When most couples consider retirement, they generally picture themselves downsizing–trading in the often rigorous routine that characterized their work life over the years with a slower, gentler, simpler existence.
Not true for Tim Schaible and his wife Deborah Walton, whose idea of “retirement” meant purchasing twenty-eight acres in Two Rock Valley, a remote corner of west Petaluma, and embarking on a second career path: farming.
Canvas Ranch, named after Tim’s penchant for creating fine art, became their rural haven–a refuge where he could paint, and Deborah, the former owner of a marketing and advertising firm in Santa Rosa, could reinvent herself. In retrospect, as Schaible would laughingly admit later, “We didn’t think this all the way though.”
The couple first embraced the idea of starting a new mid-life chapter as farmers during a two month trip to Italy and France in early 2000. While visiting a small farm in the Chianti region of Italy, Deborah discovered cashmere goats–and fell in love. Enthralled with their elegance and playful personality, she dreamed of starting her own flock; raising the animals to harvest their fine quality hair for clothing fiber.
Returning home she immediately began researching breeders stateside, which led her to a rancher in Montana who had cashmere goats for sale. Without hesitation she drove cross-country to purchase and transport the first “seed” animals for their flock.
She might have contented herself with the goats, but for an excursion to France’s wine country on the same trip where she was first introduced to rare Olde English Babydoll Southdown Sheep, the oldest known purebred sheep in the world.
Prized for their miniature size (adults reach only 24″ in height when fully mature), the diminutive stature of this breed caught the attention of vintners in France, who use them as natural weeders in organic vineyards. Their size not only allows them to move freely between rows, a feat that is difficult for conventional machinery, but prevents them from reaching the trellised vines above. In addition, their manure provides natural fertilizer for the crop.
Originating in Sussex County England, the original heritage breed was imported to the United States in the 1800’s where they were bred with domestic sheep, a move that “super-sized” the offspring to produce today’s larger Southdown breed.
Recognizing the brilliance of using these miniature sheep as winery weeders, Deborah became the first farmer in the United States to pioneer the practice of raising and leasing Babydoll Southdowns for the express purpose of weeding vineyards. Virtually nonexistent in this country, Walton located ranchers in Oregon and Washington from whom she sourced her first male and female eleven years ago. Now her flock is 100+ strong, and the word is out among local vintners looking for an environmentally friendly “grass management” solution in their organic vineyards.
Currently, Canvas Ranch Babydoll Southdowns are being leased to the U.S. Coast Guard Training facility to weed their solar field, as well as a host of local vineyards including Skipstone and Puma Springs in Healdsburg.
In addition to utilizing their superb weeding skills, Walton also harvests the sheep’s soft wool, processing it at a mill where it is covered with organic cotton to make fine-quality hypoallergenic comforters and pillows offered for sale on their website at http://canvasranch.com/products/.
Located on a hill overlooking a sweeping vista of gently rolling hills, visitors at Canvas Ranch will likely be greeted by Guido, Gracie, Sophie, and Nico–their pack of majestic white Maremma dogs–guardians of their livestock flocks against predators. After being given the once-over when I arrive and deemed non-threatening, the dogs and Deborah take me on a personal walking tour of the ranch. Joining us every step of the way is Aretha, a lovable tabby feline who tags along curiously.
First stop: a large field at the front of the property where the herd’s cashmere bucks loll placidly enjoying the free-range. As we approach the fence-line, Walton calls out to the beautiful animals who saunter over to see what’s up. The males are impressive, sporting large curled horns and long flowing coats of silky hair, a prized fiber for making premiere cashmere garments.
She apologizes in advance for their smell, the result of an odd ritual for attracting females of their species; they pee on their own faces! As if sensing my skepticism of this practice, the ram closest to us bows forward to spray his face with urine, looking up at us with dripping satisfaction. Go figure–girl goats dig it.
We leave them to their preening, following the dirt road up the hill to a neighboring pasture where the flock of Babydoll Southdown sheep reside. A bit more standoffish, they regard us with caution from a respectable distance, but are bribed closer by a few handfuls of grain Deborah offers. They are broad-girthed, compact creatures in both black and white, with a ten to twelve-year lifespan.
Rue, the matriarch of the flock and its most senior member, butts up against the fence to receive Deborah’s head strokes. I reach out to stroke her dense wool, and discover my hand is lightly coated with a creamy film. “That’s lanolin”, Deborah explains, “a natural bi-product of wool. It makes your hands SO soft.”
A natural educator and savvy businesswoman, Walton uses her background in marketing to promote Canvas Ranch, offering on-site classes to the public. Popular workshops like “Lamb Camp” in the spring and “Sheep School” in the fall teach practical basics like birthing, giving vaccinations, castration, and tail-docking to neophyte farmers. She also received grant funding to develop a program that teaches struggling farmers the business side of farming. For more information on classes at Canvas Ranch, check their website events page at http://canvasranch.com/events/.
We continue our tour, paying a visit to the upper pasture where the resident herd of female cashmere goats enthusiastically run to greet us, hoping for treats, cavorting away when it becomes clear we are empty-handed. Like their male counterparts, they sport luxurious flowing coats of hair and curious, playful spirits–traits which clearly endear them to their owner.
Adjacent to this field stretches a six acre expanse brimming with rows of thriving fruits vegetables, and herbs: summer squash, Seascape strawberries, melons, lettuces, arugula, carrots, forty varieties of heirloom dry-farmed tomatoes and more–all harvested for the ranch’s 100+ CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share subscribers. With multiple weekly delivery locations throughout the North Baby, visit http://canvasranch.com/csa/ for more information on becoming a CSA member.
In addition to seasonal staples, Walton likes to experiment with new crops–last year planting farro, a hearty Italian grain; this year flax. The farm also produces a variety of heirloom dry beans, as well as lovely green and blue tinged eggs from its flock of heritage breed Ameraucana hens.
Although not certified organic, Canvas Ranch goes above and beyond current regulations for organic standards, using cover crops to naturally fertilize their soil, and no sprays of any kind. Sustainability is a cornerstone of their philosophy, with Walton currently occupying a seat on the Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Board at Santa Rosa Junior College.
As we wind our way slowly down the hill toward my car, Aretha the cat leading the way, I see Walton’s husband, Tim Schaible, coming toward us from the small lavender field near the main house. He has been working on one of the never-ending stream of projects that characterizes life on a ranch. He smiles broadly and asks if I’ve enjoyed my tour. When I inquire if he’s finished for the day, he replies simply, “Farming is like stringing beads without a knot on the end–you’re never really done.”; a phrase he coined from a Buddhist monk who visited the ranch to learn about sustainable farm practices to bring home to his native Korea.
That about sums up life on a farm. Thankfully, Tim and Deborah’s “retirement” plan is as sustaining for them as it is sustainable for their land and their customers. Bravo!