By Tim Tesconi
Rex and Kerry Williams, first generation farmers who are proving that you don’t have to marry or inherit a farm to be ranchers, are Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year.
The award recognizes the Williams family’s hard work and perseverance in becoming successful livestock ranchers in Sonoma County while generously giving back to the agricultural community. The Williams family epitomizes the true grit of the modern American farmer and the daily challenges that farmers face in producing food and fiber.
“The Williams family is a shining example of people committed to making a living in agriculture by diversifying and working as a team to reach their goals,” said livestock rancher Joe Pozzi, president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “Through their creative marketing programs with lamb and sheep’s milk cheese, Rex and Kerry are providing an opportunity for their children, Wyatt and Olivia, to experience agriculture in Sonoma County for another generation.”
The Williams Family will be honored at Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land barbecue and awards program on July 19 at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor. The summer event, featuring Sonoma County food and wine, will celebrate the best of Sonoma County including farm people like the Williams family who are doing their part to preserve the county’s ranching tradition.
The Love of the Land celebration, open to the public, will benefit Farm Bureau’s programs for preserving farmland and protecting water, the two resources vital to farming and its future.
Besides land and water, the other key components for success in agriculture are passion, hard work and sheer determination, all part of the DNA of Rex and Kerry Williams, who started from scratch with no land or livestock. They decided they wanted to be ranchers, then rolled up their sleeves and went to work to make it happen.
Today, Rex and Kerry are the owners and operators of Williams Ranches, a Sebastopol-based ranching company that produces top quality lamb as well as hay and silage crops. They also are the principal partners in Black Oaks Sheep Dairy, which produces milk for high end sheep’s milk cheese. The Williams milk 75 head of dairy sheep – a cross of the Friesian and Lucaune breeds – on the home ranch on Blank Road in Sebastopol. Black Oaks Sheep Dairy is the fifth licensed sheep dairy in California and part of the growing cheese industry in Sonoma-Marin counties.
The other partner in Black Oaks Sheep Dairy is cheesemaker Seana Doughty, owner of Bleating Heart Cheese, who uses the milk from the Black Oaks Sheep Dairy to make her artisan cheeses. Her cheeses, sold under the Shepherdista, Fat Bottom Girl and Mixtress labels, are marketed primarily through Tomales Bay Foods and available locally at Oliver’s Markets, The Epicurean Connection in Sonoma and The Cheese Shop in Healdsburg.
The Williams Ranches lamb is sold direct from the ranch and at the Healdsburg Farmers Market and the Original Santa Rosa Farmers Market. The lamb comes from the Williams’ commercial flock of 300 Dorsets, a breed of white-faced meat sheep, that graze on leased land on Llano Road in west Santa Rosa. They hand pick each lamb for harvest, making sure lamb wearing the Williams Ranches label has the perfect back fat and cover to yield flavorful cuts of loin chops and rack of lamb. Their logo is “From Our Pastures to Your Table.”
Tending to more than 400 meat and dairy sheep, direct marketing their Williams Ranch lamb while farming hay and silage crops keeps the Williams family super busy but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If we didn’t absolutely love what we do it would be stupid because of the hours we spend doing this,” said Rex, 46, who works full time as the maintenance supervisor at St. Francis Winery. “I used to put in an eight hour shift after my regular shift at the winery but now as I get older I only put in a four or five hour shift after my regular day job.”
Rex also is an ace auctioneer, calling the junior livestock auctions at the Sonoma County Fair and at fund-raising events for agricultural organizations like Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
Kerry, the full-time rancher in the family, also is Mom to Wyatt, 17, and Olivia, 9, running the kids to swim lessons and band practice between ranch chores and trips to Dixon to deliver lambs for slaughter and to pick-up of the processed meat.
“It’s 24-7 with no vacations,” said Kerry of the ranch life. She gave up her full-time office job to build the family’s livestock business, developing direct markets for Williams Ranches Lamb. She prefers herding sheep to the stress of managing budgets and employees in an office environment.
“For me, ranching is who I am,” said Kerry, formerly the executive director of the Sotoyome Resource Conservation District. “I am the happiest and most fulfilled when I am on the land and working with the livestock.”
She has no regrets about giving up her office job, even when lambing in the freezing cold or bagging wool in the summer heat. She finds it rewarding to produce high-quality lamb that is gilding Sonoma County’s reputation as California’s premier wine and food region.
“The worst day on the ranch is still better than sitting at a desk in the office,” said Kerry. She moves between the home ranch in Sebastopol and the leased ranch on Llano Road to tend her flock, watched over by four Great Pyrenees guardian dogs.
Like most modern day, younger ranchers, Rex and Kerry are more sensitive to environmental issues than previous generations of ranchers and they embrace marketing as a way to enhance the value of their lamb.
“We live in an area where people really appreciate good food and want to be involved in how their food is produced and where it comes. They support locally grown products. We look at the Bay Area’s unique commitment to quality food as an opportunity,” said Kerry. She has developed a Web site, www.williamsranches.com to reach consumers and tell the family’s story.
Kerry said her biggest reward is hearing from satisfied consumers.
“It just makes my day when someone calls to say our lamb was the best lamb they have ever tasted,” said Kerry.
Rex and Kerry said their hard work has paid off but they got some help along the way from two very special people, Bruce Campbell of Healdsburg and Phoebe Sorensen of Sebastopol.
Bruce Campbell who developed the CK (Campbell Kids) Lamb was a mentor and remains a close friend to Rex and Kerry. They worked for Campbell from 1991 until 1996, tending his flock of 600 sheep and working in the CK lamb meat cutting room, learning ranching skills and quality meat production. Eventually, Rex and Kerry purchased Bruce’s sheep flock and took over the ranch lease on land owned by the City of Santa Rosa along the Laguna de Santa Rosa.
Phoebe Sorensen also took an interest in the Williams family. After her husband John died and she got out of the Christmas tree farm business, Phoebe leased her land and barns to Rex and Kerry for their purebred sheep and, later, the sheep dairy. Recently Phoebe split off 10 acres from her ranch property and sold it to Rex and Kerry, giving them a home base for their family farming operation.
Phoebe is delighted with the non-stop activity on her ranch and pleased that the land is being used as a working farm
“It’s a win-win situation for all of us,” said Phoebe.
Olivia is active in 4-H and will show market animals and breeding sheep at the Sonoma County Fair. Wyatt was in 4-H but is passionate about music and involved in the music program at Analy High School. Wyatt often helps with selling Williams Ranches lamb at the farmers markets.
Rex and Kerry said they are proud to be part of Sonoma County agriculture and plan to be ranching for the long haul. And beyond.
“In heaven I will be herding sheep and baling hay,” said Rex.