Start a sheep farm to lower your taxable income? That’s what Deborah Sowerby did when she launched Olive Ewe Ranch in 2005 in Bradley, California, 20 miles northeast of Paso Robles, the noted wine region on the Central Coast.
The idea started when Sowerby’s husband, Paul, the national sales manager at Adelaida Cellars winery in the mountainous Adelaida District of Paso Robles, brought home a book about it one day and suggested she try it.
For the stay-at-home mom, it sounded like a good opportunity, and the book provided the guidance she needed to get started. Because Sowerby enjoys lamb, she opted to raise a good meat breed, starting with four ewes that grew to a flock of 100. Her sheep of choice is the medium-sized hair breed called Dorpers, which are easy to train and flock well. “As a meat breed, they are mild and buttery in flavor. They don’t have strong flavor like the wool breed,” she said.
Sheep grazing benefits local wineries
In the past four years, the meat business has morphed into a Sheep in the Vineyard program, in which sheep help control weeds in vineyards and reduce the carbon footprint by cutting back on fuel emissions, Sowerby said.
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She got the idea to start the program after she was approached by vintners looking for a holistic way to farm. With Sheep in the Vineyard, grazing sheep clear weeds and other invasive ground cover that can deplete soil’s nutrients. The grazing helps restore soil vitality and even nourishes the vines.
Sowerby’s sheep have found homes in some top-notch wineries in Paso Robles, among them Adelaida Cellars, Tablas Creek, Booker Vineyards, Ambyth, Dover Canyon and Villa Creek.
“A 100-pound sheep deposits 4 pounds of fertilizer daily,” she said of another benefit to Sheep in the Vineyard. “Over a five-month period, 20 sheep deposited 12,000 pounds in the 7-acre Bobcat Crossing Vineyard.”
Bobcat Crossing is part of the Adelaida Cellars’ 168-acre ranch that is home to 24 sheep, a couple of alpacas and a guardian llama named “Lliam.”
Sheep in the Vineyard was initiated at Adelaida Cellars. “There was so much mustard and vineyards adding to the biodiversity,” she noted. In addition to the benefits to the health of the vineyards, the sheep are also a draw for the winery’s visitors.
Initially, Sowerby’s sheep were brought in from her ranch after the grape harvest, grazing in the vineyards from October to March. Soon, though, she decided to leave the flock year-round so they could graze in the walnut orchards and mustard fields between March and October.
“For two years now, this is home to 24 Dorpers,” she said of the Adelaida Cellars ranch. Of this herd, six are owned by Adelaida Cellars, while the rest belong to Sowerby.
Ill effects of California drought
The drought in California affects the sheep and Sowerby’s plans for the future. Each year, Olive Ewe Ranch attempts to grow a field of forage mix (oats, wheat and barley) with the hope that sufficient rain will fall so they can cut and bale it for supplement feed, along with purchased alfalfa, which is a good source of protein for the flock.
“The reality is with several years of drought, growing a crop based on the whims of Mother Nature to grant us sufficient moisture is like rolling the dice,” Sowerby said.
Sowerby’s work in agriculture work belies her fashion background. Previously, her only relationship with wool was with fabrics and textiles. As a design and merchandising specialist, the former Orange County resident’s travels took her around the world on Princess Cruises and working for Giorgio Armani boutiques. Her lifestyle changed when she moved with Paul to the Central Coast 20 years ago. They purchased their 40-acre property nine years ago.
Olive Ewe Ranch has expanded to the point that she has now partnered with Mary Rees, another sheep producer, to create a comprehensive program that not only supplies sheep but also training and assistance specific to the wineries. While some wineries rent their herds, others raise their own flocks.
Breed recommendations for sheep farming
When clients look for recommendations for a particular breed — more sheep breeds are available than any other type of livestock — Sowerby suggests Dorpers. “It’s possible to triple the flock’s size in one year (with Dorpers) since they have the ability to lamb year-round,” she said.
In addition, they shed and don’t require shearing, which can be expensive. Sowerby also advises picking a sheep species based on the desired taste. The species fall into two categories — hair breeds and wool breeds. The wool breeds have a more lanolin flavor that becomes more pronounced as the animals age, while hair breeds maintain their softer, buttery flavor.
Olive Ewe Ranch Lamb Sliders With Aioli
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
For the lamb burgers:
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
Salt and pepper to taste
For the carmelized onions:
2 tablespoons butter
2 medium onions, finely sliced
2 tablespoons thyme
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup Adelaida Cellars Syrah (or a full-bodied red wine)
For the aioli:
6 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks, at room temperature
1 tablespoon mayonnaise (optional)
1 cup olive oil
For assembling the sliders:
8 slider buns, gently seared on the grill
2 cups arugula
8 slices Gruyere cheese
For the burgers:
1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Form into eight small patties.
2. Brush lightly with olive oil and grill until desired doneness.
For the carmelized onions:
1. Heat butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and thyme. Let the onions brown, turning occasionally, 15 minutes. Add garlic and shallots, continue cooking, turning occasionally, for another 3 minutes.
2. Add the stock and cook until the mixture is reduced to a brown color but not scorched. Then add red wine and continue to reduce until the onions turn light brown and caramelize, about 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Set aside and warm before serving.
For the aioli:
1. Put garlic and salt in a mortar and mash with a pestle to form a paste.
2. Place in a bowl and add egg yolks. Whisk gently.
3. If using, add the mayonnaise to the bowl and mix. (For foolproof aioli, this helps the binding process.)
4. Slowly start adding olive oil a few teaspoons at a time while whisking, until all the oil is added. The end result will be a mayonnaise-like consistency. Aioli can be refrigerated for up to five days.
For assembling the sliders:
1. Apply a thin layer of aioli to both sides of the warmed buns.
2. Place a lamb patty on the bottom portion of the bun, followed by a slice of Gruyere, a heaping teaspoon of hot caramelized onions and then a few leaves of arugula. Cover with the top portion of the bun.
Recommended wine pairings
Adelaida Cellars’ Anna’s Vineyard Syrah or select among other Paso Robles Syrahs, including Ecluse, Anglim, Tablas Creek or one of the full-bodied Paso Robles blends from Linne Calodo.
Main photo: Sheep grazing in Adelaida Cellars’ Bobcat Crossing vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Deborah Sowerby