What comes to mind when you think of shepherding? Sheep, first and foremost, certainly. Maybe herding dogs running across a hillside, maybe their human companion watching calmly from a distance. Beyond that details might get kind of hazy—and outdated. In recent years, the world of shepherding has advanced lightyears beyond that old fashioned bent-wood hook you might be imagining. However, they’re still guided by core tenants that shaped shepherding centuries ago. Twenty-first century shepherding practices employ targeted grazing techniques that can help mitigate invasive species, promote soil health, improve watershed function, and even help control wildfires, all while providing consumers with wool and meat they can be proud to support.
Meet Brittany Cole Bush, a shepherdess in the Ojai Valley of California. That one word, “shepherdess,” encompasses her job and her entire business. But Shepherdess Land and Livestock, her targeted grazing company, seeks to do so much more than graze sheep and goats. For Cole, as her friends call her, Shepherdess is about “the marriage of innovative approaches and land stewardship.” As the hazards of climate change, from wildfires to invasive species to erosion, close in on her beloved corner of Southern California, she deploys innovative herding techniques to improve the local ecosystem.
Of course, the animals themselves haven’t changed—they’re the same ruminant mammals they’ve always been. It’s the strategy behind the grazing that has evolved. As Bush says, “I give nod to the past, to inform the future. And I'm sitting in the now, and the opportunity is tremendous.” Here’s how it works: during the grazing season, landowners hire Bush to deploy her flock of 1,000 heads (half her own, half she is working on behalf of other outfits) to graze their land. This can serve a number of purposes, from clearing brush that has the potential to become fuel for a wildfire to helping create vineyard and orchard land. While Bush has not dabbled in it herself, similar outfits to Shepherdess clear land in and among the large equipment of solar and wind farms. It’s a win for everyone: the land benefits, the sheep benefit, and the land- and livestock-owners benefit. Simply put, she says, “our land needs to be tended.”
Dylan Boeken, lead shepherd at Shepherdess, describes a typical day of targeted grazing: early in the morning, shepherds wake up and check on the herds and their guard dogs. Are they where they’re supposed to be? If so, next, the “massive bulk of labor” for the day is putting up and taking down fencing. The rest of the day is focused on monitoring the animals (“Are they sick or injured? Or are they getting fat and happy?”) and simultaneously monitoring the land. You don’t want to let the animals eat until “it’s a dirt lot.” Therefore, they rotate the sheep to different parts of the land based on what the land and sheep need. This continues on repeat for the full 8-month grazing season.
Bush says that, as important as the environmental impact of the grazing business is, “I'm trying to work to train shepherds, but also elevate them as entrepreneurs, or help them to manifest their own dreams within my business.” There are a few ways this plays out: she has partners who are interested in the fiber business, and so Shepherdess is developing a fiber-focused flock to raise for their wool. Boeken’s interest lies in raising animals for meat; he sells whole and half animals to local restaurants and even ambitious home cooks through his burgeoning business, Boek House Hearth & Husbandry. By selling sides of lamb instead of butchered cuts, it keeps costs down for restaurants and allows him to be selective about clients: “I’m only selling to restaurants that want to market whole animal cookery—that’s just another part of the value system.” He says his biggest customer is a local pizza place, where house-cured lamb belly and lamb sausage are among the toppings on offer.
These side projects help provide additional revenue streams for the business and, in a sense, serve as a marketing campaign. Ojai Valley residents familiar with Shepherdess because of their favorite lamb sausage pizza just might begin to recognize the herd grazing on hillsides as they drive through the area, and can partially credit the sheep for helping spare the area from the devastation of fires like winter 2017-18’s Thomas fire. “I think people get joy out of knowing this is a product of work that’s protecting the city from another fire like that happening. They want to support that endeavor,” says Boeken.
And that’s really what regenerative agriculture businesses like Shepherdess Land and Livestock are all about: working in harmony with local consumers and farmers to create and maintain both a sustainable business and thriving ecosystem. “People need to be more connected to their food source and where things come from,” says Bush. “Having more sheep in the public eye is the opportunity that we need, because the conversation can be started. Where does our food come from?” And in Ojai, California, the answer, at least in part, is from your own backyard.
Learn more about Brittany Cole Bush & Dylan Boeken