Sheep take center stage at Plum Blossom Farm
Plum Blossom Farm, located on a historic property north of Cloverdale, is home to Carole Balala and her fiance, Aaron McNamara, as well as 36 sheep, 14 chickens, 11 ducks and an assortment of dogs and cats.
Many of the animals on the 6-acre farm, which Balala named in memory of a childhood pet horse, are rescues. Unlike other farms, she says, her animals aren’t sent off to auction.
“Most of the ducks at Plum Blossom Farm are leftovers from a duck egg farm,” she says, “and most of the chickens came from Animal Place, a nonprofit in Vacaville. Prior to that, they had been laying eggs in battery cages, until they were no longer deemed profitable.”
To support her farm and animals, Balala, 38, uses the sheep’s wool to make items such as felted soaps, wall art, scarves and dryer balls, which she then sells online.
Despite not growing up in an agricultural family, Balala has always been drawn to farm animals and the outdoors.
About 15 years ago, while working part time in a health foods store in Humboldt County, Balala was seriously searching for a career path when she decided she wanted to own a commercial sheep ranch.
Her business plan called for buying a small flock of ewes, breeding them, selling their wool and sending the lambs to auction when they reached market weight.
During her research, she discovered Wensleydales, a rare, hardy breed with long, lustrous fiber, that often bring 10 times the price of regular breeds.
She purchased her first ewes from a rancher in Oregon in 2007 and moved to her grandparents’ property in Healdsburg.
While it all looked good, everything changed once the first lambs were born.
“Not only did the economy take a dump that year, I knew right away I could never separate those babies from their mamas,” she recalls.
She suddenly found herself with 20 lambs while, at the same time, having to reevaluate her entire business plan.
Fortunately, she was able to purchase the Cloverdale property in a foreclosure sale in 2008, thereby assuring all her animals could stay together and live out their lives with her on the small farm.
The farmhouse was built around 1900 for the son of William “Pop” McCray, proprietor of the Old Homestead, a well-known summer resort once located on 236 acres just below the property. McCray Road in Cloverdale is named for him.
After buying the farm, Balala realized simply selling wool to hand spinners was not going to pay the bills. To help make ends meet, she worked until about five years ago as a coordinator for Wildlife Fawn Rescue, a Sonoma County organization that rescues, rehabilitates and releases orphaned, trapped or injured fawns.
Balala previously had dabbled in oil painting and pottery, but it wasn’t until she found fiber arts and dove deep into the world of textiles that she felt artistically fulfilled. Using the wool to make her creations allowed Balala to keep the lambs off the auction block.
In addition to selling the raw fiber to spinners and weavers, she started using the wool to make such things as felted dryer balls, felted soaps, ornaments, cat toys, crafting kits, and nesting balls for birds, selling them at craft fairs, through her online Etsy store and on her website at www.plumblossomfarm.com.
A set of dryer balls costs $35 on her site, while scented and unscented felted soaps are $14. Scents include toasted oatmeal, plumeria, pomegranate and peppermint eucalyptus.
Balala hand-dyes the felted fabric so, while many items may look similar, no two are exactly alike.
The dryer balls are good for anyone with a sensitivity to the perfumes in regular dryer sheets. Not only do they absorb well, cut down on dryer time and reduce static, they can last up to 10 years, making them extremely economical.
The felted soaps make nice gifts and are another item that can be used for a long time. When the original soap is gone, and the felted casing has shrunk, small slivers of leftover soaps can be inserted to make it last even longer.
Bird lovers will want to check out the $15 nesting balls. They are 4-inch bamboo balls filled with raw wool. Birds pick out what they need to add warmth when building their nests.
Balala makes all her own soaps, bath salts and sugar scrubs, as well as massage oil, body butter, lip gloss and hydrosols, also known as floral water. She has even developed her own line of scents.
“I use all of these products, too,” she says, “so I always make sure to use only the best ingredients.”
Hang tags on each item features the name, photo and story of the specific animal whose wool was used in the product, effectively giving each sheep a chance to take center stage.
Aside from selling wool goods, Balala also runs an “Adopt a Sheep” program to support the animals.
Sheep sponsorships, ranging from $20 for a month to $250 for a whole year, help cover the cost of feed, bedding, grain and vet fees.
In exchange, based on their sponsorship level, sponsors receive gifts such as a photo of their sheep, greeting cards featuring pictures of the farm and sheep-shaped and felted soaps.
As a solo farmer, Balala handles almost everything required on the farm, from mending fences to moving hay, cleaning the barn and trimming hooves. So far this season, five lambs have been born, including twin girls.
Balala also handles the business side of the farm, including building and maintaining her website, handling all the print and packaging, responding to customers, filling orders and taking part in craft fairs.
Since meeting McNamara three years ago, Balala says things have been a little easier because he helps with the heavier chores. A sheep shearer comes once a year and the wool is sent out to be cleaned and carded.
“I love seeing my products make the complete transition from growing on my sheep to becoming clean, felted wool,” she says.
“I feel fortunate to be able to do what I love, and even more fortunate that people find what I do useful.”