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 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!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

El Nino - or La Nada - Preparing for a Fourth Year of Drought

Disclosure: I borrowed the term "La Nada" from a friend who heard a weather forecaster say that we have three winter weather patterns in California - El Nino, La Nina and De Nada.  To me, La Nada (the nothing) makes more sense than De Nada (literally, of nothing), but I like the concept!

According to the National Weather Service, the likelihood of a strong El Nino event this winter (which was predicted last spring) is diminishing - and with it, so has the likelihood of an above-average precipitation year.  In other words, we're looking at a fourth year of drought.  Even normal precipitation during the winter months won't re-charge our groundwater supplies or re-fill our reservoirs.  Consequently, I'm preparing to cope another dry year in our ranching business.

The combination of our Mediterranean climate and our annual grasslands means that most of our grass growth occurs by mid-May.  My job as a grazer, then, is to ration the feed that grows in the spring to my sheep to make sure they have enough grass to get them through to next year's grass.  We hope for a germinating rain in early October, which allows the newly sprouted grass to grow for 6-8 weeks before the short days and colder temperatures put the grass into a winter dormant period.  As last year demonstrated, however, we can't always count on this!

Last week, we took an inventory of the grass we have available to us through the rest of the summer and fall.  We estimate our forage supply by estimating the number of "sheep days" per acre - how many sheep can be fed on one acre for 24 hours.  We can then estimate the carrying capacity and duration of grazing on all of our grazing land.
Here's what the inventory we completed last week looks like.  If it doesn't rain - at all! - for the next 10 months, we have enough dry forage to graze for 340 days.  This means we have stockpiled enough forage to get us through to late June 2015 - with zero new grass growth.  If we have no rain between now and June 2015, it will be disastrous - but at least our sheep will have something to graze until then.

The next step in our planning process is to match up our management calendar (and our personal calendars) with our forage inventory.  Here are some key dates in the coming 5 months:

  • September 3-7 - Gold Country Fair (limited availability for sheep emergencies)
  • September 8-30 - Flushing - we put the ewes on a rising plane of nutrition to boost conception and lambing rates
  • October 1 - November 15 - Breeding season
  • November 15 - December 5 - Settling - we try not to haul the ewes or cause any other undue stress that would result in lost pregnancies
  • Late January - Vaccinations and hoof-trimming
  • Mid February through end of March - Lambing!
  • Early May - Shearing
  • May or June (depending on forage quality/quantity) - Weaning
Based on these key dates, here's our grazing plan for the coming months:
  • Pasture 9 is a paid job, but it's in an area with a great deal of recreational use (which increases the possibility of vandalism problems), so somebody needs to be able to respond to problems in 20-30 minutes.  We'll graze this pasture for 25 days, allowing us to impact 30-40 of the 75 acres.  We moved sheep here yesterday; they'll ship out on August 31.
  • Pastures 2-5 are close to home and relatively safe.  We'll put sheep here September 1-8 (while we're at the fair).  This will make chores easier and less time-consuming.
  • We've been stockpiling our limited irrigated pasture to save our best green grass for flushing the ewes.  We hope to have enough to graze the ewes from September 8 through September 30 on irrigated pasture - if not, we'll supplement their nutrition with alfalfa.
  • Once we turn the rams in with the ewes, we don't want to haul the sheep for at least 65 days.  Our options are Pasture 7 or Pasture 8.  If we go to Pasture 8, we can stay there through the end of lambing season.  Both pastures are free in terms of rent; we've decided that we'll take the flock to Pasture 8 on October 1.  We've helped the landowner of Pasture 7 find another grazer who can graze her property this summer.
That's about as far out as we've planned at the moment.  We know we'll need to figure out where the sheep will be when we shear them in early May (we sheared at home in 2014, which means 8-9 trailer loads to get them there).  We'll either do this again or find a way to shear the sheep at/near Pasture 8.  We'll also want to graze our irrigated pastures in the springtime to keep them in a nutritious state through next summer.

Which brings me to the topic of irrigated pasture and next year's water supply.  We found out last month that we qualified for "emergency" drought assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  This means that we'll receive cost-share assistance for upgrading the irrigation system at our main irrigated pasture.  Hopefully we'll get these upgrades installed this fall.  These improvements will allow us to stretch our water allotment further in the future - we'll make more efficient use of the water we get.

We purchase our irrigation water from the Nevada Irrigation District (NID).  This spring, NID purchased water from PG&E to help ensure that they'd have enough carry-over stored water to get through to next year (the lack of snowpack this year made the PG&E purchase necessary).  This year, NID has asked for a voluntary 15 percent reduction in water use - and customers seem to be achieving this goal.  Next year, however, is very much up in the air - and is further complicated by state-imposed limits on junior water rights because of the drought.  Here's a graph showing current storage in NID's reservoir system:
So far, it looks like we're on target to go into next year with 111,000 acre feet of stored water.  However, if the winter of 2014-2015 is anything like the winter we just went through, I expect significant reductions in irrigation water in 2015.  Early next spring, we'll re-evaluate our situation and set some decision dates for things like early weaning, culling of ewes, and whether we're going to retain any feeder or replacement lambs.

Finally, we're looking at options for improving our ability to grow high quality forage in dry conditions.  I'm part of an informal group of professional ranchers here in Placer and Nevada Counties that is looking at alternatives.  There may be some dryland perennial grasses or improved annual grasses that we can seed over our existing pastures to improve productivity, especially during drought.  I'll keep you posted on these possibilities!

As I go through this planning process, I try to keep four principles in mind:
  1. My first priority is to take care of the land I've been entrusted to manage.  I won't sacrifice the long-term health of the land for a short-term benefit.
  2. Flying Mule Farm is a business, not a hobby - I will not subsidize the farm with my off-farm income!
  3. I can't (WON'T) feed my way out of a drought - I must match forage demand with carrying capacity.
  4. Hope for the best; plan for the worst.
I always get a chuckle from long-range weather forecasts that predict rain more than a week in the future - here's a screenshot of AccuWeather's forecast for September 18, 2014.  I'd love to get "a little morning rain" on September 18, but I don't give this prediction much weight.  We'll hope that a strong El Nino develops, but we're preparing to cope with another La Nada!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Ernie's Progress - August 3, 2014

Another installment in the ongoing saga of Ernie the sheep dog!

Ernie put in a full day's work today.  We started by hauling lambs back to leased pasture (we'd sheared them yesterday).  Ernie brought them from the trailer to the paddock with no problem at all.  After a brief diversion (getting our first cord of firewood), we got to the real work.  Ernie gathered the main flock and brought them into the corrals.  He still tries to get to their heads when it's not necessary, but at least he's under control!  We then put all of the ewes through the working chute (to sort off culls and take inventory).  Ernie was amazing in the corrals!  He was thoughtful about his work and showed outstanding courage - ewes that faced him and stomped at him were given a chance to reform and then nipped on the nose.  A brave dog will take on a ewe head-to-head - a less courageous dog will slip around and nip a flank.  Ernie went head-to-head today!  And even in the heat, he showed amazing stamina - he's a dog I'll need to watch to make sure he gets cool-down breaks and plenty of drinks!

Working with a canine partner can be incredibly rewarding - especially on days like this!  Thanks, Ernie!
A nice way to end the day!

Saturday, August 2, 2014


I think it's impossible to work outdoors and not interact with bugs - insects, spiders, etc.  This week has been a reminder!

Towards the end of summer, we start seeing praying manti - riding the sheep, climing the fences, perching on the tall grass.  I love these bugs!  When they're living on irrigated pasture or other green vegetation, they're green.  When they're living on dry grass, they're brown!  I suppose they use color to camoflage their hunting.  They're amazing!

We also see lots of dragonflies and damsel flies where we're irrigating.  The dragonflies eat other bugs - including mosquitoes!  I think dragonflies look like fire planes - S-2 planes were based at Columbia airport when I was a kid, and they look just like these critters!

Honey bees are also quite noticable where we live and ranch.  At this time of year, the bees are working blackberries and yellow starthistle - invasive plants that I'd like to eradicate except for the fact that they provide bee pasture in July and August.

But it's not entirely a love fest for me and the bugs!  Flies (of all sorts) are obnoxious!  Yellow jackets are as well!  Last night, I hauled the last of our lambs home to shear.  As I was closing them in a stall in the barn, I was stung on my shearing (right) hand.  This morning, as we were setting up to shear, Sami and I were both stung again.  Yellow jackets, in my opinion, are jerks!

I'm seeing more yellow jackets than normal this summer - probably another consequence of the dry, warm winter we had in 2013-2014.  In 1989, Sami and I took a trip that concluded with trout fishing on Sonora Pass.  We caught lots of fish (I'm old enough to remember when the limit on trout was 10!), but every fish we caught was a challenge to unhook.  As we'd pull fish from the Stanislaus River, 15-20 yellow jackets would swarm the fish.  That summer, 2 horses were killed at Kennedy Meadows Pack Station when yellow jackets stung them as they were crossing the river.

Even though I dislike (extremely) some fo the bugs I encounter in a life lived (mostly) outdoors, I'm still fascinated by many of these critters!  There are so many "worlds" on this planet - the world of insects is pretty amazing!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

One Man's Weeds - Another Man's Forage

Or How I  Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Yellow Starthistle
Soldiers in the War on Weeds!
Okay, so I don't really love yellow starthistle, but my attitude about weeds is evolving.  Back in 2001, I dragged my young nieces and oldest daughter along on a weed tour of the Sierra Valley.  As I recall, the theme of the tour was militaristic - we were waging war on weeds like tall whitetop and yellow starthistle.  The tour focused on strategies for controlling (and hopefully eradicating) these invasive plants from other continents.  The girls (now ages 16 to 22) tease me about this fascinating and enjoyable field trip to this day!

Perhaps I should pause and provide my favorite non-scientific definition of a weed.  A weed is a plant that's growing somewhere that you don't want it to be.  When I grew vegetables, the weeds I hated the most were Bermuda grass, Johnson grass and red-root pigweed.  By this definition, however, a squash plant in the middle of a row of tomatoes would be a weed, too - it's not wanted there!

Now that we focus exclusively on grass-fed sheep production, we divide our grazing resources into two categories - unirrigated rangeland and irrigated pasture.  The weed issues are different in each category.  Our rangelands are dominated by annual grasses and forbs that were introduced from Europe and Asia with the arrival of Spanish livestock.  I read recently that a severe drought in the 1860's allowed these plants to take hold and push out the native grasses.  By the above definition, today's valuable forage species (soft chess, annual ryegrass, rose clover, filaree, etc.) were once weeds - they were growing where they weren't wanted.  Today's "weeds" include more recent arrivals - yellow starthistle, medusahead barley, barbed goat grass, bull thistle, milk thistle and skeletonweed (just to name a few).  On some of our rangelands, we have undesirable native "weeds," too - like poison oak.

The plants in our irrigated pasture are mostly introduced (or planted) perennial grasses and clovers.  Typically, we have orchard grass, ladino clover, dallis grass, birdsfoot trefoil and tall fescue in our higher quality irrigated pastures.  Today's weeds include smut grass and broom sedge (Don't you just love the common names of weeds?  So much more fun than the Latin names, in my opinion!)

The weeds in both systems can be problematic.  Medusahead barley, for example, contains a high amount of silica, which means it doesn't decompose as rapidly in the winter.  It creates a thatch which prevents sunlight from reaching the soil surface, and through which only more medusahead can grow.  Yellow starthistle has an exceptionally deep taproot that allows it to access soil moisture when most other plants are drying up.  Like medusahead, it can create a monoculture that is harmful ecologically and agriculturally.  On irrigated pasture, smut grass is a plant that produces a lot of stalk and not much leaf - not ideal for grazing!  The stalk is high in cellulose, which makes it less palatable to livestock.  Broom sedge is a warm-season grass that grows rapidly in the middle of the summer.  Like medusahead and starthistle, it can create a monoculture.  With fine hairs on its leaves, it's not especially palatable either.
Grazing last year's starthistle "skeletons" and this year's sprouts.
But from a grazing perspective, these weeds are not entirely bad.  They function, in some ways, just like the more desirable plants in our pastures and on our rangelands - they convert sunlight, soil and water into green plant tissue.  While they have mechanisms that defend themselves from grazing at certain stages in their life cycles (spines, in the case of starthistle; stiff awns, in the case of medusahead; toxic compounds, in the case of poison oak), each of these plants can be grazed if we get the timing right.  I've watched our sheep devour the spiny seedheads on yellow starthistle, for example - and starthistle stays green longer into the summer (which gives it greater nutritional value than some of our dry grasses).  Another example: medusahead is highly palatable in the springtime before it produces a seedhead - we've nearly eradicated medusahead at our home place by grazing it heavily every spring.  Similarly, poison oak can be grazed early in the growing season with no ill effects on the sheep.

Some of the weeds on our irrigated pastures are a bit more challenging.  Since smut grass doesn't have much leaf material, it doesn't provide much forage value.  Broom sedge is not terribly palatable, but we have found that our ewes will eat it (while the lambs will not).  We are experimenting this year with a different irrigation regime (12-hour sets instead of 24 hours) and with severe grazing on the parts of our pastures with smut grass and broom sedge.  On the plus side, broom sedge grows rapidly during the hottest part of the summer - we can regraze broom sedge in 21 days (as opposed to the 35-40 rest periods we allow on other pastures).

Even as we've adapted our grazing strategies to take advantage of what these weeds can provide, we're still focused on shifting our pastures towards a more desirable mix of grass and forbs.  We'd love to have more native perennial grasses - some of our pastures have purple needlegrass, for example.  These native perennials stay green later in the year and have habitat and soil protection benefits.  We are also thinking about trying to plant some dry-season perennials that can survive our long, dry summers without much (if any) irrigation.  In some ways, I guess we're trying to balance managing for what we don't want (weeds) with managing for what we do want (desirable plants).  I find that there's always something new to learn!

"Before" - 5 minutes after putting 120 ewes onto a 1.5 acre
paddock on irrigated pasture.  The green stuff in the
foreground is broom sedge.
One of the tools we've started using to evaluate our progress is a new application for my iPhone from the University of Nebraska.  GrassSnap allows me to take photos from the same photo point over time.  I'm hopeful that this will help us measure our progress!  Check out these photos from one of our irrigated pastures in Auburn (this is broom sedge).

"After" - the same paddock, 3 days later!
The most recent issue of California Agriculture (peer-reviewed research published by the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources) includes an interesting article that tries to predict future invasive plants in California.  Unlike many of the rangeland weeds that were introduced by livestock, the article indicates that most of our new invasive plants will from ornamental plants sold by nurseries.  Many of these horticultural plants can be toxic to livestock (like oleander, for example) - I'll have to keep a close eye on these types of invasives in the future!

Finally, there are two weeds that I have absolutely abhor as a shepherd.  Common cocklebur and spiny clotbur are the most obnoxious (beyond noxious) weeds in our ecosystem.  Both can be grazed at the right time of year (even though they are slightly toxic at certain growth stages), but what I hate about them is the seeds they produce.  These burs are enormous, and they love clinging to wool and dog hair.  They can cause sores on my dogs, and they diminish the value of our wool.  And so I have declared war on these weeds - my weapons of choice are a sharp hoe or my own two hands.  I'm not sure I can learn to love (or even like) cocklebur and clotbur!
Common cocklebur - enemy of sheepmen everywhere!

Spiny clotbur - have you ever seen
a nastier looking plant?!

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.