Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sheep on the Road

We moved about 140 lambs to another property just down the road in Auburn yesterday. To move them, we had two options: we could take 4-5 trailer loads of lambs at 2 miles per round trip, or we could walk them through one of our pastures at Thompson Ranch, onto Mt. Vernon Road, and into the new pasture (a walk of about 1 mile). We opted for walking them.

Surprisingly, the county road department was easy to work with - it turns out that there is currently no restriction on driving livestock on a county road provided they don't stray onto adjacent properties. Since we only had to use about 100 yards of Mt. Vernon Road, we didn't think we'd impact traffic too severely.

Our interns, Julie and Courtney, stopped traffic as we came onto the road. By the time we reached the road, Taff (our border collie) was pretty tired, but he gamely kept the sheep moving (along with Roger Ingram, our friend and local farm advisor). The sheep were on the road for less than two minutes.

The response of drivers who had to wait (or chose not to) was typical of the changes to our once-rural community. Several drivers were very patient, and one woman even got out of her car to help us turn the sheep into the lane. When I thanked her, she said, "I wouldn't miss this for the world!" On the other hand, several drivers decided they couldn't wait and whipped around Courtney to continue on their way. Fortunately, they didn't endanger our animals or themselves with their impatience.

My friend Bob Wiswell, whose family has raised sheep and cattle in Lincoln for several generations, tells stories about walking sheep from the home ranch up to a Forest Service grazing allotment beyond Foresthill - a walk of several days. While those days are lost to "progress," we enjoyed getting a small taste yesterday. Unfortunately, I don't have any photos to share - we were all to busy to snap pictures!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Thank Goodness Sheep Don't Read!

Most of the grazing and animal behavior text books that I've read suggest that goats will eat brush and blackberries, while sheep will eat grass and broadleaf weeds. We've just placed a flock of 67 sheep and 13 goats on an Auburn property owned by the Placer Land Trust, and I'm pleased to report that our sheep can't read.

The Placer Land Trust hired us to control invasive plants and reduce fire danger on it's Canyonview Preserve in Auburn. The property is north of I-80 near the Canyonview subdivision and directly downslope from a professional building (see photos). The first paddock was about 1/2 acre of blackberries, thistles, dry grass and live oak. The flock polished off the vegetation in about 28 hours. The next paddock included poison oak and scotch broom, along with blackberries - again, they demolished the undesirable plants. Today (day 3), we moved them into more blackberries and dry grass (including a small burr, which the sheep love).

Our sheep obviously have not read the text books! They love all of the vegetation and are nearly as agressive with the brush as the goats are. The goats are more apt to climb, which means they will remove more of the higher vegetation, but we're really liking the combination of the two species.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Whole Lamb (the intern blog by Courtney McDonald

Last Sunday I was fortunate enough to drop by while Dan and Roger Ingram were grilling two whole baby lambs over an oak fire for a special event. I was only bringing cutting boards, but ended up staying long enough for a beer and a taste of lamb.

The lambs were splayed out, skin-side up to lay flat. They cooked this way for about two hours, and then were flipped over for another hour. Dan and Roger had rubbed the lambs all over with a mixture of kosher salt and fresh garlic, mixed to a dry paste, and were basting the lambs with lemon juice and water from a spray bottle. This “asada-style” method was inspired by Roger’s trip to Argentina.

The borrowed grill had been custom made - a standard tow trailer with a grill grate suspended over the bed. A hand-cranked cable allowed the grill to be adjusted up or down. It was the perfect size for two baby lambs, one on each side of the support pole in the center. A pretty cool contraption, topped off with flames painted on the sides.

I’ve never cooked a lamb whole, but as an observer last Sunday, I almost wouldn’t want to cook lamb any other way. Each cut of meat, left in place on the carcass to cook all together, was amazingly tender and juicy. The neck, shoulder and shank meats were falling off the bone, as was (of course) the loin, rib and tenderloin. And it had all cooked the same amount of time. It was as if Mother Nature planned for this lamb to be cooked whole, and arranged the parts to cook perfectly this way. At least that was what I what I was thinking when, after the lambs were turned skin-side down, pools of steaming juices were collecting in between the skin and the meat and slowly bubbling around the carcass joints, melting away any remaining connective tissue and adding extra flavor and moisture at the same time.
My favorite part of the whole lamb was the skin. Perfectly rendered of excess fat, beautifully flavored from the light smoke of the grill, well seasoned, golden brown and crispy - it was like the best part of Thanksgiving turkey!

For photos of the event, check out http://www.placercountysinseasoncookbook.com/gallery/Whats_for_DInner_june_21_09/index.html

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Child Labor

About 12 years ago, I had the chance to travel to the Dominican Republic with a group of 29 other agriculturists. We visited a cigar factory, and were astounded to see children as young as 10 and 11 working along side their parents rolling cigars. After thinking it through, however, most of us remembered times that we worked with our parents - not in a factory, but certainly in a farming situation. We realized that "child labor" provided us with examples of how to work and gave us a chance to spend time with our parents. While I can't condone the type of sweatshop work we saw in Santo Domingo, my own experience of working with my parents was wonderful. That work is part of who I am today.

Over the last two days, our youngest daughter, Emma, went to work with me. Emma loves to help, and yesterday, she spent part of the morning rolling rounds of firewood to me to split. Today, I told her I'd pay her to help me load boxes of campfire wood for the farmer's markets, which added more motivation. Even at 5 (or nearly 6, as she reminded me), she started to anticipate the work that needed to be done. At one point, she started bringing armloads of kindling to add to the boxes all on her own. For a dad, she was amazing to watch.

I think that families that work together and enjoy each other's company begin to anticipate what needs to be done with little or no verbal communication. I remember working with my Dad that way, and it's incredibly rewarding to see that seed begin to germinate in my own kids. I am so fortunate to do work that can include them both in meaningful work. What a father's day gift!

Friday, June 12, 2009

The garden is in - finally!

In years past, we've always grown vegetables to sell at the farmer's market, along with our grass-fed meat. This year, we've decided that the sheep and firewood enterprises are our most profitable, so we didn't dedicate the time to planting a market garden. As a result, I've put off getting our family garden planted - too much going on.

Last night, however, Emma and I planted our sweet corn, summer squash, Swiss chard, string beans and radishes. Better late than never! Once again this year, I prepared the entire garden with mule power - no fossil fuels were harmed in the preparation of our garden!

Despite my education and experience, the germination of a seed is still somewhat miraculous to me. I place a seemingly lifeless object into the soil, add water, and wait. in 3-4 days, we'll see radish plants emerging. In 7-10 days, we'll see the beans, corn and squash coming up. In 75 days, we'll be eating Silver Queen sweet corn!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Next Generation of Farmers

The average age of a farmer in Placer County is 57+ - more than two-thirds of the farmers in our county are older than 65, while less than 5% are younger than 35. We seemed to have lost an entire generation to other professions.

Many factors have contributed to these demographics - the cost of land, lack of capital, the difficulty of the work involved, and low income from farming (among other things) are all part of the problem.

Our children, who are 11 and 5, participate daily in our farming operation. Both girls have their own small flocks of sheep. Both girls help take care of Yola, our dairy ewe. Emma cares for chickens and ducks as well.

While we've definitely sparked their interest in agriculture, I worry about the example I may be setting for them. The scale at which we are currently farming requires a great deal of work but does not generate enough revenue to justify hiring any help. Even with our 3 wonderful interns, I'm working 80-90 hours each week at the moment. Here's my worry: I am concerned that our kids will only see our farm as endless work at low pay for their father. Looking at farming through their eyes, I can't see why they'd choose it as a career. I've talked to other small-scale, full-time farmers who have similar worries.

So how do we deal with this problem? Do we need to achieve sufficient scale (and income levels) to hire help? Are there ways to be more efficient with our time? I'm very interested in what others might see as solutions!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Summer Storms

I used to think the phrase "when I was a kid" was something that only a really old person used, but last night I used it with our girls. At about 9:30 last night, we had a thunderstorm like we used to have "when I was a kid" in Sonora. The sky lit up with lightning, the wind kicked up, and we had about a 1/2 inch of rain. What a treat!

Summer thunderstorms in our part of the world can be fun, exciting and/or scary - sometimes all at once. They are fun because it's a treat to get rain during the dry season - the rain cleans everything and makes the outdoors smell good. They are exciting because of the noise and light - we talked about them being nature's fireworks last night. Finally, they are scary when they lack enough rain to counteract the fire-starting potential of the lightning. The worst wildfires "when I was a kid" were do to dry lightning storms.

From a ranching and farming perspective, summer thunderstorms have good points and bad points, too. Last night's rain will help the irrigated pastures we graze, but it will also leach the nutrients out of the dry grass we're saving for fall and winter. Tree fruit farmers are always worried about hail this time of year - a hailstorm can wipe out an entire crop. Hay growers (and those of us that depend on hay) worry about cut hay getting wet before it's baled (which can make the hay moldy). Timberland owners are obviously worried about the fire-producing potential of lightning storms.

As a farmer, I'm both a spectator and a participant when it comes to weather. I love watching storms! Generally, I also love working in all kinds of weather (provided I'm prepared for it). Sounds like we'll have more of the same over the next 3-4 days - just like "when I was kid."