A friendly coyote on the sign on the entrance gate welcomes visitors to the eponymous Spring Coyote Ranch. Near the blue waters of Tomales Bay in Marshall, California, owners Kelli and Ken Dunaj sustainably tend olives, sheep, cows, and chickens on 200 acres of land, careful to honor the natural balance of predator and prey in their beloved, wild West Marin landscape.
Photography by Sylvia Linsteadt.“This is their land as much as ours,” says Kelli of the namesake coyote. “For me, it’s a question of how we can live together, sustainably living off the land. I’ve certainly gotten a lot of criticism and harsh words from long-time local ranchers, who just don’t understand why I would name our ranch after a predator who threatens livestock.” But coyotes are an important part of the natural ecosystem, helping to keep everything in balance.
Above: Tomales Bay, as seen from the front garden at Spring Coyote Ranch. Kelli got the idea for the ranch’s name from the artwork of local artist Julia Lacia and the philosophy behind it runs deep. She protects her sheep, goats, and chickens using several non-lethal rings of defense— an Akbash named Cassie and a Grand Pyrenees/Maremma cross named Bear on the periphery, a series of moveable electric fences, and a guardian llama inside each pen with every flock.
Above: Tobi the llama, with his charismatic “smokestack” coloring, lives with Kelli’s herd of female alpacas. Llamas are known for being extremely fierce when necessary, with a particular dislike of anything that looks even remotely like a canine, making them perfect guardians in coyote country.
Above: Several recently shorn female alpacas, eagerly eating a lunch of alfalfa hay. Their wool is very desirable among local hand spinners for its soft, lustrous warmth. Kelli blends it with the wool from her = Navajo churros, which is rougher but beautifully strong, colorful, and resilient.Above: Handsome, long-lashed Paco stands guard for Kelli’s 40-plus churro ewes.
Above: Navajo churro sheep are wonderfully adapted to California’s summer-dry landscape. They are hardy, intelligent animals bred among the Navajo people of the Southwest for the last 500 years, and prized for their thick coats which make beautiful rugs, blankets and clothing, as well as for their delicious meat.
Kelli says that when the first churro sheep stepped onto off their trailer and onto Spring Coyote land (a trial bunch rented to clear brush by grazing), she felt an uncanny and instant kinship with them. “It was almost ancestral,” remembers Dunaj, showing me the beautiful baskets of wool she sells at the local Point Reyes Farmer’s market, and to knitters and weavers through the Fibershed Project. She now keeps her own flock of 50.
Above: Spring Coyote Ranch yarn, featuring blends of alpaca and churro wool, is a favorite among knitters at the Saturday farmers’ market in Point Reyes Station.
Finding just the right fiber animals for Spring Coyote’s particular West Marin landscape has required experimentation.Above: Angora goats (whose fiber is known as mohair), while gorgeous, may not be as well suited as Kelli had hoped to West Marin’s notorious fog. “They’re often sopping wet with mist all morning,” says Kelli, “which, as you can imagine, leads to a lot of matting in their coats.”Above: Originally hailing from the dry mountains of Turkey, angoras may be adapted to drought, but not so much to coastal moisture. Kelli has also experimented with Jacob sheep, a British heritage breed, but they too have struggled with California’s unique set of microclimates, being far better suited to the year-round wet, verdant pastures of the British Isles. It’s a kind of matchmaking game, requiring sensitivity on the part of the shepherd to understand the holistic needs of both sheep and landscape. So far, Navajo churros are the hardiest and healthiest breed, positively thriving in Marshall’s golden hills.
Above: Kelli looks out over Tomales Bay from an upper pasture.
Kelli hopes that her work with livestock will ultimately enhance, not deplete, the health of the land. Healthy grazing pressure has worked wonders already for the open coastal hills, stimulating wildflower growth. “The green is so beautiful and lush in spring,” says Kelli, gesturing around her, “that it feels unreal. Like we couldn’t possibly be so lucky.”
Above: The ranch came with five acres of 13-year-old olive trees, which the Dunajes now tend using what Kelli calls “beyond organic” practices. Spraying copper fungicide on olive trees is a very common and technically “organic” practice which Kelli eschews, due to its possible harmful effects on her livestock, her neighbors’ livestock, and the local watershed. “We combat the olive fruit fly primarily by using a large number of physical traps which contain a yeast and water solution that attracts the flies,” explains Kelli.
Kelli blends olives from three varieties of trees—Maurino, Pendolino, and Taggiasca—to make olive oil, available for the first time this year at the Point Reyes Farmers’ Market or direct from the farm. The trees are fertilized using chicken, rabbit, sheep, goat, llama, and alpaca manure, plus hay and bedding from the animals—a full circle, closed-loop operation. The olive oil is delicious, fragrant and green, recently finding its way onto the summer menu at Point Reyes Station’s Osteria Stellinarestaurant.
Above: Alongside olives and fiber flocks, Spring Coyote Ranch boasts a burgeoning flock of chickens, both for eggs and meat, made up of more than 30 breeds. A few include Black Copper Maran, Cuckoo Maran, Blue Ameraucana, Cream Legear, Welsummer, Speckled Sussex, Mottled Java, Golden Campine, Egyptian Fayoumi, Delaware, Wheaten Favaucana, and their very own Olive Egger crosses. Many are heritage breeds, which by definition must “mate naturally, have a long, productive outdoor lifespan and a slow growth rate,” factors which automatically encourage a happier, healthier life, not to mention delicious meat.
Above: The breeding rams and young males, both churro and Jacob, share their pasture with a female llama named Toni who, according to Kelli, exerts a gentling effect. Spring Coyote Ranch sells churro lamb meat and heritage beef, both raised and slaughtered with as much care as possible. As the website reads, “We love animals. We love seeing them happy. We love making sure that nothing they have to offer goes to waste. We love harvesting them responsibly. It is one of the great blessings of life to grow food and share it with family and friends. Finding this passion has been a life-changing experience.”
For more information about meat shares (lamb, beef or chicken), see Spring Coyote Ranch.
Above: Kelli also tends a native plant garden outside her house, for the pleasure and beauty of it.
Above: Tubs and wooden beds overflow with salvias, yarrows, lavenders, and rock roses that are abuzz with bees. “As far as planning goes, I like to choose things that don’t take much water, have a long flowering season, attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees, and aren’t fussy at all,” says Kelli. “I plant things and if they dry up due to not getting enough water, I pull them out and try again.”
Most of her plants come from the local Mostly Natives Nursery in Tomales, which specializes in native and drought tolerant species.
Above: Lavender and yellow yarrow grow under a lemon tree. “Even at the driest times of the season, our garden is always buzzing with bees and hummingbirds,” says Kelli.
Spring Coyote Ranch is many things, and over the past three years the Dunaj family has transformed it into a labor of love. Perhaps most of all, it is a tribute to the immense beauty that comes when humans work with, and not against, the land they live on.