Saturday, February 28, 2009


Over the last 15 years or so, watersheds have become the primary planning unit for a variety of land use and environmental management decisions. Defined as an area that is drained by a particular river or stream, watersheds are a useful way for dividing geography into regions that share a common thread. Watershed planning has been particularly useful in land conservation.

Foodsheds are an emerging planning tool that adapts the watershed approach to a community's food supply. Unlike watersheds, foodsheds are difficult to define on a map, in part because particular food outlets within a single community may have very different foodsheds. For example, the foodshed for the Auburn farmer's market today includes portions of western Placer County, southern Yuba County, and even northern San Joaquin County and the Pacific Coast. By contrast, the foodshed for Auburn's Belair supermarket is global - it includes fruits and vegetables from Central and South America, salmon from the Atlantic Ocean, lamb from New Zealand and grain-based products from the Midwest.

Like watersheds, foodsheds can be evaluated for their existing conditions. They can also be modified to achieve a more desirable condition. For example, the ecological cost (in fossil fuels, pesticides and environmental degradation) involved in shipping fruits and vegetables halfway around the world is enormous. While some may argue that modifying this foodshed requires government action, I believe that modifying our own eating habits is equally, if not more important. Do we really need to eat table grapes this time of year? At the farmer's market today, I'll be able to purchase naval and blood oranges grown in Newcastle, mandarins grown in Penryn, grapefruit grown in Loomis and apples grown in Lodi. By the time I tire of citrus, I'll be able to get local cherries and strawberries. Eating with the season is a big step towards a more sustainable (and more local) foodshed.

Another step towards a more sustainable foodshed is to make more efficient use of the land around us for growing food. As I drive around Placer County, I'm struck by the amount of land that could produce food but is currently idle. In years past, towns like Auburn and Colfax were surrounded by small farms - they could be again. What are missing are the farmers - we've lost at least one generation of people with knowledge of how to work the land. This need is why many of us have created farm internships - we get some help in exchange for sharing our knowledge about farming.

Over the next several months, I'm going to be working on the foodshed idea as an approach to conserving local farmland and food production. I'd be very interested in hearing other perspectives!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Spring is on the way

As I was checking on new lambs today (there were 4, by the way), I first heard and then saw several flocks of sandhill cranes flying north. My friend David Gallino, who runs cows in Nevada County, and I always compete to see who sees the cranes on their northbound trip in the spring and on their southbound trip in the fall. This year, David won - he first spotted them on February 19. I saw my first cranes two days later. The cranes must have a pretty precise calendar - I noted in my weather diary (which I've kept since 2001) that they fly over every year during the third or fourth week of February.

Another sign of spring is the wildflower display that's started at the ranch in Lincoln. We moved cows to fresh feed this afternoon, and I noticed some wonderful little yellow flowers called "butter and eggs." This are usually the first flowers to show up, and we've finally had enough rain to get them going. Hopefully the vernal pools at Doty Ravine Preserve (the winter ranch we lease from the Placer Land Trust) will boast it's usual spectacular display of wildflowers this year.

The final sign of impending spring is the presence of bottle lambs in our kitchen. Sometimes a ewe won't take its lamb at birth, which means we bring the lamb home and raise it on a bottle. Our girls especially like this (although they don't generally get up for the 2 a.m. feedings). We obviously prefer for the ewes to do the mothering, but sometimes we have to step in. We have two of them sleeping in a dog crate as I write this.

One of the many things I enjoy about farming is the opportunity to experience the seasons directly. At the risk of boasting, I'm proud to say that I've seen the vast majority of the sunrises in my life. I like being outside in all kinds of weather, and I love the chance to see the changes that the weather and the seasons bring to the plant and animal communities around me. I'm incredibly lucky to make my living this way!

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Glamorous Life of the Sheep Farmer

What a day! After stopping on our way to the ranch to buy goat's milk and lamb milk replacer for the bottle lambs, we proceeded to get the truck stuck in the mud at the Lincoln ranch. We processed the 12 new lambs (which means we put ear tags on them, docked their tails, gave them a selenium supplement and dipped their umbilical cords in betadine) and gave the flock some fresh feed. The first tow truck that showed up to pull our pick-up out was too heavy, so we walked a mile in the rain to move another set of sheep on the north side of the ranch. By the time the truck was out and we were done, we were all soaked. Thankfully, our intern Courtney and our daughters Lara and Emma were all good humored about the entire ordeal.

As I mentioned yesterday, lambing in weather like this always makes me nervous. As usual, my nervousness proved to be unfounded, for the most part. We've tried to select ewes who take good care of their babies, and all of yesterday's lambs made it through the storm just fine.

The glamorous part of this job is the muck and mud associated with being outside in this kind of weather. Even with the best rain gear, it's tough not to get soaked. I enjoy being outside in all kinds of weather, partly because it feels so good to get warm again once I'm back inside.

We hope you're all enjoying the wet weather - we sure need it! However, I wouldn't mind a little sunshine now and then over the next several days!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Pasture Lambing and Mule Sheep

As of Friday, our main lambing season has begun. Most of the lambs are doing fine, although we do have two lambs wrapped in my woolen Filson coat sleeping beneath the woodstove in our living room. I'm not sure what Martha Stewart would say about lambs in the living room. We'll be giving them bottles of goat's milk every 2 hours for several days.

We pasture lamb, which means that we allow the ewes to have their lambs in the pasture. Some producers pen their sheep and lamb in barns, but we think we have healthier lambs in the long run if we allow them to grow up naturally on grass. The downside of this system is that I worry endlessly about the lambs when we have stormy weather (as we're having tonight). Generally, the lambs are fine, but I still worry.

We're in the process of changing the genetics of our flock this year. We've adopted a 3-tier breeding system used in Great Britain to produce high quality grass-fed lambs. We're breeding our white faced commercial ewes to a Bluefaced Leicester ram. These offspring are known in England and Scotland as "mules" - fitting, don't you think? The mule ewes will be bred to a third breed to produce our primary market lambs.

Wendell Berry suggests that the most successful livestock farmers observe their livestock and select the breeds and individuals that best fit their farms. We're hopeful through that we can build a ewe flock through genetic improvement and careful observation that fits our system and our grass. We think the three-tier approach we're using will fit our needs - stay tuned!

If anyone out there has experience with pasture lambing, we'd love to hear from you!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Working in the Woods

We're currently working on building up our firewood inventory for sale next fall. This enterprise is a partnership with our friends Allen and Nancy Edwards at Edwards Family Farm in Colfax. We've divided our labor, with Allen and Nancy falling trees, piling the slash, and skidding logs to processing areas. I cut the firewood to length and split it in preparation for sale. The firewood is a byproduct of the Edwards' efforts to improve the health of their woods through thinning and fire protection. We're making the transition to using horses and mules for skidding, which will further reduce the carbon required to harvest our firewood.

We're interested in learning from others who have used animal power in the woods. We're dealing with some very steep slopes, which can make direct skidding with horses and mules very challenging. We're thinking that we'll be using long cables and a pulley system so that the animals are always walking on the road system, and generally walking downhill. If you have experience with this sort of system, let us know how it works!

We'll also be milling lumber this spring and summer. This year, we're focused mostly on Douglas fir, but we'll eventually be milling pine and perhaps even oak. Again, this is part of our effort to improve forest health and provide the community with a direct connection to their lumber products. We're currently using a circular sawmill (a Mobile Dimension), but we're interested in talking to others who are using other types of portable mills.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Lambing Season

We've given both of our daughters their own sheep as a way of involving them in our farm. Lara, our oldest, now has 2 breeding ewes, a half interest in one of our rams, and a set of twin lambs. As of last Tuesday, Emma, who is 5, has a ewe with twins, too. She is so excited! When she got home from school today, she asked if we could "process" the lambs, which involves weighing them, ear-tagging them, docking their tails, and (if they are ram lambs) castrating them.

I guess some parents would want to protect their young children from these types of things. For me, it has provided an opportunity to talk to our kids about why we do certain things. In talking about these production practices, it has also given me a chance to think about them more critically.

Sheep are born with long tails. While some producers do not dock the tails, we've seen what fly strike can do to sheep with tails. Some producers (largely those who produce lambs for fairs) go to the other extreme - they dock the lamb's tail extremely short, which creates other problems. As I explained to Emma this afternoon, we dock tails so that they don't have fly strike but also so they don't have the problems associated with a short dock.

Like us, our kids love our animals. But they've also experienced the entire life cycle - they realize that we raise some of our animals for meat. As another sheep producer, Al Medvitz, has said, they realize that death is not the opposite of health. In other words, our kids realize that we treat our animals humanely throughout their entire lives, and that "harvesting" the animals is a natural part of this process.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


As we try to grow our business to a sustainable size, I think a great deal about the balance between production and marketing. In 2009, we are planning to produce and market 250 grass-fed lambs, 150 cords of firewood, and 15,000 board feet of lumber. Based on our projections, I anticipate that these enterprises will generate one living wage (for me) as well as enough revenue to pay several interns.

This all looks good on paper; the key to the entire business is finding ways to balance my time between production and marketing. As small-scale farmers, our marketing depends on direct contact with our customers (which I thoroughly enjoy). Our production depends on the amount of time I can devote to moving sheep, changing irrigation water, cutting firewood and milling lumber. I can't sell products I don't have, but I also can't produce goods that I don't have time to market. Balancing my time can be challenging.

Making the most efficient use of my marketing time is one of the keys. If I can sell more lamb at my existing outlets (farmer's markets, restaurants, CSA's and buyer's clubs), I can increase my sales volume without increasing my marketing time. We're exploring ways to accomplish this.

Balance is also important from a personal standpoint. While I love farming, I need time to spend with my family away from farming, too. Time away from the farm allows these bigger questions to become more clearly focused.

I'm interested in the ways in which other farmers (and other small businesses) find this balance - your suggestions are most welcome!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Farm Interns

Our newest intern, Courtney, started her intership this morning. She received a great introduction to the world of small-scale sustainable agriculture - there's nothing like seeting up electric fence in the rain and wind! Despite the conditions, we're both excited about working together.

Internships are, for me, an interesting addition to the world of farming. I've realized that many of the production-related skills I've developed over the years are not skills that I learned in college or in any other formal training program. In earlier generations, children learned these skills from their parents. As farming fell out of favor as a profession (in part, because family-scale farming wasn't profitable), these skills were not passed along. The kind of labor-intensive, low technology farming that we do belongs to another time, in many respects. Internships are a way for people without a farming background to learn the hands-on skills necessary to farm at this scale.

Courtney is the fourth intern we've hosted in the last year. Our experience has been mixed, and I'm sure our interns would say the same thing. I've learned that I need to take more time to explain what I do and why I do it. I've also learned that I need to be more patient as our interns learn and then master the skills that I take for granted. On the other hand, I've also learned that my own ability to work hard and for long hours is not a universal trait.

My ultimate hope is that our interns will come away from their time with us with a better understanding of the business and work of farming. I hope that some of them will go on to start their own farms. Selfishly, I hope to receive some much needed help in exchange for sharing my experience. Ultimately, I hope our internship program, and others like it, can rebuild the sense of community that attracted me to farming in the first place.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Reducing our carbon footprint

In the January-February issue of Audubon, Mike Tidwell offered a viewpoint entitled “The Low Carbon Diet.” In his article, he lays out his reasons for becoming a vegetarian, despite his love of meat. His essay argues that our consumption of meat wastes precious resources while contributing mightily to our collective carbon footprint. By choosing a vegetarian diet, he suggests, we can reduce greenhouse gasses, improve access to food in developing countries, and live healthier lives.

As a small-scale rancher in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, I have a slightly different take on these issues. We raise and market grass-fed lamb – most of our customers live within 30 miles of the ranches we lease. We also graze cows for other ranchers. Certainly the industrial model for meat, milk and egg production is incredibly flawed and incredibly damaging (to the earth, to the animals, and to the people who are doing the actual work of production). However, I do think there are very sound reasons (economic and environmental) to eat locally produced, grass-fed meats, eggs and dairy products in moderation.

The “cowboy” definition of rangeland is land that is too hot, too cold, too steep, too dry or too “something” to produce a crop. These lands do produce biomass, however, in the form of grass, forbs and shrubs, which most of us humans find neither very palatable nor very nutritious. Ruminant animals have the miraculous (in my opinion) ability to convert this biomass into protein that we can digest (and that I find delicious). Not that we need to produce food on every square inch of the earth, but it seems to me that we should look for ways to produce food responsibly on land that might not be productive cropland.

Indeed, these rangelands evolved with (and perhaps because) of the presence of ruminants and other hooved animals. Deciduous trees lose last year’s dead leaves; grasses rely on grazing animals to remove last year’s leaves. The consumption and recycling of this biomass is critically important ecologically. Grazing animals cycle solar energy, nutrients and water through the system. Our operation is an example of this – we are currently grazing on vernal pool habitat. The cows and sheep that we manage consume undesirable (from an ecological standpoint) grasses and forbs, which allow the native plants to better compete. We’ve also used sheep and goats to reduce dangerous fuel loads, in turn reducing the potential for catastrophic wildfire. Our local Audubon representative, Ed Pandolfino, feels that grazing animals are essential to preserving important habitats for raptors and other birds. Part of this habitat preservation is related to preventing these lands from converting to houses. Eating locally produced meats (from within our own “foodshed”) will encourage local farmers and ranchers to keep these habitats intact.

Mr. Tidwell also expresses concern about the climate changing effects of the methane that ruminant animals emit. From an emissions perspective, I’m curious as to whether anyone has evaluated the number of ruminant animals prehistorically versus today. Ruminants are animals with multi-compartment stomachs that allow them to breakdown cellulose – the stuff of grass – and convert it into muscle and fat. Cows and sheep are ruminants; so are deer, elk and bison. Certainly our concentration of ruminants in feedlots is a relatively new development, but our rangelands have always supported grazing animals. What’s changed drastically in the last 100 years is our total reliance on fossil fuels for everything we do.

In terms of world hunger and poverty, I believe that we have inappropriately used food as a political tool. We have distribution problems and local capacity problems rather than supply problems. Given our limited resources of arable land (to paraphrase and build on Will Rogers’ statement – they’re not making any more farmland), local production of livestock (throughout the world) is an important tool in reducing hunger. Rather than divert more of the grain grown in this country to reducing international hunger (which, by the way, would take enormous amounts of fossil fuels), I prefer the perspective embraced by Heifer International and others. We should help the people (rather than the governments) in developing countries learn to produce their own food (which should include livestock, for many reasons).

I do agree with Mr. Tidwell that personal choices are critical in our efforts to reverse global climate change. The problem is so huge that many of us are paralyzed. Furthermore, we want to solve the problem without changing our habits. We are waiting for government to come up with a solution (a new energy source, for example). These “big” solutions may be important, but I believe individual choices are even more important. To me, one of these choices is the decision to be more connected to my food supply. The other choice that we’ve made on our farm is to partner with our animals – draft animals, grazing animals, herding animals, and guardian animals – rather than rely on technology. The carbon involved in our production system (like many local producers) is relatively minimal. Our lambs, from conception to consumption, travel less than 200 miles total (including the trip to the processor). If we could process our animals more locally (which we cannot, thanks to federal meat inspection regulations), our carbon footprint would be even smaller. The most significant energy source in our production system is the sun – we convert foliar solar panels (grass leaves) into protein. We do rely on summer irrigation water, but one of the benefits of being in the Sierra Nevada foothills is that this water is moved by gravity rather than by pumping. We don’t use any grain, and we’re hoping to entirely eliminate our need for a very small amount of hay.

The issues raised by Mr. Tidwell are critical for us to discuss within our own communities. Others might choose a vegetarian diet for a number of reasons, but the connection between vegetarianism and carbon emissions is tenuous at best. From my perspective, trying to buy my food from local farmers will have a far greater benefit for our environment than changing my diet. Locally produced, grass-fed meats, eggs and dairy products are an important part of any community food system.