By Ian Consoli
When someone lists "Shepherd" on their business card, you are guaranteed one thing: this will be an interesting person. I've spoken with an abnormal amount of shepherds for a person in the 21st century. In every instance (OK, both instances) I find a common thread of commitment to the land and experimentation. What a strange concept. We have one of the oldest professions in the world, considered archaic if not dead in modern society, currently being held by some of the most innovative land managers at some of the most experimental farms in modern California. Their innovation is rooted in traditions lost to chemical applications, tractor super fleets, and manufactured fertilizers. One could argue that the ancient profession of a shepherd, with their understanding of the benefits of grazing, represents the most viable future of agriculture.
Given my excitement about the shepherd profession, I jumped at the opportunity to interview our newest shepherd at Tablas Creek. In the short time I have spent in conversation with him, I have been impressed. He has immense knowledge of grazing, a deep commitment to the land, and an understanding of how it all ties back to the health of the planet. I can't wait for you to meet him.
World, I would like to introduce you to Tablas Creek's new shepherd: Dane Jensen.
Please state your name and what you do here at Tablas Creek.
My name is Dane Jensen. I'm the shepherd at Tablas Creek.
Tell us more about your family life.
My wife, Amy, also works locally in the wine industry. And I have two daughters that are three and six right now, Maebelle and Ottilie, but she goes by Potzey. We have several dogs, goats, and chickens on our little family farm. It's set up as a perfect little way to raise young children. That's been really fun.
What's the best wine you've ever had?
I had the 2019 Cotes de Tablas from Tablas Creek recently. That one really stands out.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in San Diego, California.
Did you know many shepherds growing up in San Diego?
Zero. No shepherds, no sheep until I was 26 years old, and I'm 34 now.
What got you into Shepherding?
In college, I was exposed to farming by one of my best friends. He got me into hunting first, and the meat side of hunting fascinated me. That fascination slowly evolved into farming. Once I grasped on to holistic grazing management, I realized I was super passionate about it.
What was your first exposure to holistic farming?
I had this dream of raising all my own meat and cutting out the need for money. As I dug into the reality of making that happen, I realized it all came down to grass and started to pay more attention to the nature around me. I read tons of books on the topic until I worked up the courage to beg my wife to let us buy our first couple of sheep. With those two and my continued research, I just kind of taught myself.
Were you still in San Diego at that time?
No, I lived in Templeton. We were renting a 10-acre piece of property. I had some grass to play with and I actually started with goats. I had this aspiration with goats for a long time that they would be the answer, but they're tough to work with and don't like eating grass very much. I realized sheep and any grazing animal were the answer. I'm also pretty passionate about cattle but sheep, obviously, play a lot more important role in the vineyard.
What brought you to the Central Coast?
I knew I wanted to get into farming, and being in San Diego just wasn't working. I was working construction while managing a garden, a flock of chickens, anything I could on the little piece of property we had. I had an opportunity to come and visit the Central Coast one day and was hooked. I found an opportunity to work in the cellar at a local winery and jumped on it. During that time, I had little home projects going on with sheep and goats and a couple of cows. I've always had tons of chickens and a pretty big garden, trying to grow as much of my own food as I can for my family.
How did you end up at Tablas Creek?
When we had our first child, we decided it was best if I stayed home while my wife kept working. When it was time to go back to work, I started seeking jobs in agriculture. I started working at an olive ranch with sheep, giving me my first taste of real work in agriculture. From there, I got the ranch manager position at Rangeland wines. That was the bulk of my land management experience as far as grazing sheep and cattle. After a few years, I was offered the shepherd position here at Tablas Creek and took it.
How are you liking the job so far?
I'm loving it. Everybody's really nice. I have the creative freedom to try new things instead of sticking to one conventional view of getting the job done. We're able to experiment, try new things, and they really encourage us to be creative, which is awesome. It's just kind of a blessing.
What excites you most about what we're doing here at Tablas Creek?
The commitment to organic and biodynamic, and all these things that we genuinely believe in. We're not throwing these things to the wayside because they're time-consuming or because they're expensive, or because there's a lack of public interest. Everybody is willing to sacrifice little things and costs to stick with the original plan, the original dream. I've seen so many places start out organic and quickly give up because it seems like too much work. Not Tablas. Tablas has been doing the work for a long time before I got here, and they're going to be doing it for a long time into the future.
What are you most excited about in your new role?
I'm most excited about all the new projects that we can get into. If I really put my creative thoughts to paper, those thoughts will be encouraged. I've got a few things swirling around in my head that I've talked to Neil and Jordy about, and they're always excited to hear it. We're so open to outside-the-box thinking and being those outliers in agriculture, whether it's multi-species grazing, adding new ways of building soil or applying manure in different ways.
Could you share one of your new ideas?
Right now, we're working on our bio-char program. It's really a cool way to capture carbon out of the atmosphere and use it to the soil's benefit. Now we need a way to activate it with nitrogen. That's where my brain starts thinking about animal application. I want to build a chicken coop with a deep bedding of biochar where chickens can lay their manure, creating a nitrogen-rich layer with plenty of micro bacteria ready to be applied in the vineyard. I feel like animal impaction on the land is the quickest, healthiest way to build good organic topsoil.
I think exciting things are going to happen. There are silly things that I would write down in a journal when I was first learning about holistic land management that I had forgotten about while working in conventional environments the past few years. Now, a lot of those ideas are coming back to the surface. Silly ideas from the past that everybody here is like, why wouldn't that work? You know? And, and if it doesn't, who cares? At least we tried. That's really encouraging for the future.