The Shepherdess Rancho Borrego Negro is home to white sheep, black sheep, black fish, a black-and-white sheepdog, and a couple of near-black llamas, but for Kathy Gluesenkamp, the hardest thing to produce on the Ranch of the Black Sheep was a brown sheep.
“For years I tried to get a brown,” Kathy told me on my first visit to her farm in Fallbrook, “and I did foolish things. I paid sight unseen for two sheep to be flown out from Indiana because the guy said they were real browns, and they weren’t. They got here and they were just dirty.”
The couple of dozen brown and not-brown sheep in the corral were dirty, as sheep tend to be, and I tried to picture the Indiana tricksters on the plane. Probably they passed the time snacking, as they were doing now. A few llamas stood regally in their midst and studied us through porn-star eyelashes. It was a sunny morning in June, and the air was so clear that the hills were cobalt, which meant that soon it was going to be searingly hot.
After the Indiana brown-sheep fiasco, Kathy tried a wild species called Barbados. “They’re really just kind of hobby sheep,” she said. “They’re not good for meat and they’re not good for wool, but they are brown. So I bought some of those.”
That didn’t work either. She still couldn’t breed any real browns. So last year at the Los Angeles County Fair, “a woman I know was showing these, and she had managed to develop a really nice brown strain, so I thought, Screw it, I’ll just buy some.”
Kathy Gluesenkamp does and doesn’t look like a person who spends most of her leisure time in pursuit of naturally tinted wool. Her hair is long and naturally silver, and she wears half-glasses and natural cotton blouses and natural shoes. As for natural wool clothing, she doesn’t wear much of it because this is, after all, Fallbrook. When I first met her nine years ago, Kathy owned the only bookstore in town, an occupation that proved even more romantic than raising sheep. The bookstore closed in 1999, so now she has just two full-time jobs: teaching high school and middle-school resource classes and fiber ranching.
Like most romantics, Kathy has a hard time throwing anything away. The first time I visited Rancho Borrego Negro, a blob the size of a Labrador sat heaped on the patio of her red-and-white farmhouse. The blob moved in the breeze like a big dust bunny. It was, to put it mildly, filthy. It turned out to be the wool that came off one of her ex-husband’s sheep, and although it was too dirty to spin, she couldn’t quite bring herself to toss it out. Kathy has spun everything over the years, including fox fur, llama wool, goat hair, raw cotton, and dog hair, so maybe a use for the blob would present itself, as it might for her daughter Ivy’s ponytail.
Ivy, who is 24, had just departed for a seven-month stay in Guatemala, in preparation for which she had dispensed with most of her hair. Kathy showed me the snipped-off ponytail, a slim blond hank like what you sometimes see on humorous ball caps, and she joked, at first, that she might try to spin it, then said they could donate it to one of those places that turns hair into wigs for pediatric cancer patients. Anyway, she said, human hair makes really nasty yarn.
Kathy knows this sort of thing — what’s spinnable, what’s not — because 25 years ago, one of her three children couldn’t drink cow’s milk. For most people, this means either a life without ice cream, cheese, or cold milk or a constant supply of Lactaid tablets. For Kathy, it meant farming. The Gluesenkamps were already into what Kathy calls that ’70s thing, by which she means they raised rabbits for meat and made their own bread, so why not buy dairy goats? They fed them. They milked them. They enjoyed that. So when a college-bound 4-H kid wanted to sell his sheep, Kathy bought them.
Then it came time for the sheep to be sheared, and Kathy had a bunch of wool on her hands. It wasn’t good wool because they were Suffolks, the big, meaty sheep that you see on the auction block at the Del Mar Fair, but it looked too good to throw out. Kathy painstakingly, laboriously cleaned the Suffolk wool with carding paddles (imagine leaving your hair uncombed for a year and you get some idea how long this would take), and then she learned to spin on what’s called a Navajo spindle — a stick you roll along your thigh until you’ve pretty much worn through your pants — and then when she finally had enough yarn, she knitted a sweater for her father.
“He felt so bad for me,” she said, “because he saw how I did it, that he made me a spinning wheel the following year.”
That wheel was persnickety — too hard for a beginner, Kathy said — so she bought another one, and then another, and now she has nine. She kept the animals even after her children, for whom they were ostensibly bought, had grown up and earned Ph.D.s and begun traveling to places like Ecuador and Guatemala.
Since one Ph.D. is a herpetologist and the other is a biologist, I just assumed Kathy had passed her enthusiasm for beasts to her children, but I was wrong.
“They don’t like this life at all,” said Kathy. “They think it’s wasting my time and energy and that it’s killing me, which it might be.” After thinking it over, she joked that they furthermore “see any hope of an inheritance being quickly processed into big piles of poop.”
It’s true that the life of the shepherdess is not Bo-Peepian. In the spare time left over after teaching, Kathy must herd the Jacob ewes in with the Lincoln ram for a breeding session, tie canvas coats on the new merinos so their wool won’t get matted with hay, shear 350-pound llamas who don’t want to be sheared (and who express this by slamming her against the pen), and feed, feed, feed them all. She must find shearers for the sheep, butchers or buyers for the lambs, freezer space for the meat. She must bury the sheep when they die of natural causes, and if she wants to avoid throwing the skins away after the butcher comes (which, of course, she does), she must dry the bloody, salted skins on a table and ship them to a tannery. Then she must find a customer for the fleeces, because otherwise how will she pay for all that hay, and the shearing, and the tanning, and the little canvas coats? And besides the everyday jobs, there are the bizarre ones, as when two of her llamas recently conceived twins and miscarried.