Sophia Weiss is the owner of Firebird Farms, a working ranch nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains outside of Ashland. But you won’t find any Angus beef cattle roaming and grazing on the rolling hills of her 200-acre property. Instead, you’ll find a herd of about 80 Tibetan yaks which Weiss has carefully bred and built up from a pair she acquired nearly a decade ago off a Craigslist ad.
In October, the USDA Rural Development office awarded Weiss nearly $235,000 to market and develop a range of new products made from her yaks. The federal agency awarded similar grants to 10 other small Oregon farms which it announced last month in honor of “National Ag Day 2023.″ Weiss is now using the grant dollars to work with mills in the Pacific Northwest to process the yak wool she harvests by hand to make into yarn and other textile goods in the coming months. Sophia Weiss joins us to talk about her farm and why she’s bullish about the future of yak ranching in Oregon and the nation.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Sophia Weiss is the owner of Firebird Farms, a ranch nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains outside of Ashland. But you won’t see any beef cattle or lambs grazing on her 200-acre property. Instead, you’ll find a herd of Tibetan yaks. Weiss started about nine years ago with a pair she purchased off of Craigslist. Now, her herd numbers around 80. In October Weiss was awarded a USDA grant of nearly $235,000 to market and develop a range of new products made from her yaks. It was one of 11 grants to small Oregon farms that were announced last month. Weiss is going to use the money to work with mills in the Pacific Northwest to process yak wool. She joins us now to talk about all of this. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Sophia Weiss: Hi. Thanks.
Miller: What were you doing before you became a yak rancher?
Weiss: Oh boy. I had graduated with a degree in sustainable business and then got a job. I ended up being a marketing director for a while at a software company. So, that’s where I was before raising yaks.
Miller: Did you like that job?
Weiss: I did. However, I’ve always wanted a farm. That was a childhood dream of mine and when I was able to get land, during that job, that’s when it kind of began.
Miller: You always wanted to have a farm. Did you always want to have this kind of a farm? I mean, to raise Tibetan yaks?
Weiss: No, I didn’t even know you could raise them in the United States so that was not an option for me in my dream planning. I didn’t know what kind of animals I would raise. They just sort of fell into my lap.
Miller: How does a Tibetan yak fall into one’s lap?
Weiss: I suppose I’ve always had an inquisitive mind when it comes to rare things and species that have a certain niche and environment. So, when I needed to secure water rights on the property, I needed a grazing animal and something that didn’t require management or oversight because I had a desk job. And yeah, just that random Craigslist ad.
Miller: Do you remember what the ad said?
Weiss: I don’t. I remember it was a bit shady because it had a stolen photo from a different ranch, once I started doing all the investigation. But yeah, it ended up being fine. The person who owned these animals just didn’t know how to use the computer. So it was a bit of an adventure finding them.
Miller: It sounds to me sort of terrifying going from not being a farmer, not knowing how to take care of - or did you know already how to raise and take care of livestock? Or did you just go from zero to two yaks just overnight?
Weiss: Probably I was at about 5% knowledge base.
Miller: Ok. Well, how did you do it? How did you start?
Weiss: Oh man, it’s been a crazy journey. I had a good mentor starting out and who, from afar, could walk me through situations. But I had no knowledge, no infrastructure. There’s very little out there online about raising yaks and I had no ranching experience. So yeah, it was a big learning curve.
Miller: What were those first two yaks like?
Weiss: I was so fortunate to get them. They were not tame. I still have Whisper. She’s my herd queen. She’s getting older now, but they were from a really great reputable breeder. They were kind of docile but not tame at all. And I just gave them space and respect. And now Whisper will eat out of my hand and let me walk all around her and she’s super gentle.
Miller: How did you go from those to 80 or 90?
Weiss: I had the first baby Rinchen, who’s my best friend yak. And then I ended up doing more research, visiting branches, researching genetics and I just started slowly building my herd. I think I went up to seven. Then I remember there being a window of time where I had about 24. And it’s been a quest because the gene pool is so small. So I started with what’s available in North America. So I started doing a lot of research and acquiring yaks from Nebraska, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, all over.
Miller: What have you been looking for? I mean, what would, for example, send you to Nebraska or Idaho? What do you see about a yak or know about a yak that makes you say ‘I want to bring that one into my herd?’
Weiss: Well, there’s two things, genetics and phenotype. So yaks are a primitive species rather than a breed. And they have a variety of different looks to them. So they can be all different body shapes, different style and type of hair and harvestable down fiber that grows under beneath their outer hair. So there’s what’s called super woolies or extreme woolies where they look like a wooly mammoth bear and they’re beautiful. They’re a lot of maintenance and then there’s everything down to like a really short coated yak and then there’s the size and how vigorous they grow and then there’s the genetic component as well.
Miller: So are you looking for all of that? I mean, you don’t just want one phenotype - that’s just the way genes express themselves - that’s the way an animal’s body looks, the way its body is formed. You don’t just want one look of a yak?
Weiss: I don’t, I actually like the diversity. I have certain types of confirmation and size and things that I like to have in the herd to make the most multipurpose animal. But I like the diversity because that’s one of the beautiful things about them. They have so much diversity within one species.
Miller: You said that one of the yaks that you got from that first pair is Rinchen, who you said is your best friend yak?
Weiss: That’s the daughter.
Miller: So what is she like?
Weiss: We just have this kind of bond. I have a lot of tame yaks in the herd and a lot of really sweet ones. But I can just go lay with her in the summer. If she’s taking a nap, I can just lay on her. I can sit on her in the pasture. She’s a little bit of a diva but she’s really mellow with me and she just puts up with a lot.
Miller: What is a yak diva like?
Weiss: They just beat to their own drum. They’ll just be really enjoyable one second and then they’ll just kick up their heels and flash their tail and kind of romp around like a crazy ballerina. They’re just hilarious.
Miller: So they have very different personalities, all of the different yaks in your herd?
Weiss: Yeah, I tell folks that want to get into yaks that they’re just like people. The range of temperaments is just like any population. So you can have everything from your little bookworm that’s sitting off in the corner, kind of staring off into the distance and then you have your really friendly ones. And the ones you kind of watch out for are the ones that I don’t keep in my herd.
Miller: My understanding is that you, not too long ago, acquired some yaks from the 80′s movie action star Steven Seagal. How did that happen?
Weiss: Oh, it’s just such a funny story. He had a ranch that was for sale just about an hour south of me in Montague, California. And there was a herd of 100 yaks on that ranch that had just been pretty much unmanaged for a while. That wasn’t the intention but at the ranch, no one was really there for a while and the ranchers had claimed to the grazing land for cattle. Yaks were kind of unwanted there anymore. And rounding them up with the help of some cowboys was quite an adventure.
Miller: How are Steven Seagal’s yaks doing now? It seems like they went sort of feral. What’s the status now?
Weiss: What’s so fascinating about yaks, because even if they kind of go wild like that, that experience taught me they can be tamed up again if they’re a good personality. So a lot of them went to some small farms in Oregon, Washington, some of the white ones went to Wyoming.
Miller: The grants were awarded from the USDA back in October. They were announced last month. Just to give folks a sense for what some of the other grantees are doing. Xena Forest is a farm in Rickreall, Oregon that got about $250,000 to expand the marketing and processing of raw logs into wide planked, engineered flooring. Other grantees are doing bison or growing blueberries or creameries or making cheese or making olive oil.
Sophia, so back to you and yak farming. What are you going to be doing exactly with this grant?
Weiss: So this project is really exciting. We have previously focused on the meat component of raising yaks as well as we have a breeding herd. So we sell starter herds every year. But this project is fun because I’ve been collecting the fiber that they shed every year. I’ve been saving the hides from the butcher process and these gorgeous skulls and bones and horns and so pretty much making a wide range of products out of these byproducts of the butcher process and also just what they produced every year in terms of fiber.
Miller: And you’ve already had that as an idea but with this grant, you’ll be able to actually expand the ways that you can market or sell these other products?
Weiss: We’ve just done it on a really small scale so far. There’s so much processing involved and also marketing, which is what the grant helps with. So we’re gonna be doing different kinds of hair on, then yak leather with the hides and different kinds of yarn with the down and then what they call the drop, which is the outer coat fiber and decorated skulls and brooch print pins and things like that.
Miller: What does it take to process the fiber, the wool of a yak? I mean, it seems like the way you’re describing it, first of all, there are different layers of wool on a single animal?
Weiss: If someone’s familiar with a really fluffy dog that sheds every year, it’s kind of like that. They have an undercoat that is a layer of down that they shed every spring. And that is what is really desirable for these high end luxury wearables. It’s soft like cashmere, but breathable like Merino, but it doesn’t have lanolin. It’s just really amazing. But then they have a mid coat and an outer coat and those are very strong durable fibers. So those have a set of applications completely different from the down that they shed.
Miller: So what’s your dream? I mean, what do you hope to be doing or selling, say five years from now that you’re not doing right now?
Weiss: Riding yaks.
Miller: That’s a thing? People can ride yaks?
Weiss: You totally can. I mean, yaks have sustained life in the Himalayas for centuries by transporting goods from remote regions, one area to another, in really harsh terrain. And you can use them for packing and riding and I would love to get some yaks trained up for that.
Miller: What are your days like at the ranch in this season, in the spring? I mean, what are you doing right now? And what are the yaks doing right now?
Weiss: Spring is all about babies. It’s probably my favorite time of year. I spend a lot of time checking on the calves and imprinting them for tameness and just making sure the moms are well fed and happy.
Miller: How do you imprint a baby yak for tameness?
Weiss: Very carefully, depending upon how tame the mother is, because it all depends on how close you can get to the baby. So that’s why I love having tame moms that let me go up to the baby just right away and get them used to human touch, and to not jump away - that I’m not a predator.
Miller: You speak with a lot of tenderness about these animals. I mean, you talked about one of them as your best friend yak. But this is also a business and some of these are destined to be people’s dinners, some of them are destined to just join herds and other businesses. How do you deal with both of those, with slaughtering animals or selling them and having them no longer be a part of your herd?
Weiss: It’s really a challenge. I have to look at the bigger picture. I was raised a Buddhist, so definitely the butchering part, I have a very deep way of looking at that. I think they are a species deserving of being raised more in the United States. So while, first of all, selling the breeding stock, I fall in love with them but they go off to great homes and I work really hard to find good homes for them. And then with the butcher animals, I typically let them kind of find their path in life. If they have a good temperament, I’m gonna try to place them with a pet or breeding home. And if they don’t, they go into the butcher program.
Miller: You noted at the very beginning that you studied sustainable business and, and went into that before you became a yak rancher. What does sustainability mean to you in the context of ranching?
Weiss: I think that’s a good question and something that people are really looking at a lot right now in agriculture, which is kind of this notion of regenerative farming and giving back to the land in order to continue sustaining itself. And my focus these days is really figuring out a pasture rotation and a way to give nutrients back to the pastures and to really improve the land rather than just using it.
Miller: Well, in that sense, how do yaks compare to cattle which have to dwarf them in terms of acreage and pounds of meat by an order of I’m guessing 10,000 or more in this country. What are yaks like, in terms of their impact on the land?
Weiss: I definitely couldn’t do what I’m doing with the yaks with cows. We have really heavy clay soil here and this year has been especially challenging. But the smaller size of the yaks has just less impact on the land. Period. So, per animal, their hooves are smaller, they’re half the size of a cow sometimes and they’re just an environmentally friendly option, especially for smaller land holdings. And they’re more efficient and they’re roaming, they’re easy grazers. So I think they’re an easy animal to use in these systems.
Miller: Is there an increase in interest in raising yaks in the US right now?
Weiss: Absolutely. Yeah, I equate it to the bison industry like 30 years ago because you can find bison in a lot of grocery stores now for the meat. But, the yak world is right behind it, I think. And a lot of people are getting into raising yaks.
Miller: What advice do you wish you had gotten the day that you purchased that first pair in 2014?
Weiss: You need good fences and you need a way to catch them.
Miller: Start with the basics? Keep them in, get them and keep them in. You hadn’t been given . . . you didn’t even have that advice?
Weiss: So with cattle and yaks, you have what’s called a shoot and a containment system. I did not have those things and I didn’t even have a corral.
Miller: So, I mean, did they just end up in your neighbor’s yard?
Weiss: Oh, a couple of times. Yeah, they’ve ended up in various places. But in order to take care of them medically, if anything went wrong, you need a way to catch them.
Miller: Sophia Weiss, it was a real pleasure talking to you. Congratulations on this grant. And best of luck.
Weiss: Thank you. Thanks so much.
Miller: Sophia Weiss is the owner of Firebird Farms. It is a yak ranch outside of Ashland.
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