26 Jan Star Creek Land Stewards + Talbott Sheep Company Industry Story
Finding New Pastures: How a 4th-Generation Sheep Ranch Has Embraced a Changing Industry
Market agility. The term has become a kind of buzzword in recent years, acting as a catch-all that refers to making quick changes to adapt to a changing market. It sounds good on a report or in a vision statement for a business, but what does it really mean, and what does it really look like?
We’ll show you.
Take a quick trip with us to the Bay Area in California. Specifically, East Bay Regional Park District outside Oakland, Alameda, and Berkeley during the summer months. Or, swing up to Marin County and Half Moon Bay outside San Francisco. You’ll see something you might not expect: sheep and goats methodically moving across the landscape, grazing and munching their way through the tall grass and brush.
This is market agility in action. You see, many of these sheep and goats belong to Star Creek Land Stewards, a “targeted grazing business” owned by Andrée Soares and managed by her daughter Bianca Soares Shapero. This unique business model relies on “hair sheep” (not wool producers) and goats that are moved, as needed, to graze in different places throughout California, providing critical land and vegetation management. Not only does the soil love the clearing they offer, along with endless fertilization, but the benefits also include wildfire prevention and land restoration. In other words, these animals are doing important work by just acting naturally.
Star Creek Land Stewards isn’t the Soares’ only enterprise. Bianca’s family also owns Talbott Sheep Company, located in Los Banos in the Central Valley. These sheep have a very different lifestyle, and are raised in a more traditional way for more traditional purposes: meat and wool. Wool is a special emphasis. In fact, Talbott Sheep Company is part of an exclusive group of about 10 ranchers who have joined Shaniko Wool Company. Peeling back the layers even more deeply, Shaniko Wool Company is renowned for adhering to a global standard known as the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). Their products are guaranteed to be of the finest quality, their animals are treated with the highest level of care, and a rigorous annual third party auditing process ensures that these standards are maintained year after year.
The benefit? They are able to sell their wool to extremely high-end clients, including Ralph Lauren, Janessa Leone, and Defeet, to name a few. Shaniko wool products have even been used for official Olympic Games apparel. An impressive resume, to be sure.
Bianca comes from 4 generations of sheep ranching on her mother’s side. In fact, Talbott Sheep Company has been raising sheep since 1920. It was founded by Bianca’s great grandparents: both from shepherding families who had immigrated to the United States from the Basque Country, married, and founded the Talbott Sheep Co. This kind of local longevity and pedigree gives the Soares family a front-row seat to all the dips, hills, and valleys of the sheepherding market and industry. About 15 years ago, longtime foreman and family friend Emilio Huarte had proposed the idea of diversifying the business to include land management services, an idea that Andrée quickly saw value in. And so did Bianca. In fact, she says:
“At the time I was 17, and it was like a dream. I was like, this is a job… This is a job for me. There may not be room for me, or space, in the wool business right now (Talbott Sheep Co.), but this is definitely something I can help with. I’ll probably never forget that day for the rest of my life.”
Bianca’s grandfather, Ray Talbott, wasn’t fully convinced at the time of the targeted grazing model, but Andrée ran with it. Talbott Sheep Company continued its focus on top-quality meat and wool, while Star Creek Land Stewards (also located in Los Banos) focused on their land management services. Ray was quickly won over by the model and was a huge supporter of Andrée, Emilio and Bianca.
Since then, the Soares have found that the unique experience and skills needed for one business have given them a toolkit that can be used to grow the other. Bianca says:
“We came into the targeted grazing industry from the perspective of people who have been raising sheep for over one hundred years.”
Their wealth of knowledge in the area of stock, husbandry, and land management helped them grow and care for their Star Creek herd. In turn, their targeted grazing business has grown their skills in marketing, educating consumers, and growing industry awareness, and that has supported how they manage the Talbott Sheep Company business.
“Now we’re at a place where we’re able to take some of the things we’ve learned from Star Creek and apply it back to our traditional meat and wool business as a way to revitalize and add more value… and as a way to educate and communicate to the wider public about the work we do with the wool sheep. We have an amazing tool here. An amazing product. An amazing lifestyle and animal. Whether we’re getting paid for it or not, we’re doing really amazing work on the ground.”
Raising this awareness for the work they do and the industry as a whole is critical, including joining numerous committees, groups, and panels across California. Beyond speaking to the general public, they’re also able to speak to others in the sheep industry as well, supporting the shift from “producer” to “service provider”: one of the biggest challenges facing the sheep industry today.
In the public awareness sector, Bianca encourages you, as the consumer, to carefully consider where the meat products you buy originate. So much is lost, wasted, and sacrificed to import food from other countries that can be (and is!) raised right here. As Bianca likes to say, a better product is:
“… lamb without a passport. It doesn’t need to be shipped here. We are fully capable of breeding, birthing, and raising beautiful lamb that can feed our country and can be far more delicious because it doesn’t have to be frozen and shipped across the globe.”
There’s something to be said for knowing where your food is coming from. And when you buy from local farmers and ranchers, you’re not only supporting more ethical practices as a whole, but you’re also investing in a process, system, and service that helps care for our environment.
If you’d like to learn more about Star Creek Land Stewards, you can visit their website, their Facebook or Instagram social media accounts. To learn more about Talbott Sheep Company, you can visit their web page or Instagram account.
We also would encourage you to frequent your own farmers market if you aren’t already, or smaller grocers that might be able to guide you toward locally-sourced products. The exceptional taste and quality is a benefit, but so is the peace of mind that comes from knowing exactly who you’re supporting.