A herd of sheep walk through the hills.

Reverberate Episode 11: Graze Yarn - An Interview with Jenya Schneider of Cuyama Lamb

On today's episode, listen to an interview with Jenya Schneider, the co-owner and operator of Cuyama Lamb. She and her team raised the sheep whose wool is used to make Graze. Located in Santa Barbara, California, her sheep graze along the hillside to help with wildfire mitigation - an effort we are very happy to support.

a herd of sheep walk through the hills

We’re releasing a new yarn named Graze! Coming Solstice December 21, 2022.

On today's episode, listen to an interview with Jenya Schneider, the co-owner and operator of Cuyama Lamb. She and her team raised the sheep whose wool is used to make Graze. Located in Santa Barbara, California, her sheep graze along the hillside to help with wildfire mitigation - an effort we are very happy to support.


Jenya: My name is Jenya Schneider. I live in Santa Barbara County, and I am a co-owner and operator of Cuyama Lamb.

Kristine Vejar: So we have two new yarns coming out this winter named Nibble and Graze that you reared the sheep that produced the wool in those yarns. And we want to first just stop and take a moment to say thank you for raising the sheep for caring about the earth and for inviting us to collaborate with you. So Jenya had reached out to us in Spring 2021 to work together on having yarn milled using wool she has helped rear. And Jenya, one of the things that really caught our attention when you reached out to us, uh, was that the organization that you're working with really focuses on fire mitigation. The wildfires are deeply troubling to us, and it feels really hopeful to know that you're all out there and you have this focus, and we're hoping that you could tell us a little bit more about what that work entails.

Jenya: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Absolutely. First I wanna say that I'm so glad that you accepted the invitation to collaborate and, uh, I used to live in the Bay Area and was familiar with your store, so it's very exciting, for us to be able to be part of this collaboration. When we started, I think we didn't know exactly which niche was going to become the bulk of our work. Which aspect of the many aspects we tried to do, was going to really catch. And it definitely has become clear in the last few years that targeted grazing for fire fuel mitigation is an incredibly effective and increasingly desired, strategy for California to live safely alongside wildfire. To me that's such an important part of it, is that we don't want to have to either suppress fires or fear for our homes and our lives when fires come.

We really need to learn how to engage all the different strategies to live alongside wildfires, since we live in a natural fire ecology, where these lands are so used to being tended by fires. I've seen, you know, in our work how effective it is to graze in areas we call "WUI zones" that are the wildland urban interface which is any area in between where people live and where people don't live. We actually had the opportunity to see a wildfire come through our own neighborhood last year, and we got to watch the flames, burn across areas that we had grazed and areas we had not grazed, which was the best learning experience I could have asked for, to understand the impact of the work that we do. And it was just night and day, between the two areas.

This was all in grassland and kind of dead mustard stands, weedy areas, not forested areas, and not chaparral, but the fires that came through the ungrazed weedy areas just had huge, erratic flames and were big enough to kind of create their own wind patterns. And it was totally unapproachable. You know, you would need to wait for that fire to reach some kind of a break before any firefighter was able to approach it. When the fire reached areas that we had grazed, literally we could stand there and take a video, and if you wanted to step over the flames at any time, you could <laugh>, it was so slow. So if you wanted to put it out, you absolutely could. So anyhow, that experience gave me a big appreciation for understanding the way wildfires move and seeing that by using our grazing, it's both reducing intensity of the fires.

It can be so much that the fire just stops or it creates an incredibly safe space where the firefighters know that they can position themselves and approach or stop that fire when they need to or allow it to burn up until the break. What that work looks like is we currently have five people on our team, and we're adding another two in the next few months. And that's the human component. We have about a thousand sheep and five guardian dogs and three herding dogs. So that's our team roster there. We are out all year long putting up electric fence in, you know, sometimes just grassy public parks with trails that's as easy as it gets to crazy slopes of chaparral  in the hot sun, poison oak, you name it, any kind of terrain, every kind of weather. And we're building that fence so we can keep the sheep in a very well managed, well timed rotation. And they do their work, which is a little cycle of eat, drink water, ruminate, eat, drink water, ruminate, sleep. So sounds like a great life. I'd like more of all of those things in my day. So they love what they do and, yeah, they have an incredibly wide variety of ecosystems and, you know, wild plants they eat. 

And we work with a lot of different entities. Increasingly it's directly with fire departments but a lot of private entities also. The fire departments can have such an eagle eye view and the deep understanding of how fires behave across the landscape. So they can really use us very strategically, understanding the wind patterns and of how a wildfire are going to approach an area.

Kristine: So we have read that previously you have done outreach and restoring ecosystems and supporting nature-based mentorship programs for girls. Why and how did you pivot to working with sheep, and what about working with them caught and kept your attention?

Jenya: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So, yeah, I had been in the educational space for a handful of of years, and I came into that after doing some ecological restoration work on the plant end and really missed the human ecosystem, living in rural spaces, and working with plants. I love teaching these things encouraging certain ways of life, but I actually want to be living deeper into them myself.

It was through finding a little rural permaculture farm in the high desert of the Cuyama Valley called Quail Springs. That place was so full of magic and unknown possibilities that very much caught my attention and my now business and life partner caught my heartstrings. And I was delightedly pulled into that place. And that place was very much seeking how to embody all the different ways to live harmoniously in an ecosystem and to restore the parts that had been damaged. 

That is the first time that I thought about working with sheep was very much through Jack's process of thinking of how to tend to the broader rangeland around quail springs and which, and after deciding that livestock would be the way to do it, deciding that sheep were the most attuned to that landscape. I had certainly felt pings of desire to work closely with animals and also like I had already felt the call, you know, to work on these like, broader ecosystems and had explored that through plant restoration. I really thought working with animals was just something you were born into or not. I'm grateful to find out now there really are pathways other than falling in love to do that kind of work. I took the deep dive of just jumping on board and us starting this business together. And it was very much then, you know, the realization of the desire to be doing the thing on the ground rather than teaching about hypothetical things. Now I have a whole lot of just doing the thing on the ground, <laugh> in my life, <laugh>.

One of the things that I love so much about working with the sheep is that there are so many facets to it, and I'm definitely somebody who has had a hard time picking one thing, because I love so many things at once, and I think that's really natural. I think sometimes in our society, there can be messaging that you need to specialize in one thing and really just go with one thing in your life. And I think it's so natural when I think about our histories and all the different spaces and skills that a human can and oughtta.  

This work really keeps my attention. Yeah, So one facet is, breeding, nutrition, all the veterinary care. And then there's the ecological side of things, understanding our local ecologies and how grazing is interacting with those ecologies. Then there's the meat side, which intersects with so many different cultures. Muslim holidays, you know, different communities in our area who have different relationships with lamb and different ways of preparing the meat, butchering and all of that skillset. And then the wool of course, and that also has so many different cultural intersections for all the different ways that people throughout the world use wool and the natural dyeing of it. And, and so much I think, you know, sheep have been living alongside humans for more than 10,000 years. And so there's just an endless array of different cultural relationships with sheep and their meat and their wool. And so that's just endlessly compelling to me.

Kristine: So y'all raise Targhee sheep, right?

Jenya: They are Rambouillet, Merino, Targhee, Coriedale, cross, depending on which individual sheep <laugh>.

Kristine: I love it. So fine wool... <Laugh>

Jenya: Fine wool.

Kristine: Okay. So I was going to ask you, cuz I thought it was a little bit more breed specific, which no problem that it isn't. But I was gonna ask you about how the breed relates to the work that you're doing, but maybe that's, I don't know. Is it...

Jenya: I can just say something about the breed. Cuz I think it's really interesting that our breeds, you know, they all come from the Merino family tree and there's so much history, Spanish history on the land here. And I think to have more conversations around the ways that, you know, what we do and, and just the fact of working with sheep is an inheritance of the, of a colonial past, or a colonial present, a colonial legacy here in this area is just a really rich place for conversations and to think about how we reimagine and utilize, you know, these inheritances in different ways. 

It makes me think about, you know, different people from the Navajo in Arizona to the Zapotec in Oaxaca. You know, one Zapotec weaver (Porfirio Gutierrez) who lives in Ventura we're also in a collaboration with, and those are all cultures who, you know, received sheep and started raising sheep under colonialism from the Spanish. But sheep became and the wool became such a quintessentially indigenous part of their work and identities. 

So to have the Merino sheep in this area, I think that, having that breed, [and] we have so many plants that come directly from Spain. We live in a Mediterranean climate, and so a lot of the plants that were brought by the Spanish just thrive here. And so there's something very interesting about how our sheep might be eating the same kinds of grasses that some Merino sheep out in Spain are eating. 

Adrienne Rodriguez: So Jenya, would, would it be possible to describe the land where the sheep are grazing, what, what that consists of and what you would see when they're walking around there?

Jenya: Sure. Well I will start by describing where we are now. Right now we're working on a big fire fuel contract in Tepusquet Canyon, which is just inland from Santa Maria. And the sheep are largely working in this big golden grasslands, a lot of Avena fatua or milky oats under these big beautiful live and blue oak trees. And we're at some elevation here, so you can really feel the fall coming on the blue Oaks. Oaks are deciduous, so they mostly already turned brown and the winds took their leaves away by and large. So yeah, the sheep are looking really beautiful out in those grasslands. There's definitely been some more challenging terrain in the mix also that has a lot of poison oak and a lot of Toyon, um, different sages, mountain mahogany, you know, other shrub plants on, on these hillside. And they'll also go in and thin those out, create some space in between the shrubs and remove all the fine fuels in between. So those are the lands that we're on at the moment.

Kristine: What is your typical day like?

Jenya: Well, first thing is there's really no typical <laugh> be prepared for the unexpected <laugh>. But I will describe some of our days. A lot of our days look like rising more or less with the sun and going out and just checking on the animals, seeing what they're up to. Are they inside the fence or are they outside the fence? <laugh> would be the first thing to look for <laugh>. Usually if they're outside, we've already heard about it, so let's say they're inside the fence, so we're feeling happy, then and check on their water. We, you know, haul water a lot since we're working in spaces that don't have the typical infrastructure for live livestock. So check their water, you know, check on how well, how does this area, this paddock that they're in, look, and, and when do we think we're gonna move them to the next?

So with that in mind, what needs to happen in their next area? Do we need to build the fence or just walk the line and, and see how it looking? Are we moving them on that day? Then maybe we'd, you know, go ahead and let the animals into their next paddock and take down their prior ones. There's a lot of just building the next paddock and taking down the prior, moving water, moving minerals and all of, whatever kind of supplement we might have with them. And just about doing that on until the sun goes down, depending on what season we're in. 

So that's a very typical kind of day. And, you know, other days like tomorrow we're gonna be vaccinating everyone and sorting our breds from our unbred and getting ready to ship our bread ewes down to some lambing grounds. So, you know, there's a lot of other things that happen, but when we're just in the flow, just fence up, fence down and do the sheep have everything they need, and then of course, feed some dogs in the evening and give them some good little scratches. Because our guardian dogs, they, they work 24 hours a day, well, mostly just at night, but <laugh>, they sleep a lot in the day, but they're out there making what we do possible.

Kristine: Okay. So Jenya was, was there a pivotal moment in your past, could even be maybe your childhood or as a teenager that you can recall that you feel really impacted you and has influenced what you were doing today?

Jenya: I'm trying to think of, of like a really particular moment. I think for me as a young person learning about climate change, learning about this way we have set up our world that relies on endless growth and endless exploitation of the earth. You know, all accumulated to a, a landfall that just felt like how could, how could any of us be living in the status quo? How could we just keep doing this when obviously, um, that's genuinely not an option. Um, and I think that like a lot of people that learning really resonates, you know, when you look around, there's just an understanding somewhere in this that things have gotten really off course in a lot of ways. There's a recognition that we've really misplaced, uh, our, our loyalties and, our sense of what's most important in our loyalties and our priorities. And fortunately, you know, I think as I digested and internalized that and sought other ways, there's so many people out there who are trying to make those radical changes and there's so many people out there who are, who have been trying this whole time to help people, you know, remember the ways of being that are in right relationship. 

Kristine: What keeps you motivated and inspired to keep working with sheep and continuing in this line of work? Is there a particular person's writing that you turn to or maybe something that happens during your day or?

Jenya: I would say one of the biggest things is because it's so easy to lose perspective on, you know, anything that we're doing 24 hours a day. You just forget what else is out there and maybe how unique what you're doing is or what it's like to be doing something else. So I definitely think that the new people who get involved with us bring that fresh energy, They bring a reminder of right, how unique it is to be working outside on the land and these intimate ways to be working with the animals, to be present with something that's so raw and real. 

You know, we're just getting into our lambing season and being present with the things that happens at that time is so universal. The life that happens, the death that happens, you know, how makes you see how precious every life that is able to come into this world and how everything needs to line up just so for any life to exist. There's so much that's just so raw and undeniably real in a world where that can be hard to access cuz there's so much else going on too. 

So I think, yeah, the, the new people, members from our community that we're able to bring in and the way that, you know, most culture I think, or so much culture really comes from an agricultural setting, a livestock setting where you have a certain thing you need to do and so you bring the people together to do the thing and it becomes a kind of holiday or celebration.

So like shearing day for example, you know, we just call on our community to come help us skirt these fleeces and we hire a friend to cook a big meals to feed everybody, and it's become just this kind of celebration. And the shearers love it because that's not often the case for them. So when we bring people in from the community and we all get to really rejoice around our work, that's very motivating and inspiring. 

And, and then, yeah, thinking about how this goal of living safely alongside wildfires is an incredibly motivating possibility to me because I see how effective our grazing is and achieving that and how possible it feels to, if we had targeted grazing and prescribed burns on the scale that we need, like we could just really feasibly feel safe in our homes and have a certain relationship with the fires where we welcome them and are ready for them.

And it's such a radically different feeling that kind of fills me when I think about that possible future. And it feels so far from where we are right now. And yet being immersed in the work I am, it feels so possible. Like it also feels so near at hand. So those are a few things that motivate me. And then the last thing that's like a daily dose is I get to just work alongside dogs as my coworkers, which is just one of the greatest things. And when you just, you know, you just need a little encouragement, a little unconditional love, like you've got eight members of the team plus the humans, you know, but sometimes you just really need a dog. So eight members of the team were a hundred percent there to give you that. So that's a good daily dose.

Kristine: We're huge fans of dogs <laugh>.

Jenya: Yeah. Nice. Nice.

Kristine: I was just thinking today, my goodness, I'm so grateful for my dog energy that I get. Like there's just times where I just need like dog interaction.

Jenya: So I feel you. Yeah, I feel you. And the same way.

Kristine: <laugh>. Okay. So I think I have one last question. Jen, how does it make you feel when people make things with your yarn?

Jenya: Oh, I love that question. Cause I feel like literally ecstatic, like I feel so, um, it elevates me so much because the work we do is so -  it's just so on the ground level <laugh>, and it's dusty and dirty. Like our sheep, who knew they had white wool, they don't look white out there, you know, <laugh>. So, it's dusty, dirty, sweaty, you know, it's, there's moments of getting to step back or you're out there at golden hour and it's romantic and beautiful, but mostly like, you're really in the weeds, like in the most literal sense, you're in the weeds <laugh>. 

And so, when people make something with the wool or when they cook like a beautiful meal to feed a big group of people, it's just so elevating. It really just like fills my heart and, and lifts it up and it's exquisite. It's totally exquisite. And I think it feels like such an honor, such an honor, like on behalf of our sheep, I feel honored on behalf of our sheep <laugh> for what they are growing, which is such a mind bending miracle that they can grow wool. And wool itself is such a mind bending miracle. So then to go through the whole process that it takes to get it in somebody's hands and for them to make something so useful and beautiful out of it, yeah, I hardly have words, but it feels incredible. It's one of my favorite things.

Kristine: Well, we feel incredibly honored to work with the wool that y'all have raised and, um, all the intention and effort that you put into it and are very grateful to this sheep so thank you.

Jenya: Thank you.



Cuyama Lamb is a six member team including Jenya, Jack, Anthony, Cristian, Alex, and Dani. They currently have a 1000 head of sheep, 3 herding dogs Willie, Rocco, and Tres, and 5 guardian dogs Lucy, Yoreh, Bruno, Aya and Lutu. Follow Cuyama Lamb on Instagram to learn more about their daily activities.

Emily Tzeng of Local Color Farm and Fiber Studio is the person who contacted us to be part of this collaboration. She has a wonderful farm.

We asked Jenya for a few recommendations…

For literature that has shaped her current ecological and agricultural thinking:
+ Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson–integral in decolonizing my perceptions of "conservation" and ecological stewardship
+ The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic by Martín Prechtel
+ A Growing Culture - a website which publishes essays about food sovereignty.

Places / programs about how people can learn to care for animals:
+ Quivira Coalition – find an apprenticeship with a holistic livestock operation aligned with your interests
+ New Cowgirl Camp – hosted by Beth Robinette and Alex Machado. An excellent entry point for aspiring cowgirls and gender nonconforming cow-wranglers (and sheep and goat herders too).
+ Aldersprings Ranch – summer apprenticeships working cattle on horseback

The name of the family she works with in Ventura:
“We are working in collaboration with Porfirio Gutierrez, and incredible Zapotec weaver based in Ventura. His website is https://porfiriogutierrez.com/ and IG handle is @porfirio_gutierrez_studio. He is working with our wool (the same yarn that you are working with) to make blankets and ponchos. His work is rooted in his family and culture's textile traditions while also utilizing novel techniques to explore ideas of migration, indigeneity, and so much more.”


We hope you will knit with Graze! Thank you so much for following along.