I Work With Animals: Life as a Sheep Farmer
If you email Marcia Barinaga in March, you’ll receive a prompt “out of office” reply, which begins with a quote from This House of Sky memoirist Ivan Doig: “Lambing … stretch[es] as one long steady emergency, like a war-alert, which never quite ignites into battle, but keeps on demanding scurry and more scurry.”
Then, in Barinaga’s own voice: “We’re lambing. Please be patient. I’ll try to respond as soon as I can.”
In layman’s terms, this means that, for the entire month, Barinaga and her two employees are in the barn — sometimes day and night — helping ewes give birth and tending to newborns.
To hear her talk about the experience, lingo rolling easily off the tongue, you can imagine that she's spent her entire life on a farm. But, despite sheepherding roots that date back to her Spanish grandfather, this is not at all the case.
She talks to Vetstreet about her journey from science writer and biologist to full-fledged sheep farmer and cheese maker at Barinaga Ranch.
Q. Tell us about your family's history with sheep.
A. Barinaga: "My father’s family are Basque. My grandfather immigrated to this country in 1907 to work as a sheepherder at a ranch in Idaho, where he eventually bought his own ranch. My father was born on a sheep ranch, but he had a career off the ranch as an engineer.
It was always exciting for me to visit as a girl, but I was most interested in horses at that time. I actually never even touched a sheep until I decided to have dairy sheep and bought this property in Marin County, California."
Q. What inspired you to make this lifestyle change?
A. "I have a Ph.D. in molecular biology, but I decided that I didn’t want an academic career, so I became a science journalist for 15 years. In 2001, my husband [Corey Goodman] and I decided that we wanted to buy some land, where we would someday build a house and retire. My husband started a few biotech companies, and it was from a windfall from one of those companies that we were able to buy the ranch. We fell in love with the first ranch that we saw, which is 800 acres and overlooks Tomales Bay and Point Reyes. Only then did we start to think about what we were going to do with it!"
Q. So why sheep?
A. "It’s important for ranches in this area to remain in active and productive agricultural shape. We lease out some land for beef cattle grazing, but we wanted to do something that would be sustainable in three ways: sustain the ranch economically, sustain the land and sustain the agricultural community, which means being active economic members and consumers through our operation.
It was actually my father who was first interested in the sheep cheeses made in the Basque country. Sheep dairying has never been in the picture on a large scale in the U.S. — it’s a very young industry that's only grown recently. I realized this would be a great value-added product. Plus, this land is most suited to livestock, so I wasn’t going to try and grow anything.
East Friesians, which is what I have, are wonderful petlike sheep who are very affectionate. When they’re purebred, they’re fragile because they've been bred for milk production for so long. I’m breeding in a little bit of hardiness by crossing them with Katahdins, which makes them stronger."
Q. How did you get started?
A. "[Laughing as she remembers] I joined the Dairy Sheep Organization of Marin County. I went to visit my cousin, who has a small flock, and learned from her. I took a trip to Spain with my husband and father that included meeting a different shepherd every day. Then I came home and began making my own take on that Basque-style cheese."
Q. What exactly does being a sheep farmer and cheese maker entail?
A. "Our ewes 'lamb' in March, which means they give birth. We breed them in October, and gestation is predictable enough that the lambs start arriving on March 1. So, during the whole month of March, life is completely based around lambing. We bring the ewes that are imminently due (sometimes with two or three babies) into the barn at night and watch them with cameras. We spend most of the day delivering lambs and attending to the newborns because they need vaccinations and lots of care.
In April, we begin weaning and milking twice a day, and we start making cheese every other day through October. I have two employees who do everything from milking (when the young ewes have never been milked before, it can be a bit chaotic) to keeping the barns clean.
Up until last year, I was making the cheese by myself, but I now have an assistant cheese maker, Anna. In the aging room, every wheel of cheese needs to be washed every other day, and then a little less once they’re 60 days old. That’s when we start selling it — it’s a raw milk cheese.
We stop milking when the rams come in October. That’s our quiet time, but it’s still busy. We have a vet ultrasound the ewes 55 days after the rams arrive to get an estimate of when they conceived and what to expect. We sort the ewes by due dates before they give birth and 'crutch' them, which means shaving the wool off their backs so that they’re clean for lambing. Then we sheer the ewes after birthing."
Q. What are some ranch-made products that you sell?
A. "I make one cheese that comes in two different shapes: a large wheel (4.5 pounds) named Baserri and a smaller one (1.5 pounds) named Txiki, which means 'little.' They're available at restaurants and cheese shops throughout California and even the rest of the country, like Anchorage, Alaska. And most of our lambs go to local restaurants.
I like to honor my sheep by not wasting any product, so we also get our wool made into blankets. They’re medium weight and just beautiful. I sell them through my website and to friends. I don’t make much, but it pays for my sheering!"
Q. Do you have any other animals?
A. "We have four Great Pyrenees dogs who protect our sheep from predators. And I have two horses because I love to ride."
Q. What's the best thing about living on a sheep farm?
A. "I really love my sheep [a bit choked up]. I have 80 milking ewes and six rams, who are also full of personality. I know them all by their faces and personalities. And I know all the family lineages in my flock. Some of them have high, screechy voices. Some are bullies, and some are shy. The contact with them is what keeps me going. For me, it’s all about the sheep."
For more tales of what it's like to work with animals, check out these other Vetstreet-exclusive stories.