Modern shepherdess tends soils and works leather

01/28/2016

Brittany Cole Bush, who calls herself a modern shepherdess, straddles many worlds. 

She guides herds and flocks based on their ancient eating habits. Yet she’s also firmly planted in the contemporary world of business, with plans for crowdfunding and a business consultant to help her start a contract grazing herd that will eat fire fuel and promote soil health.

And she has other ventures. She consults with landowners who want to use livestock to manage land, she crafts wallets and bags made of leather and hides and, with Oakland designer Laura Schoorl, she sells her animals’ hides as high-end home furnishings. 

“Diversification! That’s the key as a young female entrepreneur,” Ms. Bush said on Sunday morning at her Bolinas home. She was about to sit down for a brunch of steak and egg tacos prepared by her partner, Jorgen. 

Ms. Bush was born in the coastal suburbs of Southern California; growing up, she wanted to find the answer to lack of vibrancy and intimacy she perceived in her community. During travels to Tijuana, where she and her family ate meals and spent time with the workers at a factory they owned, she experienced a culture in which people “knew their neighbors and helped each other.” Her suburb seemed sterile by comparison.

Thinking the answer might lie in urban planning, she applied to Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. But when she didn’t get in, she enrolled at her backup, the University of California at Santa Cruz. Eventually her focus shifted to food and agricultural systems. 

“I realized that food and the cultivation of food was something incredibly rich throughout all cultures and histories of people,” Ms. Bush said. “So I ended up going from ‘Urban planning and architecture will change the direction of preserving culture!’ to realizing that food brings people together. How food and agricultural systems tie into how we live is critical.”

At Santa Cruz, Ms. Bush lived in an intentional community that had its own film studio. It was there she met the owner of Star Creek Ranch, who enlisted her to document his use of sheep and goats in reclaiming grasslands on the 1,200-acre property. She witnessed a Basque ranch manager and Peruvian herdsmen move hundreds of animals, and she saw a huge shift over the three summers she spent there.

“What once was coyote brush transitioned back into what it was, which is amazing grass stands. Native California grass stands with native and perennial grasses. It was so beautiful,” she said. 

In 2012, she applied for a contract with Oakland’s parks district to graze hundreds of acres for fire prevention and land stewardship. Star Creek Ranch won a three-year contract worth over $1 million.

“Because we won the contract, a business was built called Star Creek Land Stewards. It went from a home ranch thing to a public ecosystem-service enterprise. It was fast growth,” she said. 

The business used a “high impact, high density, low duration” model, fencing many animals in small paddocks for brief periods, which Ms. Bush says mimics the impacts of ancient animals on the environment. In dense herds, livestock consume a greater variety of plants, while their hooves help activate the seed bank to spark the growth of native grasses.

Ms. Bush became the project manager of the new business, acting as a liaison between the herders and Star Creek’s clients. She was on the ground with the animals—the first year of the East Bay contract, she lived with the animals in the park—but she also worked on the business, and in 2013 she helped negotiate a sale to a new owner. 

The sale led her to Fare Resources, a San Francisco-based financial consulting group for food and farm-related businesses. She described one of the consultants, Olivia Tincani, as her “business shepherd,” and Ms. Bush has continued to work with her over the years as she developed her various enterprises.

Star Creek acquired more contracts during Ms. Bush’s three years at the business, eventually grazing lands in six counties. 

Because the work was seasonal, Ms. Bush spent winters with Jorgen on Orcas Island, off the Washington coast. There she developed her leatherworking skills, and she now crafts wallets, clutches and bags. She produces mostly commissioned work, though also sells through her website and Edition Local.

Her hide venture came about unexpectedly. She and Ms. Schoorl, a friend, decided to make bags from some of Ms. Bush’s goats, but once they had finished tanning the 20 hides, they felt they were too beautiful to cut up, and they sold them as hides. They are now making about 80 a season, selling them online and at craft fairs.

Ms. Bush is now gearing up to start her new contract grazing business. This month, she and her business partner, Aaron Gilliam, a herder who works at Thistle Meats in Petaluma, reached out to public land agencies in Marin and Sonoma Counties. They announced their intent to start a contract grazing operation to manage fire hazards and promote biodiversity on lands, and asked for an opportunity to hear about agencies’ needs as part of their market research. 

That research will include determining the demand for contract livestock, figuring out what price point the market will bear, and finding land to lease for the animals. Based on the results, Ms. Bush said, she and her partner will determine how many animals the business can support. 

Though the business will focus on land stewardship and fire management, it will also have a meat component.

Ms. Bush and Mr. Gilliam are planning three fundraising events in April to help them get off the ground: a crowdfunding effort, an art show at Gospel Flat and a dinner in Oakland. “Based on the funds raised, at that point we will determine how much private or public lending we might need to go through,” Ms. Bush said.

These days, Ms. Bush finds the sense of community she longed for in Southern California in her new home—West Marin. And she draws inspiration both from others in the world of sustainable agriculture, like Mr. Gilliam, as well as from friends in Bolinas like artist Charlie Callahan and clothing designer Ashley Eva Brock. 

“This area is rich with craftspeople,” she said. “As a relatively new resident, I feel like I’m part of this deep-rooted craftsman community. It’s a rich place for authentic people.”