Meet Kelli Dunaj of Spring Coyote Ranch

06/15/2016

The list of interesting products available at the Point Reyes Famers Market is about to get a whole lot longer. Meet Kelli Dunaj of Marshall’s new Spring Coyote Ranch. At sunrise on June 25, Kelli will load up her car and head for opening day at Toby’s. Maybe her 9-year-old son, Zach, will give her a hand with the bottles of olive oil, cartons of multi-colored eggs, chicken and lamb meat, yarn, sheepskins and—oh yeah—beautifully sculpted skulls for that Architectural Digest touch. Later in the season, there may be Wagyu beef, too.

One quiet afternoon last winter, I was standing by the cash register at Building Supply while waiting for paint to be mixed when I spied a display of olive oil. “Hmmm,” I said aloud, “olive oil. That’s an unusual product for a hardware store.” The young man waiting on me launched into an explanation. It was from the ranch of the new owners, Kelli and Ken Dunaj, just south of the Marconi Center. He rattled off a list of things they were raising, and when he hit the word “lamb,” all the lights lit up in the pin ball machine in my brain. Not only might there be a good story here, there could also be some lamb shish kebabs.

That’s how I found myself climbing the long, steep drive to Spring Coyote Ranch, where Kelli welcomed me in her mud boots one recent morning It was hard to take in everything at once: the breathtaking view of Tomales Bay and the hills beyond, the miniature sled dogs barking happily and the lovely house. 

Ten years ago, the two Southerners—Ken is from Tennessee and Kelli from Virginia—met in San Francisco, where he worked at Restoration Hardware and she at Williams-Sonoma. Fast forward to Mill Valley, baby Zach and a desire for a more relaxed lifestyle. Frequent escapes to a rental in Point Reyes began to feel like home; the rolling hills, culture, climate and exciting food world was all a good fit. When their realtor brought them to the agriculturally zoned property, it seemed like a crazy long shot.  

Then came years of learning about grazing and land management. The couple borrowed 40 sheep, and Kelli set about researching various breeds, a daunting task. She fell in love with a heritage breed known as Navajo-Churro. A heritage breed is one in danger of being lost genetically, such as the breeds of chickens, turkeys, swine and cattle that existed in America before industrial ag selected animals for traits like intensive production and rapid growth. 

In the genocidal campaign of 1863, frontiersman Kit Carson was sent by the United States government to round up the Diné people of New Mexico’s Rio Grande and destroy their livestock, orchards and crops. By the 1970’s, there were only 450 Navajo-Churros left in the country.

The Navajo prized the Churros for their long wool fibers that could be woven into rugs and blankets and for the mild, clean flavor of their meat. The sheep are known for their pleasant temperament, ability to endure extreme temperatures, low water requirements and ease in lambing. Not only that, they’re smart and pretty. (Taste this lamb on July 2, when Kelli will grill lamb meatballs at the Chefs Booth from 11 a.m. to noon.)

Kelli’s interest in heritage breeds also turned to chickens. She is now raising Delawares, Dorkings and Lyonnaise—a total of about 100—for meat. Each has its own distinctive taste, and they have smaller breasts than supermarket chickens. They also run freely through a large stand of shady Monterey pines, pecking happily and enjoying each other’s company. In the evening they return, all by themselves, to their safe, warm coop with the best view in all of Chickenlandia.

The olive oil is made from the 850 trees that came with the property. Last year, the couple harvested two tons of olives and milled them at McEvoy Ranch. (Kelli says the ranch has been extremely helpful and supportive as she learns the ropes.) In the new bottling room at her own ranch, recently certified by Environmental Health, she bottled her first 65 gallons of oil last November. 

Apparently all of this, and her son, were not enough to keep Kelli busy. She has yet another passion: the fibers harvested from her sheep, Angora goats, alpacas and llamas. She sends the shearings to Mora, N.M. for processing and has a large variety of stunning colors to choose from. She belongs to the local Fibershed network and recently hosted a weaving workshop through it, at her ranch.

Then there are the latest projects: a starter herd of Japanese Wagyu, whose tasty meat Kelli hopes to begin harvesting in October, and bee hives. Welcome to West Marin, Kelli! We are so lucky to have you. Glad you didn’t really want that relaxed lifestyle.

 

To learn more, visit springcoyoteranch.com or meet her in person at the market, which opens Saturday, June 25. Mary McAndrew Olsen lives in Inverness. 

 

Grilled lamb meatballs

 

1 lb. Spring Coyote Ranch ground Navajo-Churro lamb

2 heaping tbsp. panko breadcrumbs

1 garlic clove, minced

half a small onion, very finely diced

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 Spring Coyote Ranch “Ultimate Rainbow” egg

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1/2 tsp. ground paprika

2 tbsp. finely chopped parsley

2 tbsp. Spring Coyote Ranch olive oil

 

In a bowl, mix everything but the oil with your hands. Form the mixture into medium-sized appetizer-style meatballs and drizzle with olive oil. Grill the meatballs for four to five minutes on each side. Serve with Greek-style cucumber yogurt sauce.