up with fruit trees and horses. She is still an accomplished horsewoman today, but the bulk of her career not spent in agriculture, but rather as a medical doctor, after graduating from Harvard University. On the day she retired from medicine a friend asked, “Dr. Pont, now what will you do now that you’re retired?” She says she was joking when she said “Oh, I think I’ll raise sheep.” Her friend then told her about Lamb Camp, a “Sheep 101” type of course offered by two local sheep farmers, Deb Kiger from Kiger Family Vineyard and Deborah Walton, formerly of Canvas Ranch. From there, Joan did indeed end up raising sheep, though it was not until some years later she discovered the Gotland breed of sheep, shown at the local festival Lambtown by exemplary sheep breeder Martin Dally. They were so friendly, and their fleece so luscious, she decided to buy some.

Although Joan sells some of her rare wool to friends and handcrafters, she uses much of it herself for spinning. The fleece comes in shades of grey, and is very soft, with a curly crimp, long staple length, and lovely luster. Native to the island of Gotland, in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden, the sheep are hardy and Joan’s lamb from this year sports the black head with white markings indicative of the breed. They are incredibly friendly, and dash over from across the field to be pet, more like puppies than sheep. Most sheep tend to go the opposite direction when they see people, but these sheep are very clear in their demands for attention and petting.

We keep moving across the property, from the sheep and steer pastures to the vineyard of rare variety Italian Lagrein grapes (which Joan notes they intend to graze the sheep through once the vines are mature enough), past the owl box, through the fruit trees (which Joan also notes they intend to graze with the sheep once the trees are mature enough, in a combination known as silvopasture), and out to the northern edge of the property. Here a creek runs, and Joan has been at work replanting it with native oaks, willows, and buckeyes. “People pass by and wonder what I’m doing, walking by the side of the road and collecting acorns and buckeyes. But I’m planting a forest!”  She grins and opens her arms in a welcoming gesture, expressing the bounty of native California oak woodlands growing in front of her.

Inside, the house is full of art inspired by nature. Joan shows us cushions and napkins she wove, some using Sally Fox’s colorgrown cotton. She has a beautiful, sprawling felt rug created by Amber Bieg, won in the raffle at the first Fibershed fashion show in 2013. Her weaving room is full of work displaying the most intricate geometric patterns. The Fibonacci blanket shimmers when you touch it. When laid down flat, it appears completely two dimensional and perfect squares illustrate the 1,1,2,3,5,8 pattern. But as soon as its picked up, the squares appear curved, and they begin to spiral. Joan creates her detailed pattern work through the use of a custom-made Compu-Dobby AVL loom. Joan works out patterns, feeds the information into the computer, which then feeds the draft to the loom, telling Joan which harness to pick up as she weaves. Joan throws the weft and uses the pedals on the 16 harness loom, and is able to weave 20 throws per minute, meaning she is able to handcraft a deeply intricate finished scarf at a staggering speed, in just a couple of hours.

When asked what her goals for the future are, Joan, pauses with introspection, and seems to breathe in the intricacy of all the moving parts around her as the twilight begins to cast shadows on the land. “I see 10 years of being in development ahead, we have a lot to learn. I don’t know if we’ll ever feed other people, but for now we will try to feed ourselves, and make a dent in food production.” As to what inspired her to do this work, she responds, “I absolutely love creating, setting things in motion and watching them evolve, going from chaos to organization. That can span activities like planting some acorns and watching a forest grow (slowly). Or transforming fleece to yarn and then a final garment. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, the process is extremely satisfying.”

From process to product, chaos to order, Pont Family Farm uses farming as a way to engage with the landscape, to live with the natural processes that make a place alive. Not just a series of squares, the patterns that underlie agriculture are welcome here to express their spiral and interconnected nature.

To learn more about Pont Family Farm and the Gotland breed, visit Joan and her sheep at the upcoming 2018 Wool & Fine Fiber Symposium, on November 10th at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes. Joan and the sheep will be outside, in the demo area which is free and open to the public.