Friday, July 18, 2014

Farm-to-Fork - Why the Sacramento Bee Just Doesn't Get It

The Sacramento Bee seems to have embraced the Sacramento region's growing "farm-to-fork" movement, but recent editorials, guest editorials and news coverage suggest a lack of understanding of what it takes to actually put food on our forks.  At best, the Bee's recent coverage indicates a lack of understanding about the connections between farming and food.  At worst, the Bee seems increasingly hostile to the concerns of the rural communities surrounding the Sacramento metropolitan area - the very rural communities that provide the agricultural foundation for farm-to-fork.  For example, on June 14, 2014, the paper published a guest opinion from the Center for Biological Diversity supporting the state listing of the wolf as an endangered species.  To my knowledge, the Bee has yet to publish an alternative perspective about the impact that the listing is likely to have on ranchers (and I know that at least one differing viewpoint was submitted).  During the following week, the capture of a mountain lion in a Sacramento neighborhood made the front page of the Bee.  The lion was relocated to a rural area of El Dorado County.  The article described at length the fear that neighborhood residents had for their safety and the safety of their pets; it failed to mention any impacts to the rural landowners where the lion was relocated.  And just yesterday, the paper published an editorial blasting the state's farmers for wasting water during the drought (to view the editorial, click here).  As a rancher whose business has been profoundly impacted by the drought - and who is investing time and money to conserve water - the Bee's simplistic view of agricultural water use is especially frustrating.

In the 1990's, policy experts and, I suspect, the Sacramento Bee's editorial board, encouraged farmers to transition from "thirsty" annual or perennial crops, like canning tomatoes and alfalfa, to more water efficient permanent crops - like almonds and pistachios.  According to the "experts," these permanent crops made more efficient use of water because they could be irrigated with drip or micro-sprinkler technology.  What the experts failed to realize, however, is that this crop conversion made water demand more inelastic.  In other words, a tomato grower faced with zero water deliveries from his or her irrigation district could decide not to grow tomatoes that year - a short term loss, but not catastrophic.  An almond grower faced with a similar dilemma isn't likely to fallow his or her orchard - the significant investment in trees and infrastructure requires the farmer to irrigate at least enough to keep the trees alive.  During the drought, we're seeing many of these growers turn to groundwater as their only alternative.

According to the Bee, "agriculture has been let off the hook" when it comes to conserving water during this drought.  Let's examine the facts.  Many cattle and sheep ranchers have sold animals to make sure that they have enough grass - both irrigated and non-irrigated - to support the animals they've kept.  Personally, we've sold nearly 40 percent of our sheep.  I know other ranchers who have sold much higher percentages of their herds.  To put this in terms that a non-rancher might understand, imagine that your retirement investments lost 40-60 percent of their value in a 12 month period - you'd be devastated, right?

Farmers are facing similar impacts.  In February, I started a Facebook page called Farmer and Rancher Voices from the Drought.  I also started a group page just for farmers and ranchers to share information.  Some of the photos and stories posted on both pages are heartbreaking - photos of dying citrus trees in the southern San Joaquin Valley, stories of crops planted and then left to die when the State Water Resources Control Board curtailed the water diversions of junior water rights holders, posts about the impacts to farmworkers and their families.  I read last week that California farmers have fallowed 800,000 acres of land this year - an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. A recent study by UC Davis indicates that 17,100 seasonal, part-time and full time jobs have been lost because of the drought (and each one of these lost jobs effects a family). At least to me, it hardly seems that agriculture has been let off the hook during this drought.

In our operation, we've changed the way we're managing our irrigation water.  We've installed matrix blocks to monitor soil moisture in some of our pastures.  This helps us match the timing of our irrigation to the needs of our plants - and we've discovered that we don't need to water as much!  In some of our pastures, we delayed the start of our irrigation season by about 2 months - we're irrigating now to grow forage for our sheep this fall (instead of starting to irrigate in mid-April).  And we are making do with less irrigated pasture overall - which means we are not selling any grass-fed lamb at our local farmers' market this year.

Like many conservation-minded folks in the city of Sacramento (and elsewhere), I'm sure that at least some of the people on the Bee's editorial board have let their lawns die this year to conserve water.  I'm willing to be that they are still collecting a paycheck.  The farmers and ranchers who have sold animals or let trees die because of the drought, on the other hand, are taking a substantial economic hit.  I just wish the Bee's editorial board would realize that without our farms, there wouldn't be much to put on our forks.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Next Year

I went fishing today.  Not remarkable, I realize - but what is remarkable was the water situation on the middle fork of the American River, where we fished.  We drove beyond the town of Foresthill to French Meadows Reservoir, part of the Placer County Water Agency's (PCWA) Middle Fork American River project.  We started by fishing in the river above the reservoir, but there was so little water flowing that we decided to try the lake instead.  I'd fished the lake just 4 weeks earlier, and I was stunned by how far the water level had dropped - at least 5-6 feet according to my untrained eye.  The lack of inflow and rapidly dropping water level made me wonder what next year will hold.

Our irrigation water at Flying Mule Farm comes from the Nevada Irrigation District (NID) - PCWA's neighbor to the north.  While the watersheds that serve the two agencies are similar, their water rights situations vary somewhat.  PCWA provides irrigation water to many of the small farms and mandarin orchards in the Loomis Basin, and to many of the rice, cattle and hay farms in western Placer County.  At recent meetings, both agencies have assured us that they have enough water to make it through the irrigation season (which officially ends on October 15) this year.  They've also assured us that they'll have enough carry-over water stored in their reservoirs to make it through next year - if we get normal precipitation.

This week, I saw several news reports about the potential for an El Niño event this coming winter.  Last spring, long-range forecasters were certain that a strong El Niño was developing in the Pacific.  More recently, the intensity of the El Niño seems to have weakened, and the stories published this week seemed to suggest that the likelihood of above average precipitation in Northern California this winter is fading.  In fact, several reports I read indicated that this winter was likely to be average or below average for precipitation.

Total precipitation, however, is only part of the story.  The inflow into French Meadows, which was so low today, comes from snowmelt.  A warm winter, typical of an El Niño event, means that much of our high-elevation precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow.  In a normal year, we rely on snow to store water in the spring and release it into the streams (and ultimately into the reservoirs) in the summer.  We simply don't have enough storage to capture rainfall runoff during the winter and save it for the summer.

The issue is further complicated by the State Water Resources Control Board's recent curtailment order.  Under this order, "junior" water rights holders (that is, water rights that were issued after 1914) can no longer divert or impound water - to make sure that the "senior" water rights holders receive their water (California has a first-in-time, first-in-right system of allocating water).  This order means that water agencies with junior rights cannot hold back this water - it has to flow through their reservoirs to ensure that senior downstream users receive their allocations.  As I understand it, the State Board will leave this order in place for 270 days - through next February!  That means that any precipitation that falls in high country watersheds through next February will have to be passed through storage facilities - it can't be stored for next summer.

In our operation, the fundamental principle of our drought strategy is "hope for the best, plan for the worst."  We hope that next winter brings above-average rain and snowfall, but we're making plans for dealing with a fourth consecutive dry year.  Based on what our local water agencies have told us at recent meetings, I fear that they may be hoping for the best and planning for the best - in other words, I don't think they know what they'll do if 2014-2015 proves to be a fourth year of drought.

But we did catch fish today....

Friday, July 11, 2014

Learning to Work: The Continuing Education of Ernie the Border Collie (and Dan the Shepherd)

I spent yesterday moving our ewes from a targeted grazing contract just outside of Auburn to our main leased pasture closer to home.  This work involved hauling five trailer loads of ewes from Christian Valley back to Oak Hill Ranch near the corner of Mt. Vernon Road and Shanley Road.  I took our border collies Mo and Ernie to help me with the task.

Loading the trailer directly from our electro-net paddocks takes patience and good dogs - too much pressure and the sheep blow through the fence; too little pressure and they don't get in the trailer.  Once I'd moved the ewes into a smaller holding paddock, I set up the trailer and asked Mo to bring the flock to the rear of the trailer with the hope that they'd jump right in.  As sometimes happens, the ewes were reluctant to load, and Mo was not creating enough motion on his own.  In the past, I've had problems working Mo and Ernie together - I sometimes have to put pressure on Ernie (with a harsh voice - not physical pressure) to get him to listen.  Being a very sensitive dog, Mo will often quit working in these situations.  With this in mind, I brought Ernie into the paddock to see how they'd work together.

Ernie was great!  On several occasions, he clearly wanted to run straight at the flock rather than cast himself around them (this has been a problem for Ernie throughout his training).  Each time, I was able to lay him down and ask him to flank - and each time, he took my correction and cast around on a sufficiently wide flank.  And because he took my corrections and commands quietly, Mo continued to work for me as well.

When we arrived at Oak Hill Ranch with our first load of ewes, I decided I'd start with Mo.  I should mention here that Mo is intact, while Ernie has been neutered.  I soon realized that there was a dog in heat nearby - Mo's head just wasn't in the game, so to speak!  Ernie had to get the job done by himself!

Unloading the ewes and putting them into their new paddock was fairly straightforward.  The one complication was the fact that the ewes could walk past the paddock opening through a narrow corridor (with the electro-net on one side and a permanent fence on the other).  Ernie needed to get around these ewes to turn them back.  Until recently, he would usually run along side the sheep to get to their heads - which would speed them up and potentially push them through the electro-net.  Yesterday, he figured out how to get through the barbed wire fence so he could cast himself more widely around the ewes - it was beautiful!  And it wasn't a fluke - he did this several times!

Towards the end of the day, I used Ernie to gather and move a small group of lambs to a new paddock.  The lambs were scattered, but Ernie sent himself around the perimeter of the paddock so that he could gather the entire flock.  He brought them across a small creek, through two gates, and finally into the new paddock.  His only hiccup was that he decided once they were in the new paddock that he should gather them again - but he allowed me to call him off before we had too much chaos (a year ago, he'd have ignored me - and I would have yelled at him!).

At the end of the day, I stopped off for a beer with a few fellow farmers - each of whom is at a similar point in his farming career.  We talked about how some of the work gets easier - things that worried us as younger and less experienced farmers and ranchers no longer seem like such a big deal.  I find that I'm much more calm and confident when I'm working with Ernie than I used to be - and my attitude translates to calmness and confidence in Ernie.  He still has his moments, and I still lose my cool on occasion, but we're a much better team.  I know some of my confidence stems from the fact that Ernie's work has improved, but I think Ernie's work is improving because I'm taking a more positive approach to working with him.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pasture Envy

I'll admit it - sometimes I have pasture envy!  This condition is probably due, at least in part, to my decision to raise sheep in a Mediterranean climate - one that turns golden brown in the summertime.  And while there is much to like about living and ranching in an area with distinct rainy and dry seasons, I'm envious of those who graze their livestock on pastures that stay green most summers with little or no irrigation.

Montana pastures (photo: John W. Ross)


Green in July (photo: John W. Ross)
The latest bout of pasture envy comes as a result of modern technology and social media.  My friend John Ross, who works in Washington DC but whose heart is back home at the family ranch in Montana, recently posted photos on Facebook.  John was home in the Bear Paw Mountains for the Fourth of July, and based on the photographs, it's easy to see why his Scots ancestors (who probably raised sheep, I suspect!), settled in that part of Montana.

Facebook isn't the only instigator of pasture envy.  I've recently started trying learn how to use Twitter, and I've followed a couple of fellow shepherds from northern England.  Their photos of green summer pastures and stone walls and bridges are spectacular.  I hope to visit one day!
Yorkshire, England (photo: Amanda Owen)

The Lake District, England (photo: Herdwick Shepherd)

Rationally, I know that green grass in summertime always comes with a cost.  In our climate, we only have green grass in July if we're able and willing to irrigate it.  This time of year, I spend 10-12 hours a week irrigating what little green pastureland we have.  In Montana, I suspect, green grass comes at the cost of often brutal winters or summer rainstorms that can ruin a cutting of hay.  I'm sure that the shepherds I follow in England are coping with climate-related health and management issues that are entirely outside of my experience.

But pasture envy is not a rational emotion.  I look at the photos and think about how nice it would be if Mother Nature did my irrigating!  I start to calculate the carrying capacity of the pastures.  I can almost hear the sound of my sheep grazing on these lush green fields!  Sigh....
Our wonderful Mediterranean climate in Auburn, CA! 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Nervous

Fire season has begun in earnest.  Large fires are burning in the coast range north of San Francisco, as well as on the Modoc plateau.  Wildland firefighters are reporting that fuel moistures are unusually low because of the drought - they are seeing fire behavior that looks more like September than early July.  And the forecast calls for above normal temperatures and single-digit afternoon humidities through the middle of next week - which means any little spark is potentially disastrous.  Since this is Independence Day weekend, the chance of a little spark is much higher than normal.  The combination of dry fuels, dry weather and crazy people makes me nervous.

Fireworks are banned in and around Auburn, but they are readily available in Rocklin and Roseville - just to the west of us.  Nonprofits sell fireworks this time of year as fundraisers - and while I support many of the same causes, I can't support the method of raising money.  To me, selling fireworks to the general public in the middle of the summer in a fire-prone ecosystem is INSANE!  Surely none of the fireworks sold 20 miles down the road in Roseville will make it back to Auburn - right?!  In a drought year, especially, you'd think firework sales would be banned.  You'd (I'd) be wrong.

And so I'll spend all weekend scanning the sky for fire planes, the horizon for smoke, and the internet for news.  I won't sleep well knowing that our sheep are grazing on dry forage that could disappear in an instant.  While many people are traveling this weekend, my family will remain close to home - mostly because I'm a worrier.  And while I'll relax a bit when this heat wave breaks and the Fourth of July weekend is over, I won't be comfortable until the autumn rains put an end to this fire season.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Getting Paid to Graze?! Darn Right!

We've provided vegetation management services using targeted grazing for a number of years.  Every year, I receive calls from landowners who are interested in using sheep or goats to solve their fuel loading problems.  Invariably, several potential customers will say something along the lines of, "I've got all this grass [brush, weeds, etc.] - you'd get free feed for your sheep [goats]!"

We charge for this service for a variety of reasons.  One of the major reasons we charge is that a great deal of planning goes into the short period of time we're on a specific property.  I've got to plan the transportation and set-up before the animals arrive.  Perhaps more importantly, I have to make sure the animals have a place to go once they've finished the project.

This week, I was reminded about several other reasons for charging for this service.  We're currently grazing on a site that has no fences - including along about a half-mile of county road - which means we're building thousands of feet of electric fence each week.  The site also doesn't have water, which means we're hauling water to the sheep.  And we're grazing in rough, brushy terrain, which means we're at greater risk for predation.  Last week, we built fence through blackberries and poison oak - always a fun job, but especially enjoyable in hot weather!  This week, we had a ewe that appears to have been bitten by a rattlesnake.

In other words, "free" feed is rarely worth what you pay for it!
The ewes like grazing on blackberries, but it's not much fun building fence through it!


I'm pretty sure this ewe was bitten on her foot by a rattlesnake.
I treated her with antibiotics and dexamethazone today.
She should recover, but we'll keep an eye on her.

The snakebit ewe heading off through the poison oak - this is also nice for fence building!  Fortunately, I'm
reasonably immune to poison oak!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Gear Review - Footwear for Farmers

For me, like most farmers and ranchers, function is more important than form when it comes to fashion.  I need clothes that are durable and comfortable.  While I often choose the least expensive option when it comes to pants and shirts, I never skimp on footwear!  I’d rather pay more for durable boots that can be rebuilt than pay less for boots that will wear out in 6 months and need to be thrown away!

The first rule for comfortable feet, at least for me, is to wear comfortable socks.  I’ve tried synthetics, but I always come back to wool (perhaps it’s because I’m a sheep rancher).  Wool has some amazing properties that synthetic materials just can’t match.  Wool is moisture-wicking and breathable, making wool socks comfortable year round.  Wool can also absorb up to 30 percent of its weight in water and retain its insulating properties.  Finally, wool has natural antibacterial properties – not that smelly feet is ever a problem for a farmer!

I’ve tried a number of different brands of wool socks.  SmartWool socks, from New Zealand, are outstanding, as are US-made Wigwam socks (which use US wool!).  Cabela’s has its own brand, which are very similar to SmartWool (and usually a bit cheaper).  This year, I bought a pair of Darn Tough socks made by the Vermont Sock Company.  They are more expensive (about $22 for the pair I bought), but they are made with US wool – and they come with a lifetime guarantee!  If they wear out, Vermont Sock Company will send me a new pair – I even read the fine print and could not find a sheepherder exemption to the guarantee!

As for boots, I look at the type of work I need to accomplish and purchase them accordingly.  When I’m working sheep in the corrals or working on flat ground, I like a pull-on boot with a low heel and a fairly non-aggressive tread design (non-aggressive tread makes it easier to scrape the sheep manure from my boots when I get home, which my family greatly appreciates).  When I’m cutting firewood or building fence on steep, rugged ground, I need something that will provide better traction and ankle stability.

I also prefer boots that can be repaired by a cobbler.  Boots with a sewn-on sole can be re-soled; boots with a molded or glued-on sole can’t be.  Even better, I like a boot with an upper that can be repaired or rebuilt as it wears out.  Finally, I prefer a boot that isn’t lined – or treated with a synthetic waterproofing (like GoreTex).  I find that well-oiled leather boots with wool socks work in most conditions.  When it’s really wet, I’ll switch to rubber boots!
Drew's Linecutters (L), Redwing Pecos (M) and White's Ranch Packers (R) - all freshly oiled!

For an off-the-shelf, American-made boot, I like Redwings.  I have a pair of pull-on, smooth-soled Redwings that I use for sheep work and everyday wear.  The soles can be replaced, and the uppers are unlined.  My only complaint is that they have a cloth lining in the lower part of the boot.  I also have a pair of lace-up logging boots that I found on the clearance rack at our local boot store.  They don’t fit quite as well (I usually wear a 7-1/2 or 8 B, and these are a little wide), but they’re comfortable and durable.  As a lace-up, they give me more stability, and the Vibram soles give me better traction than my pull-ons.

Because I have a small, narrow foot, I can’t always find off-the-shelf boots.  I’ve tried two hand-made brands and like them about equally.  I have a pair of White’s ranch-packers, an 8-inch lace-up boot with a high arch and a mini-Vibram sole (which cleans easier than a full Vibram sole).  I also have a pair of custom-made Drew’s firefighter boots.  Because these boots were made to my measurements, they are probably the most comfortable boot I’ve ever owned.  They have high arches and full Vibram soles – they are my first choice when I’m working in steep, rugged country.  I’ve had both of these pairs of boots re-soled, and I’ve had the White’s rebuilt once (Drew’s Boots in Klamath Falls will re-build a pair of boots at about 1/3 to ½ of the cost of a new pair of boots).

Not every brand of boot I’ve tried has been satisfactory.  I have a pair of US-made Thorogood pull-on boots that wore out after 4 months.  I tried Wolverine boots several years ago, but was disappointed when the lower liner disintegrated.  I’ve had Justin boots in the past, but they recently stopped making work boots in narrow widths at my size.

Finally, I’ve found that keeping my boots clean and well-oiled is critical to their comfort and longevity.  I use saddle soap to clean them, and I useNor-V-Gen Shoe Paste or Obenauf’s Heavy Duty LP boot oil to keep the leather in good condition.  Looking on the Obenauf’s website, I think I’ll try their waterproofing next winter, too!


As a shepherd, I’m on my feet quite a bit.  Several years ago, I used a pedometer to track how much walking was required to build a 2-acre paddock using electric fence – I ended up walking more than 1.5 miles!  Spending a little extra on comfortable and durable footwear makes days like this much more enjoyable!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Of Wolves and Hard Work

Note: On Saturday, June 14, 2014, the Sacramento Bee published an op-ed piece entitled "Hard work remains to keep California's wolves safe" (to read the article, click here). While I'm certain that the Bee's readership is not universal in its support of the listing of the wolf as endangered by the California Fish and Game Commission, the paper has yet to run any alternative viewpoints. I submitted the following essay for consideration last week (and the Bee has decided, apparently, not to publish it). Obviously, this is a complicated issue - I hope others will offer their own perspectives!  

As a rancher and lifelong resident of the Sierra foothills, I read Amroq Weiss’ piece (“Hard work remains to keep California’s wolves safe,” June 14, 2014) with interest. Like Ms. Weiss, I'm always thrilled to see wildlife - including the large predators (coyotes, black bears and mountain lions) in our environment.  I use the word "our" here purposely.  As a sheep rancher, I live in and rely upon the same wild landscapes that these predators call home.  And while I'll admit that I would be thrilled to see a wolf in the wild, I have a different perspective than Ms. Weiss on the hard work involved in co-existing with these predators.


My family operates a small-scale commercial sheep operation in the foothills near Auburn.  We produce grass-fed lamb and provide vegetation management services using sheep and goats for a variety of clients.  We've made a commitment to coexisting with predators.  By utilizing livestock guardian dogs and electric fencing, we have minimized conflicts.  We've seen black bears near our sheep, as well as evidence of mountain lions.  We've also had eagles and owls try to take lambs during our spring lambing season.  The biggest threat to our sheep, frankly, are neighbor dogs that are allowed to run free.


Wolves are a different matter entirely.  The thrill of seeing a wolf, for me, would be tempered by my concern for the safety of my animals.  I know sheep producers in the Rockies who have had livestock guardian dogs killed by wolves - coyotes and mountain lions generally won't attack a guardian dog.  I know other producers who have lost mature cows to wolves.  My commitment as a shepherd is to the well-being and safety of my flock; the sight of a dead lamb (or even worse, a lamb that has been attacked but is not yet dead) is indescribably devastating.


Ms. Weiss suggests that the cattle and sheep "industries" seem to have more political clout than California's 38 million human residents when it comes to wolves.  Looking at the issue from my perspective, I find it challenging to raise livestock in a state that is increasingly abandoning its rural roots.  Land use, conservation and water policies are set by our urban neighbors and their elected representatives, with little regard for the impacts on those of us in rural communities. We must live with the implications of these policies - while producing food and fiber.  And this brings me to the topic of hard work.


In her article, Ms. Weiss indicates that wolf predation on livestock in Oregon has declined because of simple techniques like "monitoring cattle herds on horseback and quickly removing livestock carcasses."  The economics of ranching (whether we raise sheep or cattle) are challenging - increased labor squeezes already thin profit margins.  While I don't discount the "hard" work of advocating for wildlife, quickly removing a 1,200 pound cow carcass that is 10 miles from the nearest gravel road is difficult work in the truest sense of the words.

Furthermore, wolves will change the human relationships around ranching and rangeland conservation in California.  In the last 10 years, we've made tremendous strides in finding common ground between environmentalists and ranchers.  The California Rangeland Conservation Coalition (www.carangeland.org), for example, is a collection of ranching, agency and environmental organizations that are committed to protecting and enhancing habitat by maintaining viable ranches on these lands.  In other states, wolves have proven to be a polarizing force politically.  I hope we have time to strengthen our relationships over the management of rangelands before for we must deal with the arrival of wolves in California.  I hope we can continue to build partnerships that lead to voluntary conservation measures. Unfortunately, the listing of the wolf as a state endangered species (which may or may not actually aid in its recovery as a species), puts this hard work and collaboration at risk.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Do we have the food system we deserve?

I heard a story on National Public Radio last night about large scale farming.  Based on the 2012 Census of Agriculture, NPR reported, just 4 percent of U.S. farms produce 67 percent of our food.  The story focused on one large family farm in Kansas that has expanded by purchasing the farms of neighbors - to the point where they now grow more than 16,000 acres of sorghum, corn, soybeans and wheat.  Expansion, at least for this farm, was driven by the need to increase their economies of scale - to produce more food at a lower cost.  The remainder of the story focused on the impacts that this consolidation has had on rural towns throughout the Midwest.

I was interested in what was not said in the story.  Americans, I think, want cheap food produced on small family farms.  We spend the lowest percentage of our income on food of any nation on the planet - and we like it that way!  We also have a vision of what farming should be like - Jefferson's yeoman farmer (and his family) is still the ideal for many of us.  What we don't fully appreciate, however, is the disconnect between these two priorities.

In my own experience as a sheep rancher who has sold lamb at farmers' markets, I've seen this disconnect first hand.  I've had potential customers examine a package of my lamb chops and tell me, "Wow - this is a lot more expensive than the lamb I can buy at Costco."  At the same time, I've had customers imply that my ranch is larger than their ideal vision of a family farm.  They'll say, "Wow - I didn't know you had that many sheep (200 +/-)! I thought you were a small farm!"  In some ways, I wonder if folks consider food such a basic necessity that they take for granted someone should want to (or need to) make a living growing it.

As I think through this issue further, I think most of us simply desire cheap food.  We want choices when we go to the grocery store, and we want these choices to have minimal impact on our wallets. While we say we want an food system based on local, family-owned small farms, we vote with our pocket books for cheap food almost every time (I'm guilty of this, too).  Cheap food requires us to adopt policies and practices that maximize the economies of scale and production efficiencies - in other words, policies and practices that favor large scale production.  Perhaps we have the food system we deserve!

Here's an interesting discussion of other aspects of cheap food: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/05/23/chart-of-the-week-is-food-too-cheap-for-our-own-good/

Friday, June 13, 2014

Drought Update - Marketing our Lambs 2014

As I've written previously, one of the consequences of the drought is a change in how we market our lambs.  In the past, we've tried to market most of our lambs as meat, directly to our customers.  We sold lamb at farmers' markets, to restaurants, and directly to our customers.  This year, we won't be at the farmers' market at all.  We are finishing a handful of lambs (mostly for our own freezer and the freezers of our family), but most of our lambs will be marketed within a month of weaning (that is to say, by next weekend).

Part of this shift in our marketing strategy is a direct result of the lack of precipitation over the last three years.  Good irrigated pasture is difficult to find, and so we're not able to finish as many lambs on grass.  Some grass-fed producers have decided to grain-finish their animals this year - and they've told their customers about their plans.  We've decided to stay true to our 100% grass-fed system, so a lack of summer grass impacts our production.

Most of the shift in strategy, however, is indrectly related to the drought.  Because I've taken an off-farm job (which as of this week requires 32 hours of my time each week), I have less time for our ranching business.  A typical work day during the summer looks like this:

  • 6:45 a.m. - leave the house, check on ewes (at one location) and lambs (at another location).  Feed guard dogs.  Move irrigation water.
  • 7:45 a.m. - return home, drop off border collies, change clothes if necessary, and head to work.
  • 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. - work at the UC Cooperative Extension office in Auburn.  Hopefully we have no problems with sheep during the day!
  • 5 p.m. - check sheep, move water if necessary, and hopefully return home by 7 p.m.
I usually have one day off each week, which I reserve for building fence, moving sheep, and other tasks that take longer than the couple of hours of daylight I have available after work.

With days like this, I find that I simply don't have the energy or the time to be at the farmers' market on Saturdays.  I'll admit that I'm probably a little burnt out on the market - while I love the interaction with my customers, I miss spending time with my family on Saturdays.  I've decided that I want to be at soccer games, horse shows and fishing trips while my girls are still at home.

We're still selling some of our lambs locally.  Over the last 2 weeks, we've marketed 30 lambs to folks in Placer and Nevada Counties who what to raise their own lambs.  Today, Emma and I took 35 lambs to the Escalon Livestock Market (our closest livestock auction that sells sheep).  Next week, we'll sell 40-45 lambs to Superior Farms in Dixon.  And for the rest of the Saturdays this year, I'll be a sheep rancher, a soccer fan, a fisherman, a dad - and a farmers' market customer!