QUILCENE — This is a story of a hat leading to a new life.
Patricia Young worked at Tango Zulu Imports, a fair-trade shop in Port Gamble, and loved encountering cultures from across the globe, all via the products in the shop.
One day her boss, Tracy Zhu, brought in some clothing that felt different: headwear and fingerless gloves made of yak fiber. Young bought herself a hat — and started learning about these creatures from the Himalayas, big bovines that wear shaggy coats and handlebar horns.
Then came some news: Zhu had heard about an orphaned baby yak in Sandpoint, Idaho, near where she grew up. The animal was for sale.
“We should take a road trip,” Zhu said.
“She was joking,” recalled Young.
Adventurous as well as humorous, off they went in Young’s minivan. On arrival she fell for Tashi, the week-old yak. He came home to Poulsbo, where Young and her husband Steven lived on about 5 acres.
“We raised him ourselves. He was a bottle baby. A brat,” she recalled.
As Tashi grew, Young learned more. Yak eat one-third what domestic cattle do, so they can thrive on smaller parcels of grassland. They’re known as the Swiss Army knife of livestock because they have something for every purpose.
The Tibetan people, and now the people of other places around the world, use yak for their hair, their milk and their meat. If you need a pack animal, that’s also doable.
“Yak are so smart,” said Young. “They’re like mules,” which can present challenges. You’ve got to reward the behavior you want to see, and try to ignore the rest.
Port Angeles herd
Across the Peninsula and just outside Port Angeles, Linda Adams has a small herd on the Tumwater Creek Yak Farm.
She and her husband Paul Kaminski ran a pharmacy in Darrington, Snohomish County, and decided to move back home and be nearer to their elderly parents.
Adams — whose late father, Lance, and mother Sharon ran the Black Diamond Winery on their acreage west of town — wanted to come back to the land. Kaminski saw yak farming on an episode of the “Dirty Jobs” television show. They went from being pharmacists to farmers.
They plan to sell yak fiber and breed calves for sale.
But let’s back up. While Adams and Kaminski grew up in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains, Young and her husband come from strong stock in the Great Plains and Midwest. Her family were shepherds in Elizabethtown, Pa. And Steven, Young said, “is a Kansas farm boy.”
As kids, both wanted to get as far as they could from the sights, sounds and smells of farming. They moved to the Pacific Northwest and worked indoors, she at Tango Zulu Imports, he in corporate sales.
And yet. The pair shared traits, cultivated on the farm, that would come in handy. They do not waste a thing. They have a work ethic that won’t quit.
In 2015, the couple learned of a herd of yak that was available: a bull, a steer, three cows and their calves.
They asked each other: Are we going to go big or go home?
They went big. Rogue the bull weighs about 1,500 pounds now. He has his own pasture on the 20-acre farm the couple found in Quilcene, just up the road from Tarboo Creek. On another part of the property, behind plenty of electric fence, are the “girls,” as Young calls them, who weigh only about 700 pounds.
Today Yaks in the Cradle Farm is a listed breeder with the International Yak Association; this spring Young is looking after 15 yak as well as a small herd of Pygora goats. They are also members of the Pygora Breeder’s Association.
Adams is also on IYAK, having welcomed three newborn calves in December. Yammy the cow had twins on the night of the frost moon; they’re named Elsa and Luna. Daisy, the other cow, gave birth to Chester a little later in the month. Their father is Bataar, which Adams said is the word for hero in Tibetan.
The calves, she added, are little escape artists. She had to put in field fence to keep them from scampering too far. Next up is a barn, which Adams and Kaminski hope to build this year.
“We’re learning,” said Adams, who also tends to the small vineyard her folks established.
As for the yak, “there’s something really therapeutic about them.”
Back at Yaks in the Cradle in Quilcene, other improvements were needed. To develop good pasture, friends helped sow grass seed. Young, who suffers from a hip injury, wept with gratitude.
For her, it’s all a crazy dream come true — with help from her spouse, who is still a corporate sales director when he’s not out on the farm.
“The joy of working with them is how intelligent they are,” said Steven, who helped his wife host a Quilcene Elementary School field trip one sunny afternoon.
“Does anybody know how we collect their fiber?” Young asked the small flock of children.
“We comb them,” and the soft hair slips right off.
Steven fed some pressed-alfalfa cookies to the mellow cows in the front pasture, and then showed the kids how to approach them.
The students, ranging from kindergartners to sixth-graders, looked interested but not astonished. As participants in Quilcene after-school 4-H — a free program open to all Quilcene elementary-age kids — they’re surrounded by the farming life.
Chanel Greene, 5, helped hand out cookies while her classmates clustered around. Young continued discussing yak-farm life, which includes combing, hoof-trimming, and nine months of gestation before the babies are born in summer.
She smiled so much at her young visitors that her face hurt.
Yaks for 4-H
This August will mark another step forward for Yaks in the Cradle: Lacey Bishop, a Chimacum High School junior, plans to be the community’s first yak 4-H participant, working with a steer and a heifer, at the Jefferson County Fair.
Five years in, these are fiber animals; Young started with this venture knowing there’s a strong fiber-art and -craft community on the North Olympic Peninsula.
She represents her farm at fiber-art events and runs an online store, selling yak yarn, scarves, gloves, mittens, hats and baby clothes. Yak meat will be available in the fall, and yak cheese is on the near horizon.
“In an area where there are wineries and cideries and tourism,” the farmer said, this specialty cheese could be yet another alluring product, and one that helps a local farm thrive.
Both Young and Adams look to the future of yak farming, locally and beyond. Adams wants to grow her herd, and even do a calf exchange with Young to promote more diverse bloodlines.
Meantime, for the women, this is the life. Young jokes about having “just enough insanity” to pursue yak farming. Then she looks out to see her girls gamboling across their pasture.
This story was first pubished in the Peninsula Daily News. Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.