Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Midsummer Break

We just returned home from a wonderful (and much needed) camping trip on the Stanislaus River. I grew up camping on the Stanislaus, and our girls are doing the same. It was a quick trip (Friday-Monday), but we ate wonderful food, caught up with great friends, caught (and ate) native trout, and generally unwound. I'm ready to go again.

We stayed longer than normal this year, thanks to our outstanding interns (Julie and Courtney). They took care of things here at home - moved water, moved sheep, etc. Thanks to them, we were able to totally get away!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tahoe City Cooking Demonstration

My friend Anne Chadwick took some amazing photos of a cooking demonstration and talk that our intern Courtney McDonald and I did in Tahoe City. The recipe for our lamb kabobs is on our website at http://www.flyingmulefarm.com/.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Mondays are hectic days, no matter what you do for a living, I suppose. For us, Mondays seem to be especially busy, partly because we have a full compliment of interns on Mondays. Take yesterday, for example:

My day started out by running to Auburn Equestrian Center (AEC), where we are contract grazing sheep and goats to control blackberries and thistles. Our guard dog, Boise, had jumped out of the paddock during the night. On my way to get him back in, I touched bases with two of our interns, Julie and Courtney, to begin lining out the day.

As Julie and I built a new paddock at AEC, Courtney moved irrigation water at Thompson Ranch. We each finished these tasks by about 8:30 a.m., so we decided to meet at Belair market to research beef cuts and prices (we've started marketing grass-fed beef). After our field trip, we went back to Thompson Ranch to meet our third intern Jason. A brief meeting organized the remainder of our day.

Jason and Julie checked on the rest of the sheep - they moved lambs at a neighboring property and fed Buck the guard dog. They then went to Canyonview (where we have another contract grazing project) and fed Duke the guard dog. Then it was back to the house to inventory our meat supply for the rest of the week, and on to Roseville Meat to organize the rest of our meat inventory and to bring back meat for the Roseville, Tahoe City and Truckee farmer's markets. Julie and Jason were finished by early afternoon.

Courtney and I went up to Colfax to process and deliver firewood. We loaded a half cord of Douglas fir, which I delivered to customers in Meadow Vista. We also cut and split a cord of oak, which I'll deliver to the same customers later this week.

By 5 p.m. (when most sane people are off work), we were back at Thompson Ranch to do the afternoon irrigation moves. After finishing this project shortly after 6, Courtney came to the house to milk our dairy ewe, while Julie stopped by AEC to check on things there. I cleaned up and headed to my Placer County Agricultural Commission meeting (as did Julie). I finally got to eat dinner at about 9 p.m.

Like most small-scale farmers, I find that I tend to completely fill the daylight hours this time of year. I always seem to reach a point in July where I'm exhausted. By the end of the month, fall (and the close of the irrigation season) will seem close enough that I get a second wind. I hope it comes soon!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tales from the Rainmaker (the intern blog by Julie House)

Recently, I was mocked at Thompson Ranch, by someone trying to make conversation about how, she was very happy that she was not moving pipe. Yet this is one of my favorite jobs and I am not sure why, except for that it keeps my imagination working. I imagine being in a Strong Man competition hiking uphill carrying 2 times 30 feet of aluminum pipe, trying to beat out the competition. Or the fact that I just prefer to do the most difficult moves first, saving the easiest for last. Or the fact that you never know what will happen as metal pieces fly into the air on towers of water.
Mostly, I try to realize that this, one of the simplest yet most difficult jobs we do often goes wrong, and what how would I solve the problems if no one was out their with me, as we move several cubic inches of water being forced by gravity in order to come out of a sprinkler head at many gallons per minute.
Recently, I began thinking about what happened 100 years ago before, aluminum pipe and irrigation districts. One of the wonders of agriculture is that it has thousands of years of history prior to today, of people working with nature to harvest each year enough food to make it into the next. And yet today, we try to manipulate nature to give us tomatoes in January and Lambs in July. Trying to explain to customers how our lambs that were born in the spring are not fat enough is just not what the typical American can comprehend.
We continue to try our best to keep the ground moist in the region that we live all summer long. I think that finally we have taught some people that tomatoes don’t grow naturally in the cold. Soon they might be able to understand the seasons, as people used to in the past, and we will start to crave the shanks stewing on the stovetop, but we know that it is too hot outside to braise, yet soon enough it will be cool again and the rain will make itself.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Lara, our oldest daughter, worked her border collie tonight. Mo is about 1-1/2 years old, and Lara has been working him for about a year now. Our friend Ellen Skillings bred Mo, and she's been helping Lara with his training.

For several years, we tried getting free border collies to help us with our sheep. In every case, the dog didn't have the instinct for herding. Mo is the exact opposite - he was sired by a top level working dog, and his mother (Ellen's Emmer) is also a top-flight dog. Mo's genetic foundation shows in his intelligence, his work ethic and his ability.

Ellen has taught us to start a pup by encouraging him to go around sheep. The commands come later. A border collie has to know how to do five basic things - go left, go right, walk up on stock, stop and remain focused on the stock, and come off stock. As with horses, it's important to shape the motion of the dog to the commands - a dog that won't go around stock can't be trained easily.

Mo has tremendous instinct - he's wanted to go around sheep since he was very young. Tonight, Lara added the flank commands (come bye for going left and away to me for right). Mo picked them up immediately.

Instinct is an interesting trait. In many ways, humans have lost the ability to trust our instincts - we think too much. Watching Mo (and Lara) reminds me to trust my own instinct - my "gut feelings" are usually correct if I'll just pay attention!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Farming in Public

Since we rely on mostly rented pasture land for our sheep operation, we often find ourselves farming in public; that is, we're often pasturing sheep adjacent to public roads or other public areas. In many respects this is a great opportunity to educate our community about what we do. I'm continuously struck by how few people have any direct connection with animal agriculture. By the same token, farming in public can create additional stress when this lack of knowledge manifests itself in a negative manner.

This morning, the girls and I moved sheep and goats onto an overgrown area at Auburn Equestrian Center here in Auburn. We'll be using the livestock to remove blackberries, thistles, and other unwanted vegetation. The owners and many of the visitors to Auburn Equestrian Center were thrilled to have sheep and goats on the property, and several folks stopped to find out more about what we were doing. In this case, farming in public created an opportunity for us to connect with our community in an educational setting.

Some people, however, assume that we're out to abuse our animals - they think it's too hot or too cold for the sheep, too wet for the guard dogs, too sunny for everyone. In some cases, these people are well-meaning, and they are more than willing to learn about our production system and about our care for our animals. In other cases, I'm not sure folks are well-meaning. I find this group to be terribly frustrating.

Farming in an urbanizing community has positive and negative aspects to it. On the positive side of the ledger, I have access to a tremendous market that doesn't exist in more remote areas. I have neighbors and customers who value what I do, in part (I believe) because it's done in the public eye. On the negative side of the equation, the misguided (in my mind) criticism adds stress to my job. There are days that I wish I ran sheep in the middle of northern Nevada.