Written by Marie Hoff and photographed by Paige Green
Ace Vandenack is a crafter. Together with his wife, Pam, the couple has crafted a farm, a fiber business, and a life for themselves in the verdant green hills of far Northern California, in conifer-treed Humboldt County. They have built everything from the ground up, including their own house, complete with big, wide windows, plenty of storage for fiber, and a cute triangular hot tub snuggled in, corner side, along the outer edge of the house, for soaking after a long day. Such a charming backdrop is the lovely piece of country we find ourselves in when visiting Ace ‘N The Hole Ranch.
Their flock of registered Romney sheep are bred for color (with recessive gene breeding, more on that later in the article), using a carefully handpicked ram each year. And then there is the handcrafting of fiber: spinning wool into yarn, dyeing the yarn with plants grown in their garden, growing dye plants in their garden, weaving, knitting, and felting. Ace and Pam do it all, but with the calm composure of well-practiced masters.
As an ag teacher, Ace spent his career thinking about, talking about, and teaching agriculture to others. He grew up on a farm and fell in love with sheep in high school after raising a lamb (just one) for 4H. As an adult, he had the opportunity to practice agriculture of his own by raising a flock of sheep for meat. But it wasn’t until he retired from his teaching profession that he really dove into fiber sheep and the attendant fiber arts that go along with wool production.
Ace does not seem the type to just dip his toes in. At Ace ‘N The Hole Ranch, things are not done halfway. Having shifted from meat sheep to registered Romney sheep, he breeds recessive gene Romney sheep, primarily for color. With recessive gene breeding, a great deal of knowledge and attention to each animal’s traits are necessary. To get the desired colors in a lamb, Ace needs to know what recessive genes the parents have. Since recessive traits aren’t expressed visibly in the parents, careful tracking and attention must be given to understand what colors each parent has hidden in their DNA. In Romney sheep, black and brown colors are recessive, meaning they are not dominant and not expressed when paired with a white wool gene. So for Ace, recessive gene breeding is a careful and measured way to breed for black and brown wools. The sheep wear coats to protect their fleece from bits of hay and debris (commonly referred to as vm, for vegetable matter), as well as sun exposure. Ace parts their fleece proudly to show the quality of the wool staple, a beautifully saturated dark coffee grounds color, clean of debris, from skin to fleece tip. These sheep seem to know they are well taken care of and stand with a regal composure, allowing observers to admire their exceptional wool and stature.
Theirs is a grassy meadow nestled in between hills of evergreen forest. Ever the ag teacher, there is also a small demonstration vineyard section that the sheep seasonally graze for weed control. In this symbiotic relationship, the animals are fed and grow wool, while the vines are fertilized by their droppings and weeds mowed without the use of fossil fuels. Their manure goes directly into a grassland ecosystem, with healthy soil microbes and arthropods breaking down the carbon and methane before they emit into the atmosphere, instead becoming a valuable soil amendment. The vineyard doesn’t just produce sheep feed, wool, and healthy insects. It also produces… well, wine, of course.
Inside the house, there is wool in all forms: freshly shorn, processed into roving and yarn, woven, knit, felt. And there are awards, many ribbons, and awards from wool shows and fairs. Fresh fleeces are carefully labeled with name, weight, staple length, and score. Yarns are lovingly dyed with natural dyes, many grown in their own garden alongside vegetables and decorative flowers. Spinning yarn on his Ashford spinning wheel, seated on a chair draped in a luscious sheepskin, surrounded by pictures of family, purple ribbon awards, and books on fiber arts, Ace is in his element, right at home. It’s the home he crafted.
Ace Vandenack’s contact information can be found on his Fibershed producer directory page here.