An motor whines and a burly man straddles a sheep calmly lying on her back on a barn floor. A Fremont mom, dad and two young children watch wide-eyed as the man expertly grasps the sheep’s hind leg and extends it to reveal thick wool on her belly. The man leans in with the clipper, and a thick mat of fleece lies on the floor.
He rises, puffing slightly, and the sheep, naked without her fluffy fleece, rolls to her feet and trots away.
This was just one of many discovery-filled moments Saturday for scores of Bay Area children visiting Elkus Ranch in Half Moon Bay for Sheep to Shawl.
“We have a very good time,” said ranch advisory board member Carolyn Battiani, who has spent 11 years in the event, showing kids how ranch life affects their lives. “It’s to give back to the community, and I love to teach kids things they’ve never seen before.”
Before that day was over, many children were learning new wonders. A 7-year-old girl from San Carlos got to make her own jumprope. A 9-year-old boy learned what it was like to hold a docile hen in his lap.
On property donated by Richard J. Elkus in 1975, the Elkus Ranch, now 125 acres, is owned by the University of California. On it, a small army of volunteers helps raise Suffolk/Hampshire sheep, goats, horses, a llama, chickens and rabbits. Produce gardens include a children’s vegetable garden, an “enabling garden” accessible to wheelchairs, and plots where San Mateo County Master Gardeners do demonstrations.
“We call ourselves a working ranch,” said ranch coordinator Leslie Jensen, “but we’re in the business of education.”
Programs at the ranch include preschool and family days, environmental and science education, summertime Discovery Day Camps and more. Roughly 8,000 children, mostly from San Mateo County but some from as far as Sacramento, visit the ranch. Many are special-needs kids, said Jensen.
But on Saturday, whole families found new worlds.
“I really liked it,” said Alden Cunha, 9, of Redwood City. “It’s fun when I got to help feed chickens.”
Dov Levenberg, 9, of San Jose, learned about Sheep to Shawl from his teacher, and parent Topaz Levenberg, brought him and sister Ella, 5, along. At one point, he fed the chickens, and sat curiously regarding a brownish-golden chicken contentedly settled in his lap.
“He tells me that when he’s an adult he’s going to become a rancher,” said Topaz. “He’s got plans.”
In a nearby barn, visitors watched corn being ground into chicken feed. Battaini, explaining that some of the equipment is more than 100 years old, noted that simple farm machinery was new for many of the kids. “They know how to push buttons on (video games) but they don’t know how to turn handles on machines,” she said.
In another barn, the Aftosmis family of Foster City saw what happens to shorn fleece. Daughters Jessica, 11, and Michelle, 6, scraped flat carders together, untangling the matted fleece into smooth puffs ready for spinning and then dyeing. “It’s a lot of fun because you get to brush it and then make your own wool,” said Jessica, carding away.
Her sister happily sported a bracelet made of white wool, to which she meant to add blue and dark-pink ones once she’d dyed them.
They’d planed this trip for a couple of months, said mom Diane Poirier. “I thought it was a nice thing to do,” she said. “The sheep has relatively short hair, and then to be able to make it into yarn of infinite lengths, it’s amazing how it works.”
Elkus Program representative Julie Mathiasen showed visitors how to use materials like New Zealand flax seed, food coloring, beets, flower stalks, or persimmons to dye the spun fleece vibrant colors — and how the process required patience.
“They want instant gratification and they don’t realize it takes five to 10 minutes for the dye to work into the fibers,” she said. “Then, it’s like, ‘It’s working!’ They see the results.”
Out in the sweeping drive, Mark Sherwood and daughter Aria, 3, played with her new jumprope. He said he saw the day as a little piece of Americana — a place where “I can show them lessons like I learned growing up” in Indiana.