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Showing posts from March, 2009


My border collie, Taff, is my pal. While he would be happy just hanging out with me all day every day, he's happiest on the days he gets to work. He's one of the most loyal canine friends I've ever had.

We've had Taff for almost 2 years. We purchased him through our friend Ellen Skillings, who is an amazing handler and breeder of border collies. While Taff was not a successful sheep dog trial dog, the attributes that contributed to this lack of success have made him a wonderful farm dog. I couldn't imagine managing sheep and cows without him now!

When Taff first came to live with us, he was very stand-offish with the rest of my family. He followed me everywhere, but he wouldn't work for anyone else. As he's realized that he's here to stay, he's bonded with everyone (especially our youngest daughter, Emma). He'll work for other members of our family now, too.

Taff has helped me realize that the "mistakes" he makes are generally mine - I ge…

The Intern Blog - Poop Happens (by Jason da Cunha)

The last time I was involved in an internship, I was 23 years old and about to graduate from college. Back then it was a time for fun, creativity and self-discovery. It seems I have now come full circle.

After successful careers in non-profit event planning and fundraising, wedding and event video production, graphic and web design, and marketing in commercial real estate, I now find myself starting over once again. This time, the focus is on something that is near and dear to both my heart and stomach….FOOD!

I did not know what direction my fascination for the food that I eat and serve my family would take, but I thought the weekly visit to my local farmer’s market was a good place to start. During my visits, I became fascinated with the farmers who grew food for our local community. I wanted to know what it was like to grow what I would eventually eat. More importantly, I hoped to have a hand in growing it. In a happy meeting of desire and need, Dan Macon and I met. Through several co…

The Intern Blog - Sheep's Milk Epiphany (by Courtney McDonald)

As mentioned in Dan’s earlier blog, last week Yola the Friesian ewe came to live at Flying Mule Farm. Since I own half of her, we are splitting the milking duties.

Growing up, one of my chores was to milk the goats every morning. This was largely the family’s sole source of milk. Most of the time it was unpasteurized. To my sister, my brother and I it was just the milk we drank every day.

Since starting my internship with Flying Mule Farm my old milking days have come in handy. It’s like riding a bike…you don’t forget the hand motion. I had always enjoyed my milking duties as a kid, but now I understand a lot more about what the milk is and what can be done with it. It’s a special privilege to have a steady supply of beautiful, raw sheep’s milk at hand. We have been storing the fresh milk in sterilized glass bottles, and the viscosity of the cold milk against the clear glass is pretty amazing.

For making cheese, the yield is much greater than that of both cow’s and goat’s milk…

Sheep at the White House

Thought you might all enjoy this photo! Sheep grazed on the White House lawn during the Wilson administration. More ammo for my goal to replace all lawn mowers with four-legged grass harvesters!

Smelling the Grass Grow

As the days have warmed up, the grass that we depend on for our livelihood has really started to take off! Pastures that were taking 60 or even 90 days to regrow after we grazed them are now ready to graze again in 20 or 25 days. Where our challenge in January was to find grass, our challenge now is to stay ahead of the grass growth. It's a great problem to have!
I used to say that the grass was so green this time of year that it hurt my eyes to look at it. This year, I've decided that rapidly growing grass has a distinctive scent. It is similar to the smell of a freshly mowed lawn, but fainter. It's clearly one of the many fragrances of spring!
Grazing animals and pasture plants have a symbiotic relationship. I've noticed in the fall that a grazed pasture seems to start growing more rapidly after the first rain than a mowed pasture. This time of year, a grazed pasture seems to regrow more quickly than a mowed pasture. Scientifically, I imagine it has something to do wit…

Yola the Ewe

Last Friday, a Friesian ewe named Yola came to live at our farm. Friesian sheep come from the region of Friesland (where Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium come together). Friesan sheep (like the Holstein or Friesian cow) are dairy sheep. We purchased her in partnership with one of our interns, Courtney.
Yola gives about 7/8 of a gallon of milk each day. While we weren't sure we needed one more daily chore, so far the milking hasn't been too bad (mostly because Courtney has been doing it!). All joking aside, we're excited to be taking on a new project.
The milk is incredible. We're raising several bottle lambs, so we've used her milk instead of buying milk replacer. Even more exciting, Courtney has started making cheese. We sampled her first batch of sheep's milk ricotta cheese yesterday - it was unbelievably good. We have plans to make ice cream, other types of cheese, and yogurt. We're also anxious to use the milk in it's fluid form - it's amazin…

The Intern Blog - Firsts (by Courtney McDonald)

For me, the past month has been filled with firsts. During the first month of my internship with Flying Mule Farm, I milked a sheep who had lost her babies, helped move portable electric fencing in the rain, met a real live mule, got stuck in the mud, learned to use a hydraulic splitter to cut firewood, worked at the Auburn farmers market, and learned how to build a permanent electric fence. I learned more at an agricultural commission meeting than I ever thought was possible - that’s without even understanding three quarters of what was being discussed.

Now in the middle of my fifth week, some of the pieces are starting to fall into place. More and more I have begun to understand how everything I have seen over the weeks relates to everything else. As I repeat certain tasks and hear certain terms over and over again, I have become a little more comfortable with the jargon of farming.

I also feel quite fortunate to have met some extraordinary people so far. For the first time, I ha…

Riverhill Farm CSA

Our friends at Riverhill Farm (Alan and Jo) in Nevada City operate a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm. This year, they are selling 180 subscriptions. Each week for 20 weeks, beginning in June, their subscribers will receive a box full of fresh vegetables and fruit. They have a spectacular farm and grow some amazing produce. Check them out at

This year, Riverhill Farm is also adding a meat option for their customers. We're excited to be part of this (along with Brad and Alona Fowler, who raise pastured poultry, and Coffee Pot Ranch, who produce pork). We're offering a half of a lamb for a share price of $150. Every three weeks during Riverhill's main CSA season, our subscribers will receive a delivery of our grass-fed lamb. We'll alternate with the Fowlers and with Coffee Pot Ranch.

As local growers who direct market, we have a choice about how we view other local farmers. We can choose to view them as competition, or we c…


Wendell Berry believes that farms should be of a size that one family can care for the land, the crops and the animals it includes. On Sunday, we met the Mentz family in Sheridan. They raise dairy sheep (just a handful of ewes). Earl Mentz said something that seems more profound the more I consider it - he said, "Don't have more sheep than you can handle - that's a different number for different people, but don't have too many sheep."

Scale of operation is an interesting consideration. For us, I've determined that I need to market between 400 and 500 lambs each year to be an economically sustainable operation. This means we need between 300 and 350 ewes. Based on my experience so far, I think I can care for this many sheep by myself or with the help of my family and my interns. I can also build to this number without a huge capital investment.

The challenge in terms of scale is in part related to the time it will take me to market 4-500 lambs (as I've menti…


Despite what the calendar tells us, spring seems to have arrived! I'm sure we'll get more winter weather (at least I hope we will), but the days are growing longer, and the grass is starting to grow!
As "grass-farmers," we rely on Mother Nature's ability to produce grass and other forages for our livestock. Rather than invest in machinery to harvest this "crop," we also rely on four-legged harvesters (sheep and cows) to convert this crop into meat, wool and milk.
This time of year, we move our animals frequently to keep up with the grass growth. In March and April (provided we've had enough rain), we can regraze our pastures in 25 days or less (this means that the grass will regrow in less than a month). If you mow your lawn, you'll know that your grass grows quicker this time of year!
In a month, we'll start irrigating. In the meantime, we hope that we get enough later winter and early spring rainfall to keep the soil adequately moist. In ot…

Good Fences

We hosted a fencing workshop today as part of the spring series of Sierra Nevada Small Farm Progress Days. Under the leadership of Roger Ingram, our farm advisor, and Brad Fowler from LiveWire Products, we built 1/2 mile of electric fence at the Doty Ravine Preserve in Lincoln. This fence will help us manage the cows and sheep more effectively - improving our pastures and benefiting the animals.
This was the first permanent electric fence I've constructed, and I learned a great deal. It was also a great chance to work together - physical work is always more enjoyable when it's shared.
After the workshop, we (Roger, Courtney and I) moved the ewes and lambs. It's always a kick to see young lambs move into new pasture, especially when there's high terrain. The lambs love to play "king of the hill," which is hilarious to watch.

We have more Small Farm Progress Days workshops scheduled:

Vegetable Field Day - March 27 (The Natural Trading Company - Newcastle)
Orchard Fi…


Once more, we've had an exceptionally busy week - as the days get long, thins seem to grow busier! Here's a sampling:

Sunday - we sorted off 6 finished lambs for processing and treated the feet of the rest of the lambs. We also moved the lambing ewes and sorted off a ram and two ewes that had lost their lambs. We'll take them to the sale next week.

Monday - we took 30 lambs to Dixon for processing Monday morning. On our return trip, we stopped to take care of the lambs that were born overnight. We also moved the feeder lambs and moved the cows in Lincoln. Later that afternoon, we returned to Lincoln to fill water troughs. Monday evening I had an Agricultural Commission meeting.

Tuesday - Following the Roseville Farmer's Market (8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.) I moved the ewes and processed new lambs in Lincoln and then laid out two new fencelines. That evening I had a Foothill Farmer's Market Association board meeting.

Wednesday - Roger Ingram, Courtney McDonald and I …


I purchased Cali, a sorrel quarter horse, in 1988, while I was still in college at UC Davis - she was not quite 4 years old and green-broke. Sami, my future wife, agreed to date me because I had a horse. Between the two of us, we bumbled through Cali's training - she became much more than a green horse.

After college, I went to work for the California Cattlemen's Association. Through the friends I made in that job, I had the chance to gather cows, brand calves and go on pack trips in the Sierra with Cali. Despite my inexperience in these activities, Cali became an incredibly trustworthy horse. She became my pal.

My Mom had never ridden a horse. When we lived in Penryn, I convinced her to try it. Cali took great care of her!

The last time I rode Cali, my daughter Lara and I rode through our ranch and a neighboring ranch to look for a bull that had disappeared. Even though Cali had developed navicular disease (a degenerative condition in the lower front legs), she loyally carried m…

The Intern Blog - A New Perspective (by Courtney McDonald)

Coming from the very fast-paced, isolated world of the professional chef, I am enjoying each day of being an intern at Flying Mule Farm. One of my responsibilities as an intern has been to help work the Auburn Farmers Markets on Saturdays. Being on the “other side” of the market stall has certainly broadened my perspective. As chefs, we are separated from most direct contact with our customers. They are a faceless group. It is only every once in a while that someone might peek their head into the kitchen to yell a compliment (or complaint) over the noise of the dishwasher. This is, most of the time, as much as we connect with them. Not because we like it this way, but because it tends to be the nature of the restaurant business.

Being at the market has been a wonderful opportunity to have real dialog with customers. Most of the time they are loyal followers of Flying Mule Farm products who come to the market every week to buy lamb or goat. Sometimes they are customers from th…


Farming, like most avocations, is a culture as well as a job. Each type and scale of farming is a subset of this culture, with certain traditions and "rules" of behavior. Many of these traditions are directly related with the cycles of the year.

Yesterday, we held the first of this spring's 5 Sierra Nevada Small Farm Progress Days. It was a vineyard field day at Vina Castellano in Auburn - a beautiful setting. One of the instructors, Glenn McGourty (who is a farm advisory from Mendocino County), talked about the culture of growing winegrapes. As he was showing us about pruning grapevines, he talked about the annual cycle of production. Most of us who farm are worn out, both mentally and physically, by autumn. Come spring-time, however, we're rejuvenated. He talked about the shared work of pruning being a time of renewal. On the small-scale "peasant" vineyards of Europe, pruning is a time that neighbors work together and look forward to the coming ye…

What a great day!

I love what I do for a living, but I must admit that there are many days where things do go exactly as planned. I think it's part of working with living systems - animals, weather and other factors create lots of variability from one day to the next. Every so often, however, I have a day that goes better than I expected. Yesterday was one of those days!

After so much rain (we've measured more rain in the first 4 days of March that we measured in March and April combined in 2007 and 2008), I enjoyed yesterday's sunshine immensely (as did the sheep). When I arrived at the ranch yesterday morning, I discovered a ewe that was having difficulty lambing - the lamb's head had appeared, but I didn't see either front leg. Reaching inside the ewe, I found one leg, but the other was pulled back, which can create problems for both the lamb and the ewe. However, timing my pull with the ewe's contractions, I was able to deliver the lamb. He took his first breath, and I left h…

Farms and Community

When I was a kid, I used to go to town with my Dad on Saturdays. We'd run errands (which usually involved going to the feed store and/or the hardware store), and we'd usually run into someone my Dad knew (Sonora was a small town). I seem to remember that these trips included a number of conversations with friends. Sonora, where I grew up, was still rural and largely agricultural (ranching and timber were the main resource-based economic activities)

Moving forward 35 years, Sonora has changed (as has Auburn, where my family now lives). Life seems much faster paced. I've talked to old-time farm families in both towns who no longer feel connected with the rest of the community. Trips to town don't seem to include nearly so many conversations. The folks they see in town don't share a common interest in farming.

By contrast, I consider myself extremely lucky. As a farmer, I spend every Saturday morning among a community of my peers. I also get to see many of my f…

Highs and Lows

This was a day of highs and lows. We started the day by hosting a field trip of farmers and other folks as part of the California Small Farm Conference. Despite the driving rain, we had a great discussion about pasture management, pasture lambing and marketing. Following the stop at the Doty Ravine Preserve (where we have our sheep), we went to Coffee Pot Ranch in Sheridan. While the participants toured the ranch, I cooked our lamb, Coffee Pot's pork and High Sierra Beef's meat - it was a great lunch! The tour was definitely one of the high points of the day!

The low point came in a phone call from Placer County Animal Control. We had moved the sheep to a paddock near Gladding Road. Someone had driven by and called Animal Control to complain that the sheep needed shelter and more feed. While Animal Control was very helpful, I find it frustrating that people with no knowledge of livestock production assume that they know what's best for animals. I realize that folks…

Placer Ag Futures Project

In the fall of 2007, a group of farmers and ranchers gathered in Auburn to discuss their vision for Placer County agriculture in the next 30 years. Out of this meeting, the Placer County Ag Futures Project was born. We developed the following vision for the next 30 years of agriculture in Placer County:

Placer County will have a vibrant and diverse farming community that is fully integrated into the larger community. As demand for local products continues to increase, we will be more self-sufficient in terms of our food and fiber supply and in terms of our agricultural infrastructure. Most importantly, the effort to bring this vision to reality will be led by farmers and ranchers.

To achieve this mission, we have established the following goals:

Outreach and Education
A successful farming community is a profitable and productive farming community. In addition, we need a new generation of farmers to carry Placer County agriculture into the next 30 years. To address these needs, we are cre…