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Forget car pools, these Oregon wineries share sheep

Three wineries in Oregon are championing regenerative farming and boosting wine club membership through a novel “sheep share” programme. 

Bethel Heights, Bryn Mawr, and Björnson Vineyard all share the same road in Willamette Valley’s Eola-Amity Hills AVA. They also share sheep.

Earlier this year, the trio engaged fifth-generation shepherd Jared Lloyd of Naked Grazing to establish a novel “Sheep Share” programme.

Between January and February 2024, Lloyd and his herd of about 107 Dorset Horn and Shetland sheep grazed their way from winery to winery along Bethel Heights Rd NW, accompanied by three herding dogs. En route, some of the ewes also calved 40 lambs.

“Typical of the Oregon wine industry, we’re all friends and collaborate on just about everything,” says Mark Björnson, co-founder of Björnson Vineyard along with wife Pattie.  “If somebody’s got a good idea, they share it. We have to give credit to Bryn Mawr for that, but I’ve wanted to have sheep on the vineyard for years.”

The driving force for participating in Sheep Share was first and foremost to “more effectively and efficiently utilise the sheep in our regenerative farming practices,” explains Heather Skogen, brand ambassador at Bethel Heights.

“We all (Bethel Heights, Björnson, and Bryn Mawr) prioritise regenerative farming practices, and this flock plays a crucial role in advancing these efforts,” she adds.

Regenerative Tool

“The sheep have proved to be an amazing and adorable tool to educate visitors on the benefits of regenerative farming,” says Krista Lauer, vice president of hospitality at Bryn Mawr. “We are all unique in our vineyard management practices, and having the sheep around has been an easy and accessible starting point to dive into how – and why – we do what we do in the vineyard.”

Simply put, regenerative farming reduces chemical and water inputs, while encouraging flora, fauna, and soil biodiversity. Biodiversity, in turn, builds resilience, and prevents degradation of the ecosystem.

Sheep grazing supports these regenerative agricultural practices.

The grazing sheep release natural nitrogen fertiliser into the soil through their droppings and urine, which eliminates the need for chemical fertilisers.

Remarkably, grazing also increases rainwater retention by improving soil diversity – boosting moisture by a whopping 10,000 gallons for every 1% soil diversity increase. This proves essential during periods of climate-change induced drought.

Moreover, mowing sheep eliminate the need for herbicides. They also mitigate mowing and tractor passes, thereby reducing fuel costs and soil compaction.

“I want to be there to facilitate farmers that are transitioning away from tillage and herbicide applications,” says Lloyd. “I would love to see sheep grazing become standard industry practice. Getting away from tillage and herbicides would be huge.”

Unexpected Benefits

Additionally, sheep sharing proves more than just an educational tool to inform about regenerative agriculture. It also boosts tasting room visits and wine club memberships during the slower winter season.

“We came up with the idea to create a unique wine club-sharing event to view the sheep,” says Skogen. “This allowed more guests to be involved, and gives a longer time frame to visit the sheep at other participating wineries, and to experience something they may not otherwise have had an opportunity to.”

The three wineries’ wine club members received Sheep Share cards, valid throughout the sheep share duration. These cards track guest visits, and offer two complimentary tastings, plus a 10% discount on bottles purchased during each visit.

Morrow adds that while the wineries thought the Sheep Share would be “a good way to drive traffic during a slower time”, it also had the unexpected benefit of signing up additional wine club members.

“The other personal benefit for me is getting a stronger connection with two of our neighbours,” she says. “It’s been a delight getting to know Heather and Krista.”

Emotional Attachment

Perhaps the most unusual benefit centres around emotional attachments that wine club members form with the sheep.

“The emotional connection to the sheep is palpable, shared by both staff and visitors alike,” notes Lauer. “Each sheep boasts its own unique personality, reflected in their expressive faces, and endearing sheep swagger. One of the beauties of Sheep Share is the opportunity to follow these ladies to different locations, adding an exciting element of anticipation to the experience as you search for your favourites.”

“We have also had club members and guests come in with their own binoculars, and make the trek to certain blocks on the vineyard where the sheep were grazing in order to get a closer look,” marvels Skogen. “Club members have been thrilled to follow the sheep from vineyard to vineyard as they traverse along their journey.”

“The shepherds and sheepdogs are equally captivating, their interactions sparking curiosity about the intricate workings of their partnership,” Lauer notes. “You truly begin to understand the bond shared between humans, animals, and the land they roam.”

Encouraged by the enthusiastic consumer response, and regenerative benefits, Bethel Heights, Bryn Mawr, and Björnson Vineyard all plan to continue a future Sheep Share programme together.

So do other Oregon wineries.

“I think we grazed for about 15 [vineyard clients] this year, for our winter grazing,” says Lloyd. “I think we’ll have about 42 for the next season in Oregon.”

“Sheep Share has generated a lot of excitement, and is another great example of how the camaraderie and friendships in the Oregon wine industry make for better wine, and a better world,” concludes Skogen.

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