Western innovator: Tiny sheep chomp the vineyard

Julia Hollister/for the Capital Press Allison Batteate shows off Spanky, an Olde English Babydoll Southdown breed, at Concannon Vineyards in Livermore, Calif. The miniature sheep work on the property for weed control and other sustainable farming practices.

Vineyards see value of organic, adorable weed control

By JULIA HOLLISTER

For the Capital Press

LIVERMORE, Calif. -- Allison Batteate, owner of Batteate BabyDolls, says the best description of her "employees" is a cross between a gremlin and a Muppet.

Batteate is a fifth generation Californian with an ag background. She married into a cow-calf ranching and trucking business and lives on 65 acres in the Livermore Valley.

"About two years ago, in addition to working in the day-to-day 'cattle mode,' I began buying miniature animals -- a Shetland pony, miniature goats and cows -- to delight grandchildren who visited our ranch," she said. "Then I got the idea of adding little Olde English Babydoll Southdown sheep to the growing menagerie and another idea began to germinate."

Shortly after putting down a deposit for two sheep, she began to read more about people who had used the 24-inch tall sheep in vegetation management. Batteate contacted Canvas Ranch in Petaluma, which had such an operation. They shared their business model and experience with her.

In 2010, Batteate entered the San Joaquin Entrepreneur Challenge and was one of the finalists.

"I knew this venture was worth pursuing, so I bought sheep from Idaho, Oregon and Southern California farms and trucked them back to Livermore in our cattle semi-trailer," she said. "Then I went out to get them a job."

She joined the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association and sent out flyers with information about using her sheep in vineyards as weed control. She also presented other business reasons for using her flock: reduced fuel costs, healthier vines, less frost damage, reduced labor costs, increased access, decreased erosion -- and all without chemicals.

The size of the sheep is another incentive. They are not agile, so they do not climb to munch on the hanging grapes, and they can move easily under the drip lines.

"It takes 15 sheep one week to work one acre," she said. "The sheep also provide the fertilizer and fertilizer distribution at no extra charge."

Batteate also provides a 36-inch, moveable solar-powered electrified fence and two guard dogs -- an Akbash and Anatolian Shepherd-Akbash cross -- to stay with the sheep. Coyotes are the biggest problem in the Livermore Valley.

Her dedication to the community is evident in other areas. She is also president of the Alameda County Cattlewomen, an organization that develops awareness about beef and promotes a better understanding of the beef industry, the Rowell Ranch Pro Rodeo board and Sisters on the Fly, a women's fly-fishing group.

"My husband really supports me in my venture," she said. "I guess that means the age-old sheep and cattle wars are over."

It's a win-win situation for Batteate and Concannon Winery, which recently signed on to use the little sheep on its sprawling property. Visitors report they would much rather see sheep than tractors working in the vineyards.

Chris Chandler, executive director with the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association, agreed on the animals' value.

"Not only are Batteate Ranch's Babydoll sheep among the cutest animals you'll ever see, they have been used in a number of Livermore Valley's vineyards," she said. "They cut down on air and noise pollution as well as the use of fossil fuels and chemicals. This miniature breed is replacing chemicals and tractors in the organic vines for weed control in many areas of California."

Allison Leal Batteate

Age: 47

Hometown: Livermore, Calif.

Occupation: Shepherd and rancher

Family: Husband, Abbie , three grown step-children and four grandchildren

Quote: "The sheep are good for the vine and good for the wine."

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