Agriculture, Ranching

Ranch Manager Spotlight: Catlyn Gilman of Toluma Farms

March 8, 2021

Toluma Farms Ranch Manager, Catlyn Gilman, has been immersed in California agriculture since she was old enough to package the dry beans grown on her family’s leased farm, readying small parcels for the local farmers’ market. Situated just outside of Willows, a small town along the northern stretch of I-5 in the Sacramento Valley, her family’s farm operated as a dairy until World War II when her great-grandparents transitioned to rice.

But Catlyn’s deep and sustaining passion for agriculture was rooted not only in paddy fields and row crops. It grew from a love for farm animals. 

It Started with Sheep

Her family had just a few sheep when Catlyn was small, which they used for grazing the farm, helping to reduce fire fuel. Next came the chickens, a small flock growing over time. “The friendliest chickens,” Catlyn remembered. “They’d play, jump in laps, they were so sweet.” 

She sold eggs at school, at farmers’ markets and at flea markets. When she had amassed 150 or so free-range birds — the roosters in stiff competition for the hens — Catlyn began selling the birds at the local flea market. Suddenly, with cash in hand, she realized she could purchase additional animals. There was space on the farm, she figured, and she had a cage available to transport the animals home. 

And so the farm grew — with geese, with more sheep, with a pig. Catlyn was happiest when working with the animals.

When she moved to Chico to study business administration, she missed the work. She missed being surrounded by animals — so much so that she was eventually lured back home to the family farm. She continued to commute to school, and, saving money on room and board, promptly purchased four bottle-baby lambs, three female ewes and four male wethers, which were later traded for rams. Soon she found herself with a herd of sheep and in need of a sheep herding dog. Bailee joined the family not long after. 

Pathway to Toluma Farms

It was the sheep that ultimately brought her to Marin a decade later, and to MALT-protected Toluma Farms, a diversified goat and sheep farm which produces cheese under the Tomales Farmstead Creamery label. 

After college, Catlyn worked on Blackbird Farm, an educational farm camp in Mendocino, where she met future Toluma Farms Herd Manager, Skyler Bentley. It was Skyler who told Catlyn about the ranch manager position at Toluma and encouraged her to apply. What she found at Toluma was the perfect combination of all her interests and passions: small-scale agriculture, livestock and an opportunity to utilize her academic background in business. 

As Toluma’s ranch manager, Catlyn’s responsibilities vary widely — from bookkeeping to collaborating with the herd manager on milking schedules, from coordinating ranch tours and farm stays to administering medication to the goats and sheep.

“Every day on the farm is different, which is a lot of fun,” Catlyn said of her role.   

This has been especially true over the past year as agriculturalists have navigated the pandemic and rapid changes in markets and supply chains. When shelter-in-place restrictions went into effect in spring of 2020, Catlyn and her team at Toluma Farms had to make quick decisions and find new ways to connect with consumers.  

“We had just begun the birthing process when things shut down,” she said of that time. “So as people were staying home and sheltering in place, we were working 12, 13, 14–hour days. It was a strange experience to do the opposite of what the world was doing. Everything was intensifying on the farm during those months.”

Pivoting for the Pandemic

As restaurants closed and distribution slowed, Catlyn and her team faced tremendous uncertainty. Like so many other producers in Marin County and throughout the Bay Area, they looked to farmers’ markets, which continued to operate. 

“Farmers’ markets became our main outlet for sales,” Catlyn remembered. “That, like everything else, intensified. More and more people learned that they could buy directly from operations like ours. That’s been one thing that is really amazing about this unfortunate situation: people are more motivated to connect directly with their farmer and with their food source. It is widely viewed as safer than going to a grocery store or a big box store, and that has really helped to strengthen the businesses of small farmers.”

It was a year of intense learning and growth, and Catlyn looks forward to putting knowledge acquired from the pandemic into practice on the farm. Implementing small but significant tweaks to herd management practices will, as she put it, “help so much in making production easier on the team, more predictable, more efficient, more consistent.”

Such adjustments, like those made to animal breeding and milking schedules, also allow for the Toluma Farms team to more acutely observe the health and wellbeing of the animals, which results in even higher quality milk and even more delicious cheese. 

Now in the midst of another birthing season, Catlyn finds renewed energy and a sense of calm in the sheep and goats on the farm, even as the pandemic rages on. 

“I love the mornings when I feed the animals,” she said. “I’ll often go up on the hill with Bailee and take in the view of the animals grazing on the pastures down below. It provides so much peace. And there’s so much excitement this time of year, so much anticipation leading up to lambing and kidding. When that first lamb is born, there’s this rush of happiness and joy and celebration. That’s really special here.”