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Showing posts from February, 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 Atl…

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…

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 t…

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 commerci…

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 g…

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 - th…


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…

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 scal…

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 (…