Monday, September 22, 2014

Planting Trial

Beginning on July 11, we started irrigating about 2-1/2 acres of hillside pasture in anticipation of having green grass in September (now!) for flushing the ewes (flushing is the process of putting ewes on an improving plane of nutrition just prior to breeding).  The pasture we irrigated had not been planted, so we waited until the annual grasses and forbs that grew in the spring of 2014 had matured, set seed, and died.  Our irrigation caused new plants to germinate (mimicking the germinating rains of autumn).  The pasture grew a variety of annual grasses, clovers and forbs (like filaree), as well as yellow starthistle, bull thistle and common cocklebur.  Last Friday morning, I moved the ewes onto this pasture.

This morning, in the eerie light cast by smoke from the King Fire, Roger Ingram and I planted a variety of grass seed as a trial for planting pastures without heavy equipment.  We broadcast the seed with the sheep still grazing the pasture.  We'll leave them in for another 2-3 days, and we'll feed hay on top of the starthistle and other undesirable plants.  Finally, before we move the ewes into the next paddock, I'll use the border collies to maximize herd effect - we'll trample as much of the remaining vegetation as possible to get as many seeds in contact with the soil as possible.  After I move the sheep, I'll resume irrigating the paddock (and hope for rain).

We planted a variety of seeds, including several types of annual ryegrass, several varieties of forage triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye), and intermediate wheatgrass (a perennial that typically favors a slightly higher elevation but which does grow on other parts of the ranch).  My hope is to prove that we can plant these seeds using animal impact, and that we can grow them with limited irrigation in the late summer and early fall.  If it works, this may become part of our drought strategy!
Reno loves to help with seeding projects!

We used a "belly-grinder" seeder.

Lovely air quality this morning!

Rosie supervised the entire project.

 I'll be taking photos and monitoring our progress.  In the meantime, enjoy these photographs from another smoky morning in Auburn!

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Different Feeling this Fall

As we approach this year's autumnal equinox (next Monday), the weather is finally starting to turn a bit.  The shorter days, and the location of the sun when it clears the horizon, give the mornings a different feel.  I always look forward to fall, but it feels different to me this year.  I moved the breeding ewes onto another property this morning (with the help of a border collie, of course).  This morning I realized that the anxiety of facing another possible dry winter, and the pall cast by smoke from the nearby King Fire, has weighed heavily on my mind.

A summer dry spell is typical for our part of California.  We usually enjoy our last rainfall in May or early June - and then irrigate our way through the summer months.  Summers are often dry and dusty - at least where we're not irrigating.  Our summer water turns off on October 15 (and we're thankful in a dry year like this one to make it clear to the end of the season) - and we hope for significant rain before the end of October.  For our sheep pastures, we need about an inch of rainfall before new grass will germinate.  If we can get that precipitation before the days are too short and the soil is too cold, we can grow enough grass to get us through the winter.

I enjoy the onset of fall because the work I do starts to change.  We turn the rams in with the ewes on October 1, an event I always look forward to - it feels like the start of a new year (and an act of optimism).  I also look forward to the end of irrigation season - I enjoy having one less thing to do each day, 7 days a week.  Finally, I look forward to the first morning when my family asks me to start a fire in the wood stove - then I know the seasons have truly changed.

Part of what makes this fall seem different is my memory of last fall and winter.  While it's probably no dustier than normal, I find myself anxious about when we'll get enough rain to wash the dust off of everything.  I look at the weather forecast and find myself more skeptical about the chance of rain that sometimes appears on the horizon.  The realization that we're entering the most dangerous stretch of our fire season - and the smoky skies we're experiencing - adds to my anxiety.  The crunch of dry grass under my feet this morning as I moved sheep made the land feel crispy and desiccated.  The black oaks on the margins of our irrigated pastures, and the blue oaks on our winter rangeland, look stressed - they've started dropping leaves earlier than normal.  I've yet to hear the sandhill cranes overhead - their migration is another milestone that marks the transition from summer to fall.

Uncertainty is part of farming and ranching - part of the risk that we accept when we take on Mother Nature as a partner.  Sometimes we need a not-so-gentle reminder that we're not in total control - last year's winter was just such a reminder for me.  My job is to plan - plan to take advantage of the good times and to survive the bad times.  I like the idiom, "Make hay while the sun is shining."  I just hope it doesn't shine all winter again.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

King Fire Farmer/Rancher Fundraiser

As you probably know if you live in Northern California, the King Fire (which started near Pollock Pines) blew up yesterday.  The fire grew from around 18,000 acres on Tuesday night to over 70,000 acres as of this morning.  Yesterday afternoon and evening, the fire burned past Stumpy Meadows Reservoir and clear to Hell Hole Reservoir in Placer County.

The long term impact of the fire remains to be seen.  It will almost certainly impact water supplies and watershed values for years to come.  In the short term, it has had devastating impacts on farmers and ranchers.  In a year already short on grass, some ranchers have lost their summer forage to the fire - and I'm sure some have lost livestock, too.  Others have been impacted by smoke and by evacuations.  In short, it's been a scary week.

We want to do a small part in helping folks get through this disaster.  Flying Mule Farm is teaming up with Vassar Ranch and North Valley Farms Che'vre to donate the following:

  • A grass-fed lamb (cut-and-wrapped) - approximately 30 lbs of meat
  • A 50 lb variety box of grass-fed beef
  • A sampler of wonderful goat cheeses
The meat will be available for delivery in October.  The cheese will be shipped to the winning bidder.

You can bid on these items on our Facebook page - go to and enter your bid as a comment to my post.  And please share this with others!

Thanks for your help!

The Macon Family
Flying Mule Farm
(530) 305-3270

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Using Livestock Guardian Dogs in a Small-Scale Commercial Sheep Operation: One Ranch's Approach

Reno, an Anatolian Shepherd.

We operate a small scale (approximately 150 ewe) commercial sheep operation in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.  We've used livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) in our operation as part of our predator protection strategy since 2005.  Through trial and error - and through learning from other producers and published research - we seem to have arrived at a management system with our LGDs that has resulted in a pack of dogs that fits our system quite well.  I should add that this last statement - "fits our system" - is critical!  Our approach seems to result in dogs that work for us; our system won't likely work in every circumstance.

Overview of Flying Mule Farm

Rosie with the sheep during lambing season.
We operate a "nomadic", grass-based system - we lease or get paid to graze on approximately 400 acres of annual rangeland and 20-25 acres of irrigated pasture.  Our sheep are only at our home place for 7 days out of the year - during shearing.  Since none of our pastures are fenced, we rely on portable electric fencing to contain our sheep - more on this later.  We lamb on pasture in the late winter and early spring, weaning our lambs in early June.  The ewes run on dry rangeland pastures until late summer, when we put them on irrigated pasture in preparation for breeding.

While our sheep operation is part-time, we do treat it as a business, keeping a close eye on economics.  Our revenue sources include the sale of feeder lambs (sold at weaning), the sale of meat (lamb and mutton), the sale of wool and wool products, the sale of cull ewes and rams, and targeted grazing services.  Depending on the lamb market, our ewes generate total revenue of $20,000-25,000 annually.  Our expenses are divided into direct costs (expenses that vary directly with the number of sheep - supplemental feed, vet costs, shearing, etc.) and overhead costs (mostly land and labor costs that we incur regardless of the number of sheep).  Our dogs - LGDs and herding dogs - are an overhead expense (essentially labor).  Dog expenses include vet costs, feed costs and depreciation (that is, we budget a small amount annually towards replacing our current dogs).

Our Approach to Preventing Predatation

The main predators in our environment, in order of importance (at least in my opinion) are domestic dogs, coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, eagles and great horned owls.  This hierarchy may change if wolves come back to our part of the state - we'll cross that bridge if we come to it!  We also worry about feral pigs in some areas - not as a predation threat but as a problem for our electric fences.

We use an integrated approach for preventing predator losses.  First, our electric fences are a deterrent to most canine predators (domestic and wild) - they don't do much to stop a mountain lion, and they just piss off the black bears.  Second, we use guardian animals (singly and in combination) to convince predators to look elsewhere for a meal.

Occasionally, we'll use a guardian llama with a group of sheep.  Our current llama is an older female.  She's very alert, especially to dogs she doesn't know.  My theory is that llamas smell and look so different than any other animal our native predators have seen that they are not quite sure how to approach them.  We will typically use a llama in a situation where a barking dog might cause problems for landowners or neighbors - but we only use a llama when we're fairly certain we won't have problems with mountain lions.  Our joke is that a llama's strategy for dealing with a lion is to stand in the middle of the sheep and point out the slow ones!

The mainstay of our predator protection strategy is our LGDs.  Over the years, we've used a variety of breeds - Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Anatolian Shepherd and Maremma (and various crosses of these breeds).  While there are some behavioral differences between breeds, we've had good success with most of them.

We try to incorporate dogs into our system as if they were the large canine predator in their environment.  Rather expecting them to fight off predators, we hope that they will displace predators from our rangeland ecosystem.  I think they do this through normal canine behaviors - marking territory and protecting their "pack" (the sheep).  We've never had to shoot a predator where we've had LGDs with the sheep.  In fact, I believe that our dogs come to an "understanding" with the predators in their neighborhood - the predators know the sheep are off limits.  I would worry that killing a predator would encourage new predators (who don't understand our "system") to fill that niche.

For the most part, we find that the combination of a single dog and our electric fence is sufficient protection for the sheep.  In some situations when we've been grazing in large paddocks (>5 acres) in brushy terrain, we'll use two dogs together.  We would use more dogs if we started having a predation problem, but so far this system seems to be working.  I'll admit - this is an economic consideration for us.  A single LGD costs about $500 per year to keep.  Unless we start having a significant economic loss due to predators, I'm not inclined to increase our LGD numbers.

Socialization and Bonding with the Sheep

Over my 47 years, I've probably raised 15-20 dogs from puppy to adulthood.  Until I started raising LGDs, however, I didn't really think much about socializing puppies - I figured all dogs needed to socialize with humans extensively.  Consequently, the first two LGDs we purchased as puppies were failures as guardians - they were/are great pets, but they ultimately decided that they'd rather be with humans than with sheep.

We purchased our first LGD, Scarlet, from a rather reclusive goat rancher in eastern Yuba County.  Scarlet, an Akbash x Pyrenees cross, was approximately 6-months old when we purchased her.  We immediately put her to work with our ewes, which were grazing on leased property near Grass Valley.  Despite a few problems caused by her overly developed maternal instinct during her first lambing season, Scarlet did quite well.  Our mistake was in showing her a good deal of affection in all situations - if she got out, I tried to make coming to me a pleasant experience.  I used a soft voice and a great deal of praise to get her to come to me - which I think she eventually craved more than being with her sheep.  By the time she was 3 years old, she wouldn't stay in our electric fence - she decided she'd rather hang out in the yard of the folks who lived on the property.  We ultimately gave her to a friend in Colfax, where she's made a great pet on a large (500+ acre) property.

Fast-forward to today.  We currently use two LGDs with our sheep - Rosie and Reno.  Rosie is an Akbash x Anatolian from a litter born at our home place in 2011.  Both parents were outstanding working dogs, and Rosie has proven to be one of our best.  The litter was whelped in our barn where they could hear and smell sheep from birth.  Our interaction with the puppies was limited to giving them vaccinations, trimming their toenails, and eventually feeding them.  We tried not to overly socialize them - we wanted them to bond from an early age with their "pack" - the sheep.  From the outset, Rosie was the shyest pup in the litter.  We sold her to a large operation in the Delta, where they kept her initially with the bummer lambs in the lambing barn.  Later, when they tried to move her out into larger pastures (200-300 acre), she kept returning to the barn.  We decided to swap her for her father (who is an incredibly athletic dog).  Boise adapted to the larger rangeland environment quite well, and Rosie did equally well in our electric fencing.  She's still quite shy, but she's our most trustworthy dog (by far) in terms of staying with the sheep in all circumstances.  When we move sheep from one property to another, I can trust her to stay with the sheep while we're herding them with our border collies.  If she gets out for some reason, she'll usually lay by the fence until we arrive to let her back in.
Reno with his girls.

All of this is not to say that I will tolerate a dog that is aggressive with people.  I think there's a balance in the socialization process - our dogs need to be comfortable with people but not so attached that they'll leave our sheep.  And every dog - like every person - is different.  The training approach we used with Rosie might not have worked with Scarlet.

I've recently heard from several people who assert that a dog will only bond with livestock if he's neglected or even abused by his owner or shepherd.  That has certainly not been my experience.  Rosie, who has never been mistreated, would much prefer to be with sheep than with people. I do think it's possible to be kind to a dog without being overly affectionate.
Rosie - on one of the rare occasions in which she
wants to be petted!

Finally, I think the animal behavior principles we try to use with sheep dogs, livestock and horses also apply to LGDs.  We use a system of pressure and release from pressure to help shape behavior.  Applied correctly, a pressure-release system mimics the way that animals teach behavior norms in a pack or herd situation.  For example, a mother dog will growl at her puppies if they are doing something she doesn't want them to do.  Similarly, I'll use a gruff voice and displeased body language if I'm trying to help a dog understand that it's current behavior is undesirable.  Once the dog changes its behavior (even if the new behavior isn't exactly what I'm looking for), I'll immediately shift to a kind voice - a reward for trying something different.  We apply this to our LGDs by reserving a soft voice for the times that the dogs are behaving well - staying with stock, etc.  If a dog misbehaves - chases stock, plays with a lamb, or gets out of the paddock, for example  - I'll use a gruff voice and a hard look.  If the dog persists in the undesirable behavior and looks for approval, I'll refuse to look at it or face it.  In an extreme case, where a dog might play with a lamb to the point of injuring or killing it, I'll grab it by the ruff and pin it to the ground - just as an alpha dog might do.

LGDs in Retirement

Sometimes, Buck will hop in the truck to go see the sheep
(and his buddy, Reno)
Buck is enjoying his retirement!
We've recently retired Buck, our oldest LGD.  Buck was an outstanding lambing dog for many years - we called him Uncle Buck because he would lay in the paddock during the day and let the lambs climb on him.  Despite is calm demeanor with the sheep, he was always on guard.  I've watched at night sit beneath a tree in a pen of lambing ewes and bark at the great horned owl in the treetop until it left.  About a year ago, though, Buck started growing senile (we think he's currently 11 or 12 years old).  The first time we noticed it was when we had him at home protecting a small group of lambs.  One morning we noticed he was gone.  I drove the neighborhood looking for him without success.  I'd just given up when a neighbor who has sheep called - they live about a mile away as the crow flies, or about 2.5 miles away by road.  Buck had shown up at their place and jumped in with their sheep (their guard dog, apparently figuring it was vacation time, retired to the front porch).  Buck refused to let the neighbor's husband into the pasture to feed the sheep.  Over the next 2-3 months, Buck wandered off with increasing frequency - often forgetting where his own sheep were.  We brought him home to stay last summer.  He's still in good shape physically (good enough shape to clime a 42" fence), but he's not all there mentally.  We figure he's earned a comfortable retirement - and we hope he dies of natural causes.


One of the things I like most about raising livestock and using dogs (LGDs and herding dogs) is the constant learning.  I'm always learning new things - if I'm paying attention!  I think one of the most important things I've learned is that every dog - and every sheep - is different, as is every situation and environment.  We need dogs that are closely bonded with sheep, that are able to think for themselves, and that are comfortable without a lot of human interaction.  This type of dog doesn't fit every situation - if we lived on the property where we raise sheep, I'd need/want a different type of dog.  Similarly, not every dog will thrive in a situation like ours.  Perhaps the key to using LGDs is matching the dog to the job and vice versa.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Subtlety of Summer Drought on California Rangelands

With Labor Day and our local Gold Country Fair behind us, I find my thoughts turning to autumn.  This morning, I went through all of our mature ewes, checking them for udder problems and teeth problems, and de-worming any that seemed to have internal parasites.  We call this process "bagging and mouthing" - we check udders for hard lumps that indicate a past bout of mastitis (these lumps inhibit a ewe's ability to produce milk - and to feed her lambs).  We check the ewes' mouths to see if all of their teeth are intact - a ewe that is missing teeth is not able to graze as efficiently, which can also impact milk production.  Finally, we check the color of every ewe's third eyelid.  An eyelid that is vibrant and pink indicates that that ewe is relatively free from barberpole worms, one of the most common summer parasites in sheep.  An eyelid that is pale indicates anemia - a symptom of parasitic infection.  Those with pale eyelids are given an oral de-wormer.  We only treat the infected ewes because we don't want to make the parasites resistant to our de-wormer by overusing it (plus, it saves us money!).  After sorting off 13 ewes for hard bags, bad teeth, or poor performance during last spring's lambing season, I took the rest of the flock - next year's brood ewes - to a neighboring property with irrigated pasture to start the "flushing" process.  Flushing means that we are putting the sheep on a rising plane of nutrition (they've been on dry grass), which should increase their ovulation rates (and, hopefully, the number of twins born next spring).  We've been managing our limited irrigated pasture this year with flushing in mind - we sold most of our lambs at weaning (rather than finishing them on irrigated pasture) with the idea that the ewes would graze our irrigated pasture now.  This long-winded explanation of what we're doing now serves as a backdrop for the continuing impacts of California's drought on our operation.  This dry year, which was so up-in-our-face last winter, is much more subtle in California's normally dry summer months, at least for a rangeland-based livestock operation like ours.

Unlike many farms in California, we've been blessed with adequate irrigation water this summer.  The Nevada Irrigation District (NID), which supplies our water, purchased extra water from Pacific Gas and Electric this spring.  This purchase, along with water conservation measures, means that NID will go into this winter with adequate carry-over supplies in its reservoir system.  For us, the purchase has meant that we've received our normal water deliveries on the irrigated pastures that we graze.  But irrigated pasture is only a small part of our operation.  We have the ability to irrigate about 20 acres of pasture near Auburn, which represents about 5 percent of our total acreage.  We graze on about 400 acres of annual rangeland - land that is not irrigated.  In other words, we rely on rainfall to grow forage for our sheep for most of their needs.  Indeed, our entire management calendar revolves around the rainy season and the flush of spring grass growth - we time our lambing to coincide with spring grass.

Most of California has a Mediterranean climate, characterized by a distinct rainy season (late fall, winter and early spring) and a distinct dry season (late spring, summer and early fall).  Last winter's record-setting dry period meant that our rangelands didn't have much green grass in January and February - and even into March.  The drought, as I've written, had a profound impact on our operation.  Since we've been able to irrigate this summer, the drought's impacts have been much more indirect (unlike the impacts on farmers in the Central Valley).  For example, many of the oak trees on the rangelands we graze seem stressed by the lack of soil moisture - they have started dropping leaves well before the autumn equinox.  We're also seeing unusual forage conditions because of the timing and amount of rainfall last year - we have much more wild oats on many of our rangelands.  While some dry grass has nutritional value for our sheep, dry wild oats are not very nutritious or palatable.  And finally, because of the dust that has been prevalent on our rangelands and in our corrals since last winter, we are seeing some increased problems with pneumonia.  Dust can cause respiratory infections in livestock, and we've been treating more cases of this than normal.

Some of these subtle impacts are psychological, too.  California's annual rangelands are always brown and dry in early September, and yet I find that I'm getting more anxious about the onset of the rainy season than I normally do at this time of year.  I find myself looking at the weather forecast with greater scrutiny - will the El NiƱo predicted for California actually materialize, and will it result in higher than average precipitation?  We have planned our grazing carefully for the coming months - we'll have enough dry forage to last us into March of next year - but find myself worrying about what will happen if this winter turns out like last winter.

To paraphrase Will Rogers, a farmer (or rancher) has to be an optimist or he wouldn't keep farming.  In three-and-a-half weeks, we'll turn our rams in with the ewes - the ultimate act of optimism in a sheep rancher's year.  We're betting the rains (and the green grass) will come.  We hope we're right!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Headed to the Fair

As I write this on Labor Day afternoon, Sami and the girls are preparing to wash their Gold Country Fair lambs and give them one last clip.  Lara is showing a market lamb, her eighth trip to the fair since she was 9 years old.  Emma will be showing a market lamb and a ewe lamb (which she's keeping for breeding).  While this week will mark the culmination of a good deal of hard work for the girls (and for Sami and me), it will also give us a chance to catch up with old friends and re-connect with our community.  For me, that's what the fair is all about!

As a commercial sheep producer, I'll admit to mixed feelings about the "industry" that has developed around breeding, raising and showing "club" lambs (lambs that are raised specifically for showing at fairs).  At their best, livestock shows help us establish a standard by which we can evaluate the genetic improvement in our commercial flocks.  Unfortunately, in my opinion, many livestock shows have become beauty pageants for livestock - contests that bear little if any relationship to commercial livestock production.  Animals are evaluated purely on physical appearance, with little or no regard for the quality of the product or the cost of producing it.

Despite my reservations, I think it's important for my daughters to participate in our county fair, for several reasons.  First, I think preparing an animal to show at the fair teaches responsibility.  Both girls have been up early all summer to feed their lambs in the morning.  They've learned about ovine nutrition and animal husbandry.  Emma is showing a market lamb she bought from her fifth grade teacher, along with a ewe lamb that her older lamb birthed last spring.  Lara is showing a lamb selected from the flock of our friend Ann Vassar.  Both girls are learning about evaluating a lamb for its future potential as product.

Second, both girls are learning about marketing - marketing themselves as well as their animals.  Last week, they both donned their show uniforms and delivered invitations to the junior livestock auction to businesses all over Auburn.  They are also learning how to market the end product - largely because we are focused on the end product as a family.  I'm certain that a potential buyer could ask either girl what their favorite cut of lamb is, and both of them could describe the meat and their favorite method for cooking it in great detail!  Both girls will enter their respective showmanship competitions - contests in which they are evaluated on their ability to prepare and show their lambs to their best advantage, as well as their knowledge of sheep production.  Success in the showmanship class means far more to Sami and me than success at the auction!

Third, our daughters are learning about the economics of the sheep business.  While they've always been fortunate enough to make a profit on their lambs, we've been clear that profit is not guaranteed.  Mom and Dad (and Grandma and Grandpa) will not buy or add money to their lambs to make sure they make money.  In other words, they're learning what the sheep business is really like - I'd love a guarantee of making money every year, but that's not how it works!  Furthermore, both girls have shown breeding animals at some point in their fair careers - owning and caring for an animal year round, selecting a ram to compliment the genetic potential of their ewe(s) and caring for a newborn lamb help bring reality to their projects.

Fourth, the girls are learning about working as a community.  At their best, 4-H and FFA programs require the kids to do the work - without the direct, physical assistance of adults!  One of the best things about the fair, for me, is watching the older kids help the younger ones - and vice versa.

Finally, the Gold Country Fair is teaching kids about the impact of this year's drought.  At this year's fair, exhibitors will not be allowed to wash their animals.  While our girls have lived with the implications of the dry year (mostly because their Dad seems obsessed with the drought), many kids in our community don't have this day-to-day connection with the consequences of drought.  I'm looking forward to the conversations this new rule will instigate.

I enjoy seeing photos of sheep shows posted by internet friends from Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia.  Based on the photos, I'd guess that livestock shows in these countries occur in places and under conditions that more closely resemble our production system: they seem to happen in show rings constructed on farms in the middle of pastures.  While our own fairgrounds and show culture seem to depart from my reality as a commercial producer, I think the lessons our girls are learning are crucial to their futures - whether they choose to become ranchers or not.  I'm looking forward to the fair!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

More Thoughts on Scale and Small Farm Profitability

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog post entitled "Does Small = Sustainable" in response to an article in the New York Times Sunday Review ("Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers").  The author of the original article, Bren Smith, a farmer from East Coast, offers a number of ideas to address what he characterizes as a profitability crisis in small-scale, direct-market farming and ranching.  Other farmers and ranchers (including a number of my friends and colleagues) have disagreed with Mr. Smith's title - many of us (myself included) hope that our children will grow up to take over the family farm or ranch.  While my own experiences in trying to make a living as a small-scale sheep rancher are very similar to the challenges described by Mr. Smith, I can't help but thinking that the solutions for our corner of California might be very different.  And address these challenges we must - if we want to have a local food system that farmers' sons and daughters wish to be a part of!

Both of my daughters are involved in production agriculture.  My oldest, Lara, who is 16, will be showing a lamb at our county fair in two weeks - something she's done every year since she was 9.  She also has a small flock of commercial sheep that are part of our larger flock.  A junior in high school, she's an officer in her Future Farmers of America chapter.  She's also trained Mo, the best border collie we have!  Emma, an eleven-year-old sixth grader, will be showing her second lamb at the fair, along with a breeding ewe.  Like her sister, Emma has her own small commercial flock, and she sells eggs from her own flock of chickens.  In short, we're raising both our girls to have an appreciation for farming - and, perhaps, to become commercial farmers or ranchers themselves.

But given my own struggles to make a living from ranching (which I've documented in this blog), can I really recommend that my girls pursue a career trying to produce food for a local food system?  Is there a future for farming and ranching - as a commercial endeavor - in our part of the Sierra Foothills?  I think there is (all farmers are optimists - as Will Rogers said, "The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn't still be a farmer"), but I think we need to make some important decisions about farming as a business.

And fundamentally, farming must be a business.  Sustainable farming rests on three pillars - ecological sustainability, social sustainability and economic sustainability!  In my mind, if a farm can't stay in business (economic sustainability), it can't provide ecological or social benefits - in other words, economic sustainability is the foundation of sustainable farming.  This brings us to the evil "P" word - profit.  Without profit, I can't do simple things - like pay my mortgage, pay for health insurance - or buy the food I don't grow myself.  Profit isn't the reason that I farm, but it allows my farm to exist.

One of the best responses I've seen to "Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers" was written by Cody Reed, a beginning farmer from Plumas County (click here to read Cody's response).  He correctly raises a number of points that all of us - farmers and eaters - need to discuss regarding locally produced food.  Another sheep rancher, Rex Williams, responded to my Facebook link to Cody's blog with the following:
"I have always beat myself up for not being able to make my entire living off of our agricultural endeavors but after doing a little research into some local history a lot of farms of years past have had to have off farm support I have read of plenty of outfits who are successful in the second or third generation, that the patriarch had to work in the woods or milk or something for someone else to get his own farm off the ground.
"This news alone should give all of us hope that maybe, someday we can own a little of the dirt we take care of!"
Rex raises a valid point here - the history of small-scale farming in the United States is full of examples of families who work off-farm or in other trades so that they can continue farming.  In most of the commercial ranching families I know today, at least one family member works off-farm - mostly for the benefits.  While off-farm work can make life busy and stressful at times, I've found that I enjoy the combination - and the economic stability it provides!

Scale, as I've written many times before, enters the equation, too - if I can make a profit on each lamb I raise, I need to raise enough lambs to generate enough total profit to make a living.  The same goes for any other crop.  While I can adjust my standard of living to some extent (living frugally and working off-farm are the strategies I've employed), I think the fundamental issue is one of scale.  How can I grow my farm or ranch to the size necessary to make a living from it?  Conversely, are there some things I can do on the expense side of the equation that will allow me to achieve greater profitability at a smaller scale?

Over the 12 years in which we've tried to farm commercially, one of the most significant barriers to expansion has been affordable access to and long-term tenure on agricultural land - especially irrigated pasture, in my case. Farmland in most of California is valued far beyond its productive capacity - in other words, we've found that we can't purchase farmland based on the agricultural revenue it will produce.  Consequently, banks won't make loans for real estate purchased based on agricultural income.  As a result, we've always leased land (sometimes for cash payment, other times for an exchange of services - like fire protection).  While I think a written lease is important, not every landowner wants to put terms in writing.  Most of our landlords have preferred a year-to-year arrangement - which makes it difficult for us to justify making improvements to the land.  In several cases, we've been outbid by other producers for leases - in most instances, these other producers have given up the lease once they realized they paid too much.

Another barrier to scale is access to affordable capital - not just for land purchases.  As a sheep producer, most of my capital is tied up in breeding animals - currently, a commercial yearling ewe costs roughly $150.  To purchase a flock of 600 ewes (which I think is the minimum flock size needed to provide one person with a full-time wage), I'd need $90,000.  Other capital expenses include fencing, equipment (truck and trailer), livestock guardian dogs and border collies, and handling systems.  Being financially conservative by nature, most small-scale farmers (myself included) balk at taking on this much debt.

Finally, as I've written on numerous occasions, direct marketing in a community the size of Auburn may be inherently inefficient.  To sell enough lambs (700-800) each year to make my living from sheep production, I'd need to attend 4-5 markets each week the size of the Saturday Auburn farmers' market on a year-round basis.  This means hiring someone to attend the market (since I have always sold more than my employees and interns at markets, this would likely drop my sales volume) or hiring someone to do my farm chores on market days.  And I've decided that it's more important to me to go to my kids' soccer games and horseshows on Saturdays! Scale, in other words, is as important in marketing as it is in production.

And so I continue to search for answers (as most of us do).  For Bren Smith, the answers include transitioning USDA programs away from commodity crop supports and towards supports and grants for small-scale farmers.  Personally, I don't think this addresses the underlying issues I've outlined above.  Here are the ideas I'd like to see our community discuss:

  • Access to Land: local government and non-governmental organizations in Placer County are focused on land conservation, including farm- and ranchland conservation.  In some cases, these entities have purchased or accepted conservation easements on agricultural land, which at least ensures these lands won't be subdivided.  In other cases, lands have been purchased outright.  I think we need to go a step further - we need a program through which the community purchases large-scale farms and ranches from willing sellers.  These lands could be made available to commercial farmers at an affordable lease rate.  We could even create a local, modern version of the Homestead Act - a long term (20+ year) lease or life estate on the farm- and ranchlands owned by agencies or NGOs could be provided to families who agree to make agricultural improvements on these lands.  In any case, we need to end the fallacy that splitting a working farm or ranch into 5 acre ranchettes keeps the land in agriculture!
  • Access to Capital: commercial lending institutions (and to a large extent, USDA credit programs) are geared towards large-scale loans rather than towards meeting the needs of small-scale farming.  For example, I talked to an agricultural loan officer in my bank who told me they didn't generally make agricultural loans of less than $250,000.  The business lending officer wasn't comfortable with the risks inherent in farming - so a smaller loan would have cost me substantially more in interest.  I think crowd-funding and community lending pools might be the answer.  Finding a way to make capital affordable - and a way to give the community some direct financial involvement in its own food system, might help small growers invest in their businesses.
  • Collaborative Marketing: personally, I like the term "cooperative," but the failure of several California marketing cooperatives (Tri-Valley Growers, for example) in the last 20 years makes it a dirty word in some farming circles.  That said, I think we need more collaboration.  Consumers consistently tell us that convenience is a real barrier to eating locally grown food - some folks simply can't get to the farmers' market.  On the flip side, I don't know of any small-scale farmer who wants to go to more farmers' markets each week - especially without some guarantee of sufficient sales volume.  Perhaps we need to look at other collaborative marketing models - art galleries or antique malls come to mind. 
As a rancher in my extremely middle forties (I'm 47), I've realized that solutions to difficult problems like this one are never simple.  I'm certain that there are ramifications to the ideas I've presented that I don't comprehend at this point.  I am certain, however, that we need to talk about these (and other) ideas as a community.  This post is just a start - I hope that others will offer ideas - as well as criticism of my own ideas.  Let's begin this conversation!  Let's make small-scale farming and ranching something our kids aspire to do as adults!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Heading for Reno

After I finish my chores tomorrow morning, I'm headed for Reno for the California Wool Growers Association annual meeting.  I always enjoy the CWGA convention - I like catching up with other sheep producers and getting a brief break from a busy summer schedule.  I also like going to Reno - not for the gambling or bright lights, but for the cultural experience of "old" Reno - which is closely tied to sheep and cattle ranching.  One of the highlights of this trip (and indeed, most of my trips) to Reno will be dinner tomorrow evening at Louis' Basque Corner.  If you've never eaten at a family style Basque restaurant, you haven't really visited the West!  Or as Claire Vaye Watkins says in her book Battle Born, "If you come here [to Louis'] and don’t order the Picon Punch, you didn’t really come here.... One Picon Punch will make you buy another. Two is too many."  Since I'll be in the company of other sheep ranchers, including my brother-in-law Adrian, I'm sure I'll have more than one picon punch over the course of the weekend!

Whenever I go to Reno for a convention, I'm reminded of a story that a rancher from Modoc County (in the northeastern corner of California) told me when I first started working for the California Cattlemen's Association.  He'd been to his first cattlemen's convention in Reno in the late 1950s.  A roving radio reporter approached him and 2 of his buddies in the street and asked, "Are you boys here for the cattlemen's convention? Where are you staying?"  One of John's buddies replied, "Well, hell, it's only 3 days - we didn't think we'd need a room!"  Fortunately, I have a reservation at John Ascuaga's Nugget!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Yesterday, Flying Mule Farm, along with a bunch of our farming and ranching friends, tried a social media experiment.  We wanted to show folks what a day in the life of a farmer or rancher looked like - by posting photos at the top of every hour, along with the hashtag #agdayaugust2104.  Since I'm in my extremely mid-forties, I'm not entirely certain what a hashtag is (I assumed it was something made with corned beef), but we all thought this would be a fun project to try.  Turns out, many of our customers and friends liked the project!  I think we'll do it again - maybe once every season.

Here are a few of the photos I posted - enjoy!  For more photos from other farms, search Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for #agdayaugust2014!  And let us know - would you like to see more of this type of thing?

5:00 a.m. - up before the newspaper arrived, so I read it on-line.  Imagine that:
drought was in the news!
 6:00 a.m. - My carpool companion - Ernie!

7:00 a.m. - Taking down fencing @ Rock Creek Reservoir
7:00 a.m. - filling water troughs while Rosie the Guard Dog waits for breakfast.
7:00 a.m. - we feed the ewes about 1 lb of hay each every other day.  The added
protein in the hay helps them digest the dry grass that we're grazing for PG&E.
8:00 a.m. - Arriving at my other job!  Off-farm work has allowed me to continue
my passion for ranching.
9:00 a.m. - Humor makes it easier for me to work indoors!

10:00 a.m. - this sign sits above my desk - along with Shawn the Sheep.
12:00 pm - many people change their shoes on their
lunch hours so they can get some exercise.  I change mine
so I can move irrigation!

12:00 p.m. - instead of finishing lambs on irrigated pasture this year, we're saving
our summer green grass to get the ewes ready for breeding season (this is called
flushing).  After being on dry feed all summer, they'll be happy to come back to this
pasture in September!

12:00 p.m. - Especially thankful that we have water this year!
6:00 p.m. - my "shelfie" (sheepherder selfie) with the sheep.  Back at Rock Creek
building fence.
7:00 p.m. - Working on dinner!  We either grew/raised everything
we had for dinner last night - or we know who did!
8:00 p.m. - Water tank is full and ready to leave the house at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Does Small = Sustainable?

Several weeks ago, a friend and farmers’ market customer brought someone to the ranch who is interested in starting his own sheep operation in Mexico.  As we were talking about production practices and animal husbandry, I asked him about how big his ranch was and about how many animals he expected to raise – he has 5 acres and wanted to start with 20 sheep.  While I’m not familiar with the economics of sheep production in Mexico, this question turned the conversation towards the concept of scale.  I mentioned to my friend that I would need to have 600-800 ewes in order to produce enough net revenue to pay myself $40,000 per year.  She was astounded that a California foothills sheep operation would need to be so large, just to pay its owner the median annual income for Placer County.

This week, I came across an article from the New York Times Sunday Review entitled "Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers."  The author, Bren Smith, a farmer from the East Coast, has had experiences very similar to mine (and, I suspect, to many small-scale, direct-market farmers).  You should read the entire article, but here are a few of the highlights for me:

At a farm-to-table dinner recently, I sat huddled in a corner with some other farmers, out of earshot of the foodies happily eating kale and freshly shucked oysters. We were comparing business models and profit margins, and it quickly became clear that all of us were working in the red.”

“The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living. After the tools are put away, we head out to second and third jobs to keep our farms afloat.”

“And while weekend farmers’ markets remain precious community spaces, sales volumes are often too low to translate into living wages for your much-loved small-scale farmer.”

“Especially in urban areas, supporting your local farmer may actually mean buying produce from former hedge fund managers or tax lawyers who have quit the rat race to get some dirt under their fingernails. We call it hobby farming, where recreational ‘farms’ are allowed to sell their products at the same farmers’ markets as commercial farms.”

“On top of that, we’re now competing with nonprofit farms. Released from the yoke of profit, farms like Growing Power in Milwaukee and Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., [or closer to home, Soil Born Farms] are doing some of the most innovative work in the farming sector, but neither is subject to the iron heel of the free market.”

“As one grower told me, ‘When these nonprofit farms want a new tractor, they ask the board of directors, but we have to go begging to the bank.’”

“The food movement — led by celebrity chefs, advocacy journalists, students and NGOs — is missing, ironically, the perspective of the people doing the actual work of growing food. Their platform has been largely based on how to provide good, healthy food, while it has ignored the core economic inequities and contradictions embedded in our food system.”

Smith offers several suggestions for addressing these challenges.  Some, like affordable health insurance for small-scale farmers and programs to turn tenant farmers into landowners, make sense for our situation in the Sierra Foothills.  But I keep thinking that many of our challenges locally come down to questions of scale.

Fundamentally, farming is subject to a number of constraints.  An acre of land will only produce so many vegetables (or so much pasture).  One person can only pick so many tomatoes in a day.  I can only sell so much meat each week at our local farmers’ market – and I can only go to so many markets each week.  In other words, scale is a complicated question.

Sustainable agriculture rests on three basic elements – environmental sustainability, social sustainability and economic sustainability.  If we truly desire a sustainable local food system, we MUST start paying attention to the economic underpinnings of farming.  If 100 one-acre vegetable farms are losing money, is this a sustainable way for a community to grow it's food (compared with 5 twenty-acre farms that are generating profits)?  A local food system comprised of farms that can make a living wage for owners and workers alike is more sustainable over the long term - by all measures of sustainability.

We also need to consider our customers in all of this.  Why don’t more people shop at farmers’ markets?  How can we make buying local more convenient for our customers while maximizing marketing efficiency for individual farmers?  How can we retain the community feel of a farmers’ market while increasing volume for farmer-vendors?  My experience suggests that the answers to these questions are not quite as simple as we’d like to think.  We need to start by being honest about the economic realities of growing food.

As regular readers of Foothill Agrarian (all four of you!) know, scale and sustainability are recurrent themes in my writing.  Here are some links to previous posts dealing with these topics:
As I look over this list, I'm struck by the fact that most of my posts offer more questions than answers.  I hope others will join in this discussion - perhaps through conversation we'll begin finding some answers!