Sunday, August 29, 2010

Movie Night at the Farm

Last night, we hosted our first "Movie Night at the Farm" - we watched the documentary "Sweetgrass."  For more information, go to:  The movie is about a family sheep operation that trails sheep through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area in Montana.  We watched it with friends, our interns, and interns from other farms.

The movie itself was wonderful.  It was filmed without narration, and it took us from lambing through shearing to the actual trailing of the sheep.  While it was a much larger flock than ours, my familiarity with the work, the frustrations and the satisfactions made the film especially enjoyable for me.  The movie was made more enjoyable because we watched it as a community - a group of people with common interests.  I hope we'll do more of it!

Friday, August 27, 2010

#*&@$^+ Yellow Starthistle

We just finished a contract grazing job for the Placer Land Trust in the Bowman area of Auburn.  We had 210 ewes on site for 3 weeks - they grazed mostly yellow starthistle, dead annual grasses and clover, along with some coyote bush and blackberry.  At this time of year, when the starthistle is maturing, its spiny seed heads must be high in energy - the sheep love to eat them!  They probably consumed 90-95 percent of the starthistle seed heads at the site.

Yellow starthistle is an introduced annual weed (it came here from central Asia) that in some ways acts like a perennial plant.  It has adapted effectively to out-compete the other annual plants in our rangeland ecosystems - its deep taproot (as deep or deeper than some perennial grasses) can get to soil moisture that other plants can't reach.  It also matures later than most of our annual grasses, allowing it to take advantage of late season moisture (like we had this year).  More than most annual plants, it is physiologically adapted to produce seed every year.  We saw an amazing example of this on the land trust project.
Herd impact - sheep will trample starthistle as well as graze it.

As we moved the ewes to their last paddock on Monday evening, we walked through the paddock we grazed at the beginning of the project.  We had moved the sheep off of this paddock 14 days earlier.  During that time, we'd had warm temperatures (85-95 degrees at this site) and no precipitation.  In fact, the site had received no precipitation for at least 90 days.  Based on the difficulty we had in putting temporary fence posts in the ground, I would say the soil was completely dry.  However, on Monday evening, we noticed new growth on many of the starthistle plants we had impacted two weeks earlier.  These plants were finding enough energy and moisture to produce seeds - far fewer than they would have produced without grazing impacts, but seeds nonetheless.
Grazed starthistle pushing new growth.

Next year, we'll try to impact the site earlier in the year - we plan to bring ewes and lambs to the project site in April.  If we can graze the starthistle before it flowers, we should decrease seed production and allow competing plants to thrive.  Based on this week's observations, however, I would expect the starthistle to produce some seed despite our best efforts.  #*&!$^+ starthistle!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pricing Our Products

The Food and Wine Section of the Sacramento Bee printed an article today comparing prices at local farmers' markets with prices at the grocery store (for the full article, go to  While the reporter admittedly didn't conduct a scientific survey, she does compare fairly similar items.  Since one of the items is something we sell (and at the same price cited in the article), I took special notice.  According to the article, our pasture-raised chicken is too expensive at $3.99/lb. - the grocery store she visited had pastured chicken for $2.69/lb.

Leaving aside the fact that I've never seen a truly pasture-raised chicken in the grocery store (and no, free-range is not the same as pasture-raised), the article made me think about how we price our products.  It also made me wonder if there is value to my customers in their ability to ask me directly how my products were raised.  As a small farmer, I need to price my products at a level that will cover my costs of production and provide a return to our labor.  Based on our experience with pasture-raised chicken this year, we've decided to drop this enterprise next year.  Here's why:

Pastured chickens still need a grain-based feed.  While ours get some of their nutritional requirements from bugs, seeds and grass, they still need chicken feed.  Here are our costs (roughly):

Chick purchase - $2.00
Feed - $4.16/bird (4 lbs of feed = 1 lb of gain - a 4 lb chicken consumes 16 lbs of feed at $0.26/lb)
Depreciation on equipment - $0.05/lb (waterers, feeders and fencing all wear out eventually)
Processing - $2.50/bird (USDA inspection is required to sell at a farmers' market, so I drive my birds to Sacramento)
Transportation - $0.75/bird
Packaging - $0.10/bird

The cost of producing one chicken (for our farm) is $9.57 - that's before paying ourselves for our labor.  That 4 lb live bird will yield a 3.5 lb dressed bird - worth $13.97 at the market.  In other words, we have a margin of $4.40 on each bird.

A batch of 75 chicks takes 6-8 weeks to grow - 42 to 56 days.  We average 30 minutes a day taking care of them, and my processing and marketing time for each batch of 75 totals an additional 7 hours.  In other words, 75 birds require 30-35 hours (let's say each bird requires a half hour of labor total).  This means that I can pay myself a whopping $8.80/hour to raise chickens.

If we want to continue to provide chickens to our customers, we have two choices:

1. We can significantly increase our production, which will allow us to use our labor more efficiently.  We would also be able to purchase our feed in bulk, which would drop our costs.

2. We can raise our prices.

Given our other enterprises and the competition from grocery store "pasture-raised" chickens, we're opting to go out of the chicken business.  We think our time will be better spent on more profitable enterprises - grass-fed lamb and vegetation management, for example.

This points out one of the great dilemmas for small-scale farmers.  How do we stay small enough to maintain personal control over our operations and personal contact with our customers and yet grow large enough to make a living?

Friday, August 20, 2010


I'm sure every profession has its share of frustrating circumstances.  One of the more frustrating aspects of selling meat directly to our customers is the fact that we have to rely on others to process our product.  Thanks to federal rules, we have to have our beef, lamb and goat processed at a USDA-inspected facility if we want to sell individual cuts of meat to our farmers' market customers.  We currently work with two processors - one in Dixon and one in Reno.  Both are great to work with - they've both gone out of their way to help us be successful.

Occasionally, however, this relationship hits a bump.  Sometimes we get our product back with the wrong label or the wrong price.  Sometimes we're missing specific cuts of meat.  Today, we're unable to pick up a load of meat because our processor is short-handed and overwhelmed with work.  I know our processors are frustrated  at times by the challenges of working with small scale producers like us, too.

I'm not sure what the answer is.  I certainly have neither the time nor the expertise to butcher our own meat.  While I'm committed to selling our product locally, I sometimes wonder whether our lives would be easier if we simply sold our live lambs to a processor and focused our energy on product rather than meat sales and marketing.  Ultimately, I believe that we are most successful (economically and otherwise) when we market what we raise to our community.  I just wish our community was more self-sufficient in terms of processing.

A Little Help From a Friend

Who says goats don't cooperate?!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Back to School

Our girls started back to school today - Lara is in seventh grade and Emma is in second.  They were both excited, nervous, and somewhat sad to see summer end, as were their parents.

Samia and I are fortunate to have businesses that allow us time with our kids and that allow us to work with our kids.  I enjoy working with both girls immensely - they are fun to be around and are increasingly helpful with farm chores.  I miss them when they go back to school.

School used to start in September - the remnant of a more agrarian society.  I don't think that either of our girls has a classmate whose family farms - a big change from 40 years ago!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sheepherder Fitness Club

By its nature, our work is physically demanding.  Part of this is due to the fact that very little of our work can be mechanized.  Part of it is due to our conscious decision not to use motorized equipment (like 4-wheelers) any more than necessary.  As a consequence, we stay in pretty good physical condition.  Since I've been running sheep commercially, I've tightened my belt 4 or 5 holes!

Our fitness program has been so successful, that we're considering opening the Sheepherder's Fitness Club.  For a small monthly fee, members can join us 3-4 times a week in moving electric fence, cutting and splitting firewood, and moving sheep.  Premium level members can also learn how to shear sheep, load and stack firewood, peel poles, and trim sheep feet.

The Sheepherder Fitness Club offers a unique guarantee.  We guarantee members will lose 10 pounds in the first month ... if they survive!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Pack versus Herd Behavior

We witnessed an interesting example of the interaction between herd behavior (our sheep) and pack behavior (our guard dogs) last week.  We've always been curious as to whether the sheep think the guard dog is the lead sheep or whether the guard dogs think the sheep are part of the pack.  We're still curious, but last week's behavior was incredibly fascinating.

We moved the ewes to a property owned by the Placer Land Trust here in Auburn.  We couldn't get water to them right away, so we herded them to a watering spot daily for their drink.  On the third day on the project, we set up an expanded paddock with a water trough at the top of the hill.  Vegas, our young female guard dog, immediately patrolled the boundaries of the paddock (as our guard dogs typically do) and discovered the water trough.  While she was doing this, we tried to push the sheep out of the shade of a live oak at the bottom of the hill up towards the water.  They didn't want to move.  Vegas came back down to the sheep, and then followed us to the water trough.  As we were watching, she ran back down to the sheep.  She must have communicated something to them, because they followed her back up to the water trough.  Somehow, she conveyed to the sheep that they could drink if they'd follow her.

I've heard stories of guard dogs leading sheep to safety during grass fires.  I'm not sure how the communication happens, but Vegas obviously told her "pack" to follow her up the hill.  Pretty amazing!