Friday, November 21, 2014

Strange Weather

I've always been fascinated by weather - even when I was a kid.  I grew up in a home without cable television - the only station that consistently came in clearly was KCRA Channel 3.  I couldn't tell you who the news anchor people were when I was 9 years old, but I can still remember the weatherman - Harry Guise (I think that's how his name was spelled!).  Winter has always been my favorite season, in part because the weather is so much more interesting (at least in northern California) during the winter.  Now that I earn part of my living from harvesting grass with sheep, my fascination with weather has turned into an obsession - especially during the ongoing drought.

Unlike other weather phenomena, drought can sneak up on us.  We don't realize that we're in a drought until well after it's started.  And we can't look at a radar map to know with any certainty when a drought will end.  And while we've had some rainfall this autumn, we clearly remain in the midst of the most severe drought conditions in a generation.  The year-to-date Palmer Drought Severity Index, which measures long term meteorological drought, is the lowest ever measured for California.
The Palmer Drought Severity Index for California.
Note the comparison with 1977!

As an admitted weather geek, I find myself devouring information about weather.  I enjoy reading a blog called the California Weather Blog, written by Daniel Swain, a PhD student at Stanford.  I frequently check the U.S. drought monitor website hosted by the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, which comes out with an updated drought map each Thursday.  I've contributed information to the drought impact reporter, a site which allows public input to the drought monitor maps.  And I've recently joined the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network, a website that allows people to report on precipitation on a daily basis.
All of California continues to experience drought conditions - and our region
continues to experience the most severe drought conditions (despite the recent rainfall).

Beyond this high-tech interest in weather, I've kept a weather diary since 2001.  I try to record the minimum and maximum temperature each day, along with the precipitation we've received during the previous 24 hours.  I also try to track key climate related happenings - things like the first killing frost of the fall, the first time we build a fire in our wood stove, the first time I hear the sandhill cranes flying over in the spring and fall, when we first hear the tree frogs singing in the late winter, etc.  I enjoy looking back and comparing the weather from one year to the next.

Increasingly, our weather in northern California seems erratic.  During this drought, rainfall amounts have been strangely all over the board.  Yesterday, for example, areas in the Sacramento Valley recorded more than a half-inch of precipitation, while we measured just 0.05 inches at home (typically, the foothills receive more rain than the valley floor due to orographic lifting (that is, as storms pass over higher elevations, more rainfall is "squeezed" out).  Watching the Doppler radar yesterday, it looked like a band of heavy rain was moving into the foothills.  Somehow it missed Auburn!

In "normal" years (whatever that means), we usually have a killing frost no later than the first week of November.  For us, a killing frost means it gets cold enough (and stays cold enough) to kill the squash and tomato plants in our garden and knock the rest of the leaves off of our mulberry trees.  Today is November 21, and we've yet to have a killing frost.  If the weather forecast I just looked at is accurate, we won't have a killing frost for at least 7-10 more days.  Very strange.

As I mentioned, I also record observations about wildlife in my weather diary.  One of the most consistent wildlife mileposts in our area has always been the sandhill crane migration.  Since 2001, I've heard cranes within a 3-4 day window in late September every autumn - the cranes seem to have calendars that tell them when to fly south.  I might here and see the cranes going over for 10-14 days.  This year's migration started at least 10 days later than normal (according to my notes) - and I heard them flying over up until last week. Also very strange.

From a ranching perspective, this autumn is shaping up to be better than last year.  The springs, creeks and ponds that dried up last year are still dry, but at least we've had enough rainfall to germinate our grass and keep it growing.  In this respect, the lack of a killing frost has been helpful - warmer air temperatures mean warmer soil temperatures.  Hopefully we'll continue to grow grass until the shortening day lengths put our grasses into dormancy in early to mid December.  Despite these improved forage conditions, however, we're still facing an increasingly serious crisis.  After a year with very little snow pack in the Sierra Nevada, I'd hoped to see some snow during a day trip to Reno yesterday.  There was very little snow on our way over in the morning, and while we did get some snow on the return trip, it didn't amount to much.  This morning I heard that the upper reaches of Sugar Bowl Ski Resort received 3-4 inches from yesterday's storm.  Earlier this week, the websites I look to for weather forecasts predicted that we'd receive as much as 1.5 inches of rain from the storm that's supposed to come in tonight.  As of this afternoon, theses same sites are predicting less than a half an inch.

Increasingly, "normal" and "average" don't seem like useful terms for describing our weather - we seem to be entering a period where these terms apply to the midpoint between bouts of extreme weather rather than something we actually experience.  For an obsessed weather geek and rancher like me, these extremes are fascinating to watch but troubling to live through.
Hopefully we'll see more days like this in the near future - wet!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Enjoying the Fog - Another Sign of Drought?!

Normally, I hate driving in the fog.  I learned to drive in the upper foothills, which meant I had more experience driving in snow than fog - and I learned to prefer the snow!  The joke in our family was always, "At least I can usually see what I'm going to run into in the snow!"

In normal years, Auburn is sometimes exactly at the fog line.  We'll get a stretch of weather, usually after a good rainstorm, where the fog will roll in during the late afternoon and roll out sometime the next morning.  On some days, we'll have fog all day.  But with the drought, we seem to have had far fewer foggy days.

Last Saturday, I hauled some cull ewes and the last of our lambs to the Stockton Livestock Auction in French Camp, California.  While it was sunny when I left my corrals at 7 a.m., I hit fog coming down the hill into Sacramento - and I was in fog for the remainder of my trip.  Between Lodi and Stockton (on Interstate 5), the fog was soupy enough that I slowed down (as did some - not all - of my fellow drivers).

Last weekend's foggy weather meant that we had the right combination of moisture (from a rainstorm on Thursday) and atmospheric conditions.  And after the dry year we've had, I must admit - for the first time in my life, I enjoyed driving in it!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Goodbye, Uncle Buck

Today, my family and I said goodbye to our oldest livestock guardian dog, Buck (affectionately known as Uncle Buck).  Buck was a Great Pyrenees cross that we "rescued" from a pet situation - he was too much dog for his former owner.  We got him shortly after we started running sheep commercially 8 years ago.  Up until about a year ago, Buck was our most reliable dog.  We'll miss him.

The first lambing season with Buck was amazing.  We had another dog at that time - Scarlet - whose maternal instincts were so strong that she would steal lambs from their mothers.  Buck, who had never been through a lambing when we got him (he was 4 years old, we think), straightened Scarlet out immediately.  That spring, we had several snow storms during lambing.  When it would snow, we'd bring the sheep up close to a barn where they'd have cover.  Great horned owls would come into the trees in the pasture by the barn - and Buck would sit at the trunk of the tree and bark until the owls left.  And Buck loved the snow - he'd slide down hills like an otter!

As Buck grew older, he taught other dogs how to be lambing dogs.  Our current pair of dogs, Rosie and Reno, learned from him.  Somewhere, I have a photo of Uncle Buck with lambs climbing on him.  In many ways, he was a gentle soul.

But not in every way.  Buck could sense when people were not dog-lovers.  One of our landlords was terrified of large dogs, which Buck knew (and exploited).  When the girls were with me and someone Buck didn't know was around, Buck made sure he was always standing between the girls and the stranger.  And Buck NEVER allowed a coyote, another dog or a mountain lion to take a sheep - a pretty good legacy for a livestock guardian dog, I think!

About two years ago, we started noticing some behavioral changes in Buck.  We had him at the house protecting a small group of sheep - and one morning he was gone!  I drove the neighborhood, looking for him without success.  On the way to work, I got a call from a friend who has sheep about a mile away.  Buck had shown up at their place and jumped in with their sheep.  Their dog, knowing she had the night off, had slept on the porch.  Buck wouldn't let them feed the sheep!

Shortly after that incident, Buck started jumping the electric fence and wandering.  He'd always been able to jump the fence, but he usually stayed close to his flock.  Increasingly, he'd forget where his sheep were - and we'd get a call about a large white dog laying on someone's porch.  We decided to bring him home for good.  For the first several months, he was great about staying home - but then he discovered ways to get out of our home pastures.  His favorite past-time became chasing cyclists and laying under the neighbor's tree - humorous, but not good for our liability insurance!  One morning last summer, Buck jumped in the back of my truck as I was leaving to check sheep at another property.  When I arrived at the pasture, Reno (Buck's protege) jumped in the truck too.  I snapped a photo - it's one of my favorite pictures of my dogs!

In the last month, Buck's health began to fail.  He started losing weight and losing hair.  At 12, he'd lived longer than most big dogs.  Last week, we decided that he was in too much pain and that we needed to put him to sleep.  This afternoon, we took him to one of the ranches we lease (and where we currently have sheep).  With his sheep all around him, Sami put him down.  Our landlords graciously allowed us to bury Uncle Buck on top of a hill under an old pear tree - where he'll always be able to watch over our flock.

One of the bargains we strike when we own animals is that we are responsible for their well-being - and for not letting them suffer.  All of us shed tears today - saying goodbye to a four-legged member of the family is never easy.  I'm grateful that Buck was part of our family for so long - and for the incredible service he provided.  Thank you, Uncle Buck.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Confusing Geography of Western Placer County

The red polygon shows where the sheep were, and the yellow polygon shows where they ended up.  The green line
represents the driving route between the two locations; the orange line represents our walk back!

The geography of western Placer County -  at least that portion between rural Lincoln and rural Auburn - is a confusing jumble of winding historic roads, creeks (known as "ravines" locally), small farms and rural ranchette properties.  Many of the back roads between Auburn and Lincoln reflect the agricultural and gold mining heritage of the region - roads were built on property lines rather than on the most direct line between points A and B (or at least that's my assumption).  I didn't truly have appreciation for this confusing geography, however, until my sheep got out on Monday evening.

We are currently grazing sheep on what was once called the Heredia Ranch (and what is now known as the Blue Oak Ranch subdivision) - it's adjacent to the Mears Lane entrance to Hidden Falls Regional Park west of Auburn.  The area is drained by several seasonal creeks and crisscrossed by Nevada Irrigation District canals (many of which precede the establishment of the District itself).  A side note: I find these canals fascinating - they were designed and constructed in the days before computer-aided drafting and motorized heavy equipment, and yet they continue to work perfectly!

I left work on Monday at 5 p.m. and headed home for a quick snack before my Placer County Agricultural Commission meeting at 7 p.m.  I'd only been home for about 30 minutes when my cell phone rang.  The pleasant woman on the other end said, "I think we have your sheep."  I asked where she was, and she told me she lived at the end of Pleasant Hill Road (off Mt. Pleasant Road on the way to Lincoln).  Since Mt. Pleasant Road comes into Mt. Vernon Road 4-5 miles west of where I turn to get to the sheep, I was certain they weren't ours.  Then she described my guard dogs!  I said, "Wow - they've traveled quite a distance - they're supposed to be up near Hidden Falls Park!"  "We back up to the park," she said, but I was incredulous.

After checking in to say I'd probably be late getting to the Ag Commission meeting, I grabbed a border collie and headed out to check the sheep.  Sure enough, most of the sheep were gone - 2 rams and 8 ewes had stayed behind, but there was no sign of the 130 or so additional sheep that should have been in the paddock.  I found where they'd run through the fence, and found another spot where something may have come into the paddock to chase them (perhaps a coyote or a stray dog).  Climbing back into my truck, I drove the 6+ miles to the address the woman had given me - and found the rest of my sheep.  By now, it was well after dark.  The woman's husband greeted me at the door - laughing that his wife had accused him of buying sheep!  Once he described the lay of the land - and the route of the irrigation canal, we figured that the sheep had probably walked down the canal - and that they were less than a half mile from my paddock.  They graciously allowed me to leave the sheep overnight so that I wouldn't have to navigate my way (along with guard dogs and sheep) cross-country through unfamiliar territory in the dark.

Upon returning home from my meeting (I was late, but made it in time to vote on the one action item on our agenda), I checked Google Earth.  Sure enough, my paddock was just around a bend in the canal from the property where the sheep had ended up - amazing!

Yesterday morning, I arrived at the paddock at 6:30 and walked the canal to the other property.  With Mo's help, all of the sheep - and the guard dogs - were back where they were supposed to be before 7 a.m.  Moving the sheep cross-country felt like a step back in time - I could imagine sheepherders and cowboys moving animals on the same route a hundred years ago.  And I realized how motorized travel has confused my conception of my native geography.  I found being on foot following my sheep to be a much more pleasant trip than being behind the steering wheel the night before!
On our way back...

Monday, November 10, 2014

Small Farm Evolution in 5 "Easy" Steps

Note: this post originally appeared on the Farming in the Foothills blog (

Like any small business, small farms undergo a series of transformations during the course of their lives - from youthful exuberance to middle-age crisis to confident maturity (hopefully).  Looking at the history of my own farming endeavors, I see that we've traversed at least four evolutionary stages – and we're hopefully headed for a fifth!

The Romance Phase
In the mid-1990s, we raised a handful of cows and feeder lambs.  I read many of the key books in the small farm movement (from authors like Joel Salatin, Elliot Coleman and Gene Logsdon).  We sold calves when we weaned them in the springtime, and we raised enough feeder lambs for friends and family that we could put a lamb (or two) in our freezer each fall at no cost to us.  I served on the board of a relatively new local food organization (PlacerGROWN), and we started raising laying hens and growing vegetables.  With a growing family and a dream of creating our own small farm, we purchased 3 acres with 2 barns and a home in Auburn.  In the autumn of 2002, I took our first crop (pumpkins and popcorn) to the Auburn Farmers' Market.  We also purchased 10 meat goats and more feeder lambs to manage the blackberries and weeds in our pasture.  We were on our way!
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Looking back, I realize that I didn't know enough to realize that the books I was reading were long on production systems and short on business reality.  In many ways, I drank the cool-aid, as my friend and fellow farmer Jim Muck says.  Micro farms, like the one I'd just started, were going to save the world from industrial food production.  I had no concept about the importance of scale to the future viability of my business.

I'm not sure there's a clear delineation for most small farms between the romance and experimentation phases.  For Flying Mule Farm, part of the romance and excitement about starting our farm was the opportunity to experiment with new crops and new livestock.  Part of our experimentation was driven by the mistaken belief that we needed to grow everything our customers wanted to buy (and everything we wanted to eat).  Specialization and focus was the downfall of industrial agriculture, in my perspective.  Diversity was the key – every successful small farm needed multiple crops and several species of livestock.  During this phase, we grew spring, summer and fall vegetables (at the peak of our vegetable experiment, we grew on about a quarter acre at home and on another acre of rented land nearby).  We started experimenting with greater numbers of sheep, buying 12 Barbados lambs to graze on brush on a friend's timberland.  We added meat birds to our chicken flock (our oldest daughter, Lara, reminds us that we butchered chickens – with her help! – on her first day of kindergarten).  We sold most of our own brush goats but eventually bought breeding ewes.  We leased (and lost – and regained) pasture land in Grass Valley, Lincoln and Auburn during this stage.  We tried cutting firewood and milling lumber commercially.  And we experimented with the use of draft animals as an alternative to tractors.
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In many ways, I loved the experimental phase of our business – especially the outdoor work and our time at the farmers' market.  Since we were only at the market seasonally, I still had some Saturdays off.  And since our oldest child wasn't yet playing sports on Saturdays, I wasn't conflicted about missing family activities - more on this later!

Wow – this is costing us a fortune! Maybe we need to treat it as a business!
As our knowledge and skill levels improved, we began to see that we needed to treat our farm as a business.  We couldn't simply keep growing and raising things without understanding what each crop or type of livestock meant to our economic and financial well-being.  The books I'd read didn't seem to emphasize this aspect of farming.  And in the back of my head, I began to realize that there were biological limits to the amount of income an acre of vegetables or 100 acres of unirrigated pasture would produce.  I started to suspect that we needed to get bigger.
During this stage in our evolution, I participated in the first Farm Business Planning Short Course offered by our local extension office (I've since helped teach this class – now in its eighth year).  While I examined all of our enterprises (looking at my economic analysis spreadsheets from that time, I see that we had vegetable, sheep, custom grazing, goats, firewood and other forest products, laying hens and meat chickens).  While I was still working part-time, I started thinking seriously about the hourly return to my labor from each of these enterprises.  I realized I didn't care for raising meat chickens in large numbers (we raised 500 birds one summer).  I also realized that a quarter acre of mixed vegetables (as many as 20 different “crops”) was a large garden rather than an economically viable farm.   And I realized that I most enjoyed working with sheep.  With this new sense of focus, I decided to quit my “day” job and try to raise sheep as a full time occupation.  In addition to leasing pasture around Auburn, we expanded our targeted grazing service (where we'd provide vegetation management services for other landowners).  At our peak, we attended 4-5 farmers markets each week – selling grassfed lamb, goat and beef, as well as wool products and firewood on occasion.
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As my daughters grew older and wanted to play sports (as I had as a kid), I found it more and more difficult to be at the farmers market on Saturday mornings.  On the other hand, we often worked together as a family, which brought tremendous nonfinancial rewards.  And we ate well – we traded meat for fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, produced eggs from our own laying hens, raised our own meat birds.  But the economics were challenging to say the least.

Why am I still farming? Can I continue?
For me, these questions define the evolutionary stage in which I find Flying Mule Farm today.  Several years ago, we came to the conclusion that the farm was taking full-time work on my part, but was paying less than a part-time wage.  We exhausted our ability to expand (which had mostly to do with lack of capital and lack of land).  I went back to work, and we downsized our sheep operation to fit the time I had available.  We started selling whole and half lambs rather than individual cuts – and eventually phased out of the farmers market altogether.  I gradually noticed that my motivation for farming was derived not from a desire to feed my community but from my love for working outdoors with livestock.  My skills and knowledge base improved to the point where I was confident I could manage the 600-800 ewes necessary to make the ranch a full-time job at full-time pay – but my bank account didn't keep pace.  And so today I find myself at a critical juncture – can (and should) I continue farming?  I'm struggling with how to answer this question.

Economic Viability = Sustainability
A sustainable farm must be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.  As Flying Mule Farm has evolved, I've begun to think that economic sustainability is the key to the other two elements – a farm that can't stay in business can't provide environmental or social benefits.  Based on my experience over the last 20 years, I think that economic viability depends on focused production, appropriate scale, and efficient marketing.  I'm still working to get there – on a part-time basis at the moment.

Our farm has been in the midst of its mid-life crisis for several years.  I still appreciate the numerous non-monetary rewards of farming – from the gift of new life during lambing season to the opportunity to work side-by-side with my wife and girls.  I love the work like nothing else I've ever done.  As we enter this new phase in the evolution of Flying Mule Farm, I'll be aiming towards greater profitability.  While profit is not the purpose of our farm, it is, after all, necessary for its continued existence.  Stay tuned….

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Politically Homeless

I've heard that you shouldn't talk about politics or religion in polite company - but here I go....

One of my favorite classes in high school was government, taught by Jerry Gritz at Sonora High School.  The highlight of the class, at least for me, was a 2-week period during which we interviewed community members about their political perspectives.  By asking a series of questions about fiscal matters, social issues, tax policy, foreign policy and other philosophical issues, we were able to discern our own political perspectives.  I found that I was very liberal when it came to social issues, moderate when it came to taxation and fiscal issues, and anti-interventionist when it came to foreign policy.  Like my folks, I found that I agreed most with the platform of the Democratic party.  I've voted in every election since I registered to vote at the age of 18, and while I've voted mostly for Democratic candidates, I've become increasingly disenchanted with my party.  I've also remained disenchanted with the Republican party.  As a rancher and a rural Californian, I found that I didn't care for any of the electoral choices we had in our most recent election.  Nobody, it seems, represents my rural-centric, socially liberal and fiscally moderate viewpoint. I have no home politically.

I've heard that Winston Churchill once said that a young man who is conservative has no heart, while an old man who is liberal has no brain.  I've certainly found that my political perspective has evolved as I've aged.  Issues that were black-and-white when I was a young man are much more gray for me today.  Life is complicated, and yet our politics don't seem to permit nuance or thoughtful consideration.  Indeed, I probably share the burden of thoughtful people in any modern democracy - complex issues don't lend themselves to sound-bite solutions.

I live in a fairly rural area and make my living in agriculture.  By nature, I'm pretty conservative when it comes to spending money, especially if it's not mine.  I own and use guns - both in my work and in my recreation.  That said, I've never had a need for a fully automatic assault weapon, and I'm not convinced that anyone has a "right" to such a weapon for personal use.  I bristle at the idea of one-size-fits-all regulations that impair my own ability to manage the natural resources I depend upon for my livelihood, and yet I value the opportunities I have to recreate (camp, hunt and fish) on public lands.  I have dear friends whose sexual orientation is different than my own, and whose desire to marry their partner presents no threat to my own marriage.  Similarly, I have friends who have had to make hard, personal choices in private that I cannot fathom having to make - I can't imagine forcing my own perspective onto them.  As someone who works outside nearly everyday, I can't escape the conclusion that our climate is changing - and that my own reliance on fossil fuels has something to do with this change.  While I don't like the idea of war, I think there are some things worth fighting for - human rights and human dignity come to mind.

One paragraph, obviously, is too small a space to describe one's philosophy - my own views are complicated and ever-evolving.  Unfortunately, our political system doesn't seem to comprehend complexity.  From my perspective, too much of the Democratic party seems to represent an urban liberal viewpoint far removed from the realities of my rural livelihood.  At the same time, much of the Republican party seems to be dominated by culturally conservative, angry politicians who refuse to acknowledge scientific research.  Libertarians seem like kooks in many ways - any idea, even the idea of personal liberty, can be taken to the extreme.  And I have to say that the Tea Party seems like a thinly veiled effort to make racism seem appropriate.  In other words, I can't get excited to vote for any candidate - major party or otherwise.

I don't know what the answer is.  I think that many of us appreciate the complexity of modern society - issues are rarely as simple as our leaders would have us believe.  I guess we get the politics we deserve - we probably long for things to be simple and gravitate towards those leaders who tell us that there are simple solutions to our problems.  In the meantime, I guess I'll keep holding my nose while I vote.

I hope this hasn't offended anyone - it's meant to describe my own distaste for modern politics at the moment.  Other perspectives on these issues are important - as is the ability to learn from other people and to change our own perspectives.  I hope others will share theirs!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Farming and Art

Last week, my colleagues and I were discussing the future of our farming and ranching endeavors.  I work at the Placer-Nevada office of UC Cooperative Extension.  Like me, my colleagues are both farmers and “community education specialists” (according to our official UC job titles).  While each of us finds our extension work enjoyable and fulfilling, we’re all farmers (or ranchers) at heart.  Our off-farm jobs, in other words, allow us to continue to farm.  Even with our off-farm income, however, each of us continues to struggle with the economics of our agricultural enterprises.  We’re in love with farming, but we’re not sure we can continue.

While listening to our local community radio station over the weekend, I heard a song by Rita Hoskings, a regional folk/Americana musician whose work I enjoy.  I started thinking about the economics of art.  I don’t pretend to know what Rita Hoskings’ financial or employment situation is, but I can’t imagine that an artist who is played on a regional public radio station can make a living solely from her art (at least initially).  And I imagine other local artists face similar challenges – challenges not unlike the ones I face as a small-scale rancher.  At the same time, I imagine that when Ms. Hoskings started making music professionally, she introduced herself as a musician (rather than as whatever her other job might have been).  In other words, I suspect that an artist’s passion for her craft defines her as a person – and that she works other jobs to allow her to continue to pursue that passion.

Similarly, when I introduce myself to someone, I say that I’m a sheep rancher or a shepherd – I rarely (if ever) introduce myself as a community education specialist.  My ranching work is far more important to me than simple economics – it defines who I am and how I view the world.  It’s my passion – it’s integral to my physical, emotional and mental being.

Given the similarities between artists and farmers, then, I wonder whether the economic considerations are also similar between farming and art.  How does someone like Rita Hoskings keep making and performing music?  When does art move from hobby to livelihood (even if it’s only a partial livelihood?  In my own case, can I find the balance between the time I spend being a shepherd and the income I receive from my work?

I’m relatively new to Twitter, but I follow a shepherd from the Lake District in England who raises Herdwick sheep.  Just today, he tweeted, "Love to listen to best shepherds talking about their flocks - its like listening to Camus talk about writing, or Van Gogh about painting." Part of what I love about raising sheep is the long-term commitment that is required – I won’t see the benefit (economic or otherwise) of the decisions I make this fall until next spring at the earliest.  We have dedicate years to developing the genetic base of our flock.  And there is an art to managing our pastureland.  Perhaps what my Twitter “friend” is saying is that shepherding, when it’s done well, is more avocation than vocation – and as much art as science.  Given the thin margins involved in raising livestock (and making art, I’m sure), it’s this sense of avocation that keeps me going.

To learn more about Rita Hosking and her music, go to!  Click here to learn more about Herdwick sheep!

From the Farming in the Foothills blog...

I write an occasional post for the Farming in the Foothills blog (on the UCCE Foothill Farming website).  Here's my most recent article: Thoughts on Convenience and Middlemen

Monday, October 27, 2014

Talking Baseball

Over the last several baseball seasons, I've shared a running discussion about the game with my Dad and with a mutual friend from New Hampshire, Steve Schofield.  We share observations about teams, games and players; recommendations on good baseball books and movies; and stories from our baseball pasts.  Steve, who grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers and playing stickball in New York, is now a Red Sox fan.  My Dad, a Southern California native, grew up rooting for the LA version of the Dodgers (an allegiance he passed on to me).  Today, both of us are Giants fans.  For all three of us over the last 5 years, the major league postseason has been pretty exciting - the Giants and Red Sox have been regular playoff teams.

Today, my Dad sent Steve and me the following email:
"I am watching the baseball channel. The Royals are having a voluntary workout. Some of the guys shagging flies in the outfield have their little kids with them,, complete with their own little gloves. Little kids with dad on the big league field the day before game 6. Only in baseball."
I grew up playing baseball.  I started in Pee Wee ball when I was 5 or 6 - and played organized baseball or softball every year until my mid-twenties.  While I didn't get to play stickball in the street like Steve or my Dad, I played lots of playground ball when I was in elementary school.  And while both of my daughters are soccer athletes, they've both grown to appreciate baseball.  My oldest daughter loves to watch Hunter Pence (the Giants' right fielder) play because of his hustle and his obvious love for the game.  My youngest has recently discovered the joys of playing catch - which her Dad (me!) loves!

Here's my reply to my Dad's email:
"One of the things I've liked about this year's Giants team is that I've heard several players talk about how lucky they are to be getting paid to play a kid's game that they love to play. I saw a photo from the clubhouse celebration after the NLCS victory of Javier Lopez sitting on the floor talking to his kids. How cool is that!
"Maybe it's because baseball doesn't have a clock, but it seems like the game lends itself to a different pace and set of priorities. Posey said that when he heard about Taveras' death during the game last night, it made the game seem pretty unimportant. I find it refreshing to hear a professional athlete with some perspective - and I think ballplayers have more of this kind of perspective than other pros!  I can't imagine Colin Kapernick saying something like that!
"It's probably a sign that I'm getting older, but I worry about the talk of changing baseball to appeal to a younger audience. Perhaps baseball needs to wait for this younger audience to develop some maturity and perspective!
"The only thing I'm really sad about is that there are, at most, two more games until the end of the season...."

As Giants' broadcaster Mike Krukow often says, "Enjoy this great game!"

Friday, October 17, 2014

Little Victories

This has been a challenging week - a disease outbreak in the ewes, a child and a wife under the weather at home, costly repairs to my truck, and a dismal weather forecast for the rest of the fall.  Even with the Giants winning the National League pennant last night, this has been a stressful stretch of time.  This morning, however, brought some measure of satisfaction - thanks to Ernie, our youngest (and most challenging) sheepdog.  I'll take little victories wherever and whenever they come!

Those of you who have relied on a canine partner in your sheep or cattle operations have probably all had a hard-headed dog or two.  Ernie is 4, and he's been a challenge all along.  I've been using him regularly for about a year, and the steady work has been great for him.  He finally understands the other side of tired.

This morning, I needed him to gather a group of ewes and bring them into a holding pen so I could move the electric fence.  He's done the work before, but he usually works fast and close to the sheep (which makes the sheep move too fast).  The ewes were about 75 yards away (a short distance for a well-trained dog, but a long outrun for Ernie at this stage).  I sent him to the right (an "away" flank), and he actually took a wide route around the sheep (unusual for him).  Several times, he started to dive in towards the ewes, and each time he took my correction and bent himself out wider.  He settled in behind the flock quietly - and even took my "lie down" command at a distance.  The sheep walked nicely into their holding pen - and Ernie let me call him off (sometimes he'll get so excited once the sheep are through a gate that he wants to do it again!).  Later, he even brought some wayward ewes back into their paddock - mostly on his own.

Sometimes these little victories only seem like victories because of the frustration that's come before.  Sometimes I have to remind myself to look for them. Thanks, Ernie, for your help today - and for reminding me to look for the positive!