Saturday, February 27, 2010


Today was an interesting day.  I woke up to rain and the feeling that I should be looking after my sheep and goats rather than going to the farmer's market.  Fortunately, Courtney was able to check on the new lambs and goats while I went to the market - almost like being in two places at one time!

Despite the rainy weather, the market was successful.  I feel like I owe it to the customers who are dedicated enough to come to the market rain or shine to be there myself!  I'm amazed at the numbers of people that come every Saturday regardless of the weather!

During the market, Courtney called to report that we were missing one lamb (out of more than 120) and that we'd lost a few goat kids due to their mothers' lack of maternal instincts.  Carol Arnold, my friend and the general manager of the Foothill Farmer's Market Association, overhead the conversation and asked me if losing lambs and kids bothers me.  It does.  Even though I can accept death as a part of my livelihood, it bothers me.  I agonize over management decisions this time of year - decisions that have implications for the well-being of my animals.  I love lambing and kidding season, but this is an emotionally stressful time of year as well.  I often have trouble sleeping because I worry about my animals.  I guess that's part of dedication, too.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Life and Death

Lambing season is a time of new life on our farm - so far, we have 110 new lambs and 9 new goats born since mid January.  Last evening, I watched a ewe deliver twins.  As she delivered the second ram lamb, she continued to clean the firstborn lamb.  I've told our interns that I could tell whether the ewes had started lambing in the dark just by the sound they make to call to their newborns.  The new life we experience this time of year is miraculous.

But this is also a season that involves death.  Invariably, there are lambs and kids born that are too weak to survive.  The normal rate of stillborn lambs in sheep is 5-7 percent, so some are born without ever taking a breath.  Sometimes the weather creates problems for the newborns, as well.  I don't like the death that we must deal with this time of year, but it's something I've had to learn to accept as part of our livelihood.  We try mightily to save the lambs and kids that need our help, but sometimes our efforts go for naught.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Now that the first really wet weather of our lambing season has arrived, it's my time to worry.  We've had nearly perfect weather since we started lambing two weeks ago - relatively warm days without much wind, and clear nights with no fog.  Tonight is a different matter - it's cold, breezy and wet.  I worry about the newest lambs on nights like this - will they get enough milk to keep them warm.  Usually my concern is unfounded - our ewes are pretty competent mothers.  Sometimes, though, I arrive at the ranch in the morning to find one or two chilled lambs who need my help to survive.

The help I provide generally involves bringing these cold lambs home to be bottle fed.  We'll generally have one or two lambs that end up in box by the woodstove or wrapped in one of my wool coats.  We then train these little ones to drink from a bottle - a poor substitute for their mother's milk, but better than nothing.

We try to build our paddocks with some shelter in anticipation of poor weather.  Tonight's paddock, for example offers some topographic shelter from the prevailing southeasterly winds.  If we had the good fortune to lamb at home (we don't have enough of our own land), I'd check the ewes during the night.  As it is, I have to rely on my ewes' ability to take care of themselves and their lambs on their own.  My trust is usually well-founded, but I know I won't sleep well tonight!

Saturday, February 20, 2010


We're in the midst of lambing, as you may know.  We have had more than 70 lambs born so far - we're about halfway through.  Yesterday, the goats started kidding, too - 3 kids to date.

So far, I'm much more impressed with the mothering ability of the ewes.  Most of our sheep are wonderful mothers - in part because we've selected ewes for this trait.  The goats, by comparison, are not as nurturing.  The first goat kid was born dead.  The doe who kidded today took great care of one kid but ignored the other.  He's now on our hearth warming up after his first meal.

Many people say that sheep are stupid, but I haven't found that to be true.  Sheep are simple, but they aren't dumb - for the most part, our ewes are outstanding mothers.  I suppose that we could select goats for their mothering ability, too, but the independent streak that makes goats seem smarter also makes them less reliable as mothers.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sheep Camp 2010

Last night, we held the first (hopefully annual) sheep camp dinner and camp-out.  All of our interns joined us for dinner at the ranch where our ewes are currently lambing.  After dinner around the campfire, we walked down to the lambing pasture to check on everyone.  After Sami and the interns left, the girls and I went off to bed in the tent.  This morning, we made campfire coffee and tea and ate breakfast around the campfire before checking on the ewes again.

Being at the ranch for 24 hours straight was a great experience.  I saw and heard great horned owls (both during the day and after dark).  The Lewis' Woodpeckers are quite active in the valley oaks, and the frogs started singing to us as the sun was setting.  Today, I spotted both a bald eagle and a golden eagle cruising over the ranch.

I think I could live the life of a nomadic herder.  Cooking on a campfire has always been appealing to me.  Since I usually have to drive for 30 minutes to see the sheep in the morning, waking up and walking to the lambing pasture was a treat!  We always face the door of our tent to the east so that we awake to the rising sun, and this morning's sunrise was especially beautiful.

Sheep Camp will be become part of our annual schedule!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thanks, Courtney!

Courtney McDonald, one of our two interns for the 2009-2010 season, just completed her internship.  Julie House, our second intern, will complete her program next month.  Both interns have been a tremendous help over the last year, and both have learned a great deal about livestock husbandry, grazing management and sustainable forestry.

We started our internship program as a way to help train a new generation of farmers.  As I've written previously, about two percent of local farmers are 35 years of age or younger.  Courtney has now joined their ranks.  She will be milking four dairy sheep this season, and has started her own small flock of chickens.  She's also become a partner in our firewood operation.  As Julie wraps up her experience with us, she's also contemplating her future involvement in small-scale farming.

Our internship program continues to evolve, thanks in part to the feedback that Courtney and Julie have provided.  We've changed the program to a Shepherd Apprenticeship Program (with an option for additional experience in sustainable forestry).  The program is broken into quarters with a different emphasis each 3-month period.  For more information, go to the Shepherd's Apprenticeship page on our website.

Finally, join us in wishing Courtney the best of luck as she embarks on her farming career!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

New Faces

If you've talked to us at a farmer's market lately, or if you've been following this blog, you'll know that there are lots of new faces at Flying Mule Farm this month.

First, we want to welcome Alice, our newest intern.  Alice grew up in Southern California and has worked as a classical musician in London.  More recently, she interned on a goat dairy near Ashland, Oregon.  She's now spent a week with us and has already proven to be a great help and an eager learner.  Be sure to say hello to her at a farmer's market in the near future!

You've already met the latest addition to our Border collie family.  Ernie has become VERY comfortable at our house.  He has developed quite a sense of humor, and the older dogs still don't know quite what to think of him. He's been lots of fun!

The lambs have also started to arrive.  To date, we have 26 new lambs.  They are loving this warmer weather.  This is my favorite time of the farming year - every day is like Christmas.

Finally, just tonight we added a new member of our guardian dog team.  Vegas is a daughter of Boise.  She's about 10 weeks old, and very cute.  She'll hang out with the ewe lambs for a couple of months before graduating to more demanding security assignments.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Old versus New

Most days, I feel positive about being a part of the agricultural community.  Despite our differences in methods of production, the type(s) of crop or livestock produced, our marketing methods, etc., we seem to share the common bond of making our living from the land.  Some of us focus on marketing directly to consumers, while others produce for the commodity market.  Some of us are full-time farmers, while others farm part-time.  Regardless, we are generally willing to help one another and to stand together to advance the needs and perspectives of the farming community.

There are times, unfortunately, when this collegiality doesn't prevail.  Sometimes we argue about who can legitimately call themselves a farmer.  Some of the more traditional farmers and ranchers look at those of us who have small, diversified operations with disdain.  We're not "real" farmers apparently because we don't sell our crop on the commodity market.  We're not "real" ranchers because we don't raise beef cattle and sell our calves on the video auction.  Conversely, those of us who represent the "new" face of farming discount those who we see as tradition-bound or part of the industrial agriculture complex.  At the risk of grossly simplifying these differences, new farmers seem to be optimistic about the future, while traditional farmers seem to be pessimistic.  New farmers see a future in farming, while traditional farmers fear the end of agriculture.

Since I am squarely in the "new" farming camp, I often find the disparagement of my more traditional colleagues frustrating and insulting.  I'm sure they find my perspective challenging as well.  Ultimately, these disagreements aren't productive - we shouldn't be arguing about who is more legitimately a farmer.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Here we go...

As of today, we've started lambing in earnest!  Yola, our East Friesian dairy ewe, had 4 (that's right, 4) lambs this morning - one more and we'd have a basketball team!  At Doty Ravine, where the bulk of our ewes will lamb, we had 3 sets of twins and a single.  The next 6 weeks will be filled with new life!

We're also welcoming Alice, our newest intern, to the farm.  Alice has interned at a dairy goat operation in Oregon, so she comes to us with experience in taking care of small ruminants.  Come say hello at the farmer's market!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Small Farms Conservancy

"No one should be without land to care for" - this is the vision of the Small Farms Conservancy.  Lynn Miller, editor and publisher of the Small Farmer's Journal, and a number of other farsighted farmers and farm advocates started the Small Farms Conservancy in 2008 to "protect, sustain and inspire small farming worldwide."  The organization's immediate projects and goals include:
  • farm technology information services
  • farmland preservation and protecting farms in trust
  • enhancement of local marketing through regulatory problem solving, public relations and promotions
  • establishment of an agrarian think-tank
  • annual small farm awards and fellowships
  • micro-loan programs
  • farm and farm family insurance
  • farmer retirement programs
  • apprenticeship clearinghouse
  • education advocacy
  • farm caretaking services
  • farmer's legal assistance
  • estate planning
It's an ambitious set of goals, but each goal is essential to the continuation of small scale farming in this country (and probably around the world).  I encourage you to learn more about the Small Farms Conservancy and to consider joining!

For more information, go to or send an email to

Saturday, February 6, 2010


I just walked outside this evening.  The "peepers" (tree frogs, I think) were incredibly loud.  They generally start making noise in late January or early February.  While it's still winter, these little frogs are a signal that spring is coming (as are the sandhill cranes we'll hear and see later this month).

We almost always have a day in late August that feels like autumn - it's a bit cooler, and it smells like moldering leaves in the morning.  Similarly, we usually have a day in February that feels like spring - it's too warm for the heater in the truck and it smells like fresh grass.

I love the turning of the year.  We're so lucky to live in place with distinct seasons.  I enjoy each season, but I enjoy the change from one season to the next even more!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Agricultural Education

Our local community college, Sierra College, is apparently going to shut down its agriculture department (along with its automotive and construction programs) due to budget constraints.  This decision comes in the midst of a revival of small farming in Placer and Nevada Counties, as well as in the midst of a generational crisis in farming that pervades the entire country.  There are more small farms in these two counties than there were just 10 years ago.  At the same time, the average age of a farmer in our community is approaching 60, and more than 2/3 of the farmers here are 65 years of age or older, while fewer than 5 percent are 35 or younger.

If you're concerned about this, I encourage you to write to the Sierra College president and board of trustees.  Here are their addresses:

Dr. Leo E. Chavez, President
Sierra College
5000 Rocklin Road
Rocklin, CA 95677

Contact the Sierra College Board of Trustees at the same address or:

A single e-mail to will forward to each of the trustees.

Barbara Vineyard

Dave Ferrari

Scott Leslie

Elaine Rowen Reynoso

Bill Martin

Nancy B. Palmer

Aaron Klein

Chris Randleman - Student Trustee 2009-10

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

New Dogs and Old Dogs

Turns out that Taff, my everyday sheep dog, is not at all impressed by Ernie, the puppy.  We had to move cows and sheep today, and Taff decided that he'd work on his own rather than in partnership with me.  If Taff could grumble, I think he would!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Meet Ernie

Meet Ernie - our newest sheep dog!  Emma and I went to pick up Ernie from our friend Ellen Skillings this weekend.  Emma and I are sharing him - Emma will get him well-socialized (as you can imagine if you know Emma), and I'll get to start my first Border Collie.

The other dogs (Taff and Mo) aren't quite sure what to think.  Taff can't believe there's a new dog here, and Mo can't fathom that he's not the baby anymore.

I love my job!