Thursday, April 30, 2009


Now that we're done shearing the sheep and now that the irrigation water has started, we're transitioning to other activities. Twice a day now, we'll be moving irrigation pipe at our summer ranch in Auburn. In order to finish lambs and cattle on grass, we need to maintain lush, green grass through the summer months. This means irrigation. It's kind of fun at first, but by the time September rolls around, we'll be ready for the water to shut off (usually on October 15).

We're also moving sheep almost daily. They do better on fresh feed, so we try to set up our paddocks with enough feed for 1-2 days. This means the sheep are always eating!

Finally, we're focused on processing firewood. We're cutting oak at the Hunt Ranch in Lincoln - they lost many trees in last summer's Gladding Fire. We're also continuing to cut Douglas fir and oak in Colfax at Edwards Family Farm.

I like the variety that farming provides - always something new. Each season brings new tasks and new challenges, but rarely boredom!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Intern Blog - Adventures in Cheesemaking (by Courtney McDonald)

As I had mentioned in a previous posting, I am a proud half-owner of an East Friesian dairy ewe named Yola. Dan, Samia, Lara and Emma own the other half and we split the milking duties.

I love sheep’s milk and all of its unique qualities, and have been experimenting with the milk, making cheeses and yogurt to varying degrees of success. The first cheese I tried was ricotta, which came out fantastic. I made it a second time and it came out good, but with a slightly different texture. I decided I preferred the first batch. Next I have tried feta. I salted part of the batch to be able to try it quickly and brined the rest. The salted feta was a good cheese with great flavor, but in my opinion it didn’t really taste like feta. I am hoping that the brined feta will be taste more like other sheep’s milk feta I have had, with more acid and time to develop that characteristic feta flavor. Most recently I made cream cheese (I actually just finished the final step of beating salt into it with a wooden spoon tonight), and I think it is my most successful cheese so far. It has the right texture for spreading, a nice acid balance, and great sheep’s milk flavor. The yogurt I tried was a disaster (didn’t set), but I can still use it for yogurt drinks or sauces. All of the cheese I have tried so far has been made with the raw sheep’s milk, with the exception of the ricotta, which is heated to around 200 degrees to speed curd formation.

One source of frustration through this experimentation process has been the lack of information about sheep’s milk. All of the ratios and recipes I have used so far have been focused on cow’s milk and sometimes goat. Sheep’s milk is quite different from both of these (as I explained in an earlier posting), and therefore reacts differently to the various enzymes and cultures used for cheese making. I think my success will be due to a lot more research and understanding of the chemistry involved in the process. And a lot more failed cheese experiments.

Another challenge I have found so far is having enough time to devote solely to trying new cheeses. Most cheeses need at least 2 or 3 days of cooking, cooling, cutting, stirring, draining and hanging to come out right. If you try and rush the process, you are pretty much guaranteed poor results. Now that I have figured out these basic rules through trial and error, I have a little better idea of what to do or not do the next time.

Finally, a major frustration for me in these cheesemaking adventures has been that I haven’t automatically been good at them. Having spent my entire adolescent and adult life working with food hasn’t much carried over into the very precise and scientific world of cheese. Of course I was aware of the chemistry involved with making cheese, but I guess I was expecting to grasp the concepts involved a little quicker than I have so far. I know I will get there eventually, though. There is a reason most cheese makers spend years and sometimes decades perfecting their skills.

I’m looking forward to the continued failures and successes I will encounter. And if nothing else, at least Yola will still love me!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Working Together

As you saw from my last post, we sheared our sheep on Friday and Saturday. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the day was getting to work with my entire family. Sami helped move sheep into the shearing pen, Lara helped skirt the fleeces and catch lambs for the footbath, and Emma helped catch lambs and generally kept us all entertained.

It was also a time for working with friends. Two of our interns, Courtney and Julie, helped the entire day. Our friend Roger, who we run sheep with, also helped in the afternoon. After we finished shearing, we moved the ewes back onto pasture and cleaned up. Many hands made relatively short work!

I relish these chances to work together with family and friends. We're all tired at the end of the day, but the work is much more enjoyable when it's done with people I enjoy. This is the fourth year that Derrick Adamache has sheared our sheep, and I've come to consider him a friend, too!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sheep Shearing Time

On Friday afternoon, we started shearing our sheep. I've shorn the sheep just enough to know that it makes more sense to hire somebody who knows what he's doing. Our shearer, Derrick Adamache, has been shearing since the early 1980's. He definitely knows what he's doing!

Sheep shearing is an intense time. It involves bringing all of the sheep into a corral the night before they're shorn. We set up a sorting system to sort the lambs off of their mothers and to bring the sheep into the shearing pen as quietly as possible. We bring Derrick 8-10 ewes at a time. It takes him about 20 minutes to shear the pen.

Our wool is nothing special, but we still sell it to offset some of the cost of shearing. We're learning how to skirt our fleeces (which involves removing the less desirable wool) and to sort our fleeces by quality. We then bag it. We'll ship it to a woolen mill in New Mexico in the next month. The wool is only worth about 60-70 cents per pound. We all need to wear more wool!

While the ewes are being shorn, we put the lambs through a footbath to help cure the feet problems we have. Because they are separated from their mothers, they are quite vocal. It's a pretty loud process!

This year, we had a great crew! Our interns, Courtney and Julie, helped the entire day. Our girls, Emma and Lara, also helped, as did our friend Roger. It's hard work, but it's incredibly enjoyable when it's done with friends. I guess I like the process of working together with people I enjoy to accomplish a large task! Shearing also marks the passage from spring (and lambing season) to summer (and irrigation season) - it's one of the milestones of every year!

Monday, April 20, 2009


My friend Allen Edwards and I just returned from the 30th (I think) annual Small Farmer's Journal Horsedrawn Auction and Swap Meet (this year held in Madras, Oregon). My youngest daughter, Emma, went with us. We all had a wonderfully enjoyable, inspirational and educational time. The entire trip reinforced the idea that community is not necessarily defined by geographic proximity.

As a group, the farmers that came to the auction were a very optimistic bunch, despite the uncertain economy. We talked to a couple from Walla Walla, WA, who operated a market garden using horses for their traction. We spoke with a woman from northern Washington who operated a 20-member CSA and raised Icelandic sheep. We met a farmer and entrepreneur from Tennessee who had imported treadle-powered threshing machines from China. We reconnected with our friends from Midwest Leather - harness makers who recently moved from California to Utah.

On the first day, Emma connected with a group of kids her age - they had great fun playing on the grass near the equipment that was being sold. The rest of the weekend, these kids played together, which gave us parents a chance to meet one another. Among the folks I met was a man about my age who grew hay (with horses) part-time. We talked about trying to farm full-time. For both of us, it was important not only as a way to make a living, but also as an example for our kids. We both want our children to learn the skills that we have (especially related to using horses and mules). We also both want our kids to see that we're doing something we love - even if it means making less money.

While I try to be fully engaged in the community in which I live, this wider community of smaller-scale "alternative" farmers is also important to me. I came home energized and excited to get busy with our summer work!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


April seems to be a month of preparation - we're getting ready to begin irrigating our finishing pastures, we're getting ready to shear our flock, and we're getting ready to plant vegetables. It's the beginning of our truly busy time!

To prepare for shearing, we do a number of things. First, we move the ewes and their lambs to a property where we have electricity (necessary to power the shears). This means 7 trips from Lincoln to Auburn - a very busy day! The ewes are used to the trailer, but the lambs are not - they take some convincing. Thank goodness I have a good dog and lots of friends and interns! This past Monday, we moved all 120 ewes to Auburn. On Tuesday, I moved several ewes and ewe lambs, and today, I moved the rest of our ewe lambs to Thompson Ranch. Next week, we'll set up shearing pens and our corrals. On Saturday, our shearer will be here to shear the sheep.

Irrigation season is also an intense time, but it lasts for 6 months. Once we start irrigating next week, we'll be moving sprinklers twice a day, 7 days a week, until mid October. We'll spend 3-4 hours each day making sure the grass is watered and growing. By October 15, we'll be looking forward to a break!

While these seasonal tasks take time, we're also continuing the ongoing work of preparing next fall's firewood. Firewood must be "seasoned" or dried, to burn well, so we're cutting and splitting next year's wood now. We generally spend every Wednesday at Edwards Family Farm in Colfax skidding logs, cutting wood and splitting the rounds. It's a nice change of pace from our other work.

I enjoy the seasonal nature of my work - there's always something to do, but that "something" is always changing. Variety keeps me interested!

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Wrong Question

An article in today's Sacramento Bee discussed a new report from the Centers for Disease Control. The subtitle to the article was "CDC says system wasn't designed for globalism." The story discussed the recent salmonella outbreaks in pistachios and peanuts and suggested that our entire food safety bureaucracy needs to be updated to deal with a global food system.

I wonder if we're dealing with the wrong question. Do we need a food safety framework that recognizes the global food system as a legitimate method of food production, or do we need a food production system that recognizes the limits of our food safety system and focuses more on local production.

Make no mistake - I strongly believe that food safety regulations are important. Where I differ from the assumptions made by the CDC, I guess, is in the acceptance of global production as the norm. Maybe if we all ate more locally, we wouldn't be faced with the food safety issues that are so problematic. Perhaps if we knew the farmers and ranchers that produced the food we eat, we'd have a safer and more secure food supply.

I realize that some of this is wishful thinking - some communities and regions may not be able to grow their own food supply. But adjusting our food safety system to accept the problems inherent in shipping food around the world seems to me to be the wrong approach.

I'm very interested in hearing from others on this subject!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


The domestication of animals is an interesting topic. Thousands of years of selecting for specific traits have created the livestock breeds we know today.

The various sheep breeds that we have have been an interesting study in this selection process. We have a handful of Border Cheviot sheep. This breed was originally developed in Scotland. They are known as flighty sheep, but this trait was actually bred into them as a response to predator problems. Border Cheviot lambs literally hit the ground running - they generally are able to get to their feet and begin nursing much faster than other breeds.

Several weeks ago, we had a great illustration of this trait. I'd been watching a Border Cheviot ewe who was taking her own sweet time delivering a lamb. After watching her not making any progress for nearly an hour, I decided to give her about 15 more minutes (while I moved a section of fence). During that 15 minutes, she delivered the lamb and cleaned it. By the time I returned, it was already nursing and was so vigorous that it was difficult to catch.

Our Friesian dairy ewe, Yola, is an interesting contrast. In the short time she's been here, she's adapted to a new routine of being milked in the evening. We recently started putting her out on pasture during the day, which means we have to catch her amongst the rest of the sheep to bring her in for milking. While we can't catch the other sheep this way, she waits for us to come out with the halter. Centuries of selection for docility and milking ability have resulted in a breed that enjoys human contact.

Wendell Berry talks about the powers of observation that are necessary to select for specific traits. With our meat flock, we're trying to select sheep that can lamb on their own in pasture, that are resistant to parasites and footrot, and that produce high-quality meat on grass. Over the course of my life, I'll probably have 25-30 years to observe and improve my flock. What a fun project!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why Grass-fed?

As most readers of this blog probably know by now, Flying Mule Farm is committed to producing grass-fed meat. While grass-fed is certainly a buzzword in "foodie" circles, our reasons for producing grass-fed meat run far deeper than a marketing trend.

Ruminants (like sheep, cows and goats) are designed physiologically to convert cellulose (e.g., grass, brush, etc.) into muscle, fiber and milk. The bacteria in a sheep's four stomach compartments are able to convert plant material into essential amino acids. Our human digestive systems lack this capacity. Ruminants are able to harvest plants (which in turn harvest solar energy) and turn these plants into products that feed and cloth us. In many ways, I find this to be a miraculous relationship.

Some producers feed their animals grain to speed the growing process along. Grain provides additional energy and protein, which allow animals to gain weight faster or to produce more milk. However, the chemistry of a ruminant's digestive tract must change to handle this more concentrated diet. This chemistry changes the nutritional composition of the meat and milk produced by the animal. To summarize, grass-fed meats and milk products have a more favorable Omega-3 to Omega-6 ration and have higher levels of beta-carotene and conjugated linoleic acid. These nutritional benefits are related to heart health and cancer prevention.

Some producers use the terms "pasture-raised" or "free-range" to provide their production systems. In some cases, this is a way to say the animals have access to pasture while they are being fed grain. We use the term "grass-fed" to indicate that our lambs, goats and cattle are fed nothing but grass.

We do this for several reasons. First, we feel that relying on grass (which grows well here in our region of Placer County - provided we get enough rainfall) is a more sustainable model than importing or growing grain. Second, we feel that the health benefits from purely grass-fed meats are substantial. Finally (and equally important as the first two reasons), we think grass-fed meat tastes better!