Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Predator Friendly?

We've been seeing lots of coyotes around our sheep lately.  The proximity of these predators to our livelihood presents an ethical dilemma for me - I'm always thrilled at seeing local wildlife, but I always worry about the safety of our sheep.  Our friend and partner Ellen called last night, saying that she was a "poor shepherd" because she failed to run over a coyote on her drive back to the ranch.  We both agreed that we would have a hard time killing a predator unless it was actually killing a sheep.

If we didn't use guardian animals (dogs and llamas), I would not be able to say this.  I like to tell folks that we're predator friendly, but our guard dogs are not!  The exception to this, at least for me, is a domestic dog.  We've lost sheep to neighbor dogs, and I think I'd probably have a hard time NOT shooting a domestic dog that was chasing my livestock (even if it hadn't killed anything yet).  A domestic dog kills for sport; a coyote kills for sustenance.  That being said, I'm not sure what I'd do if I found a coyote in the act of killing a sheep.  Since I don't have a rifle with me at all times, the question is probably moot.

One of the things I love about my living is that I have a chance to interact with nature on a daily basis - indeed, I'm dependent on nature for my livelihood.  Success in this livelihood requires me to take the good with the bad.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Random Thoughts - Organic vs. Local

I spoke to a group of high school students last week about local farming issues.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself - engaged teenagers ask incredibly insightful questions!  In following up with one of the students, we've continued to discuss organic versus local farming.

For me, this is a complicated question.  In some ways, it gets to the heart of whether we believe that a piece of paper can ensure healthy and sustainable farming practices.  The question is also related to the 3 elements of sustainability (economic, social and environmental).  If a farm can't make a living for the farmer, the other elements of sustainability (social and environmental) begin to fall apart.  While local doesn't necessarily ensure sustainable practices, the fact that local farms are an open book to their customers goes a long way in this regard (at least in my mind).
Wendell Berry writes "But the real products of any year's work are the farmer's mind and the cropland itself.  If he raises a good crop at the cost of belittling himself and diminishing the ground, he has gained nothing.  He will have to be begin over again the next spring, worse off than before."
I take this to mean that good farming gives the farmer peace of mind (which includes profitability) and leaves the land in better shape for his (or her) having farmed it.  I think these results are more likely to occur when a farm is focused on selling it's production to neighbors - in other words, when the veil of anonymity is removed between the farm and it's customers.  I'm inherently suspicious of any regulation or program (including the National Organic Program) that is designed to maintain this anonymity.

The New Year

According to my sheep calendar, our new year begins this week.  At the end of the week, we'll sort our ewes into two breeding groups and turn the rams in with them.  This begins our production cycle once again.  The rams will stay with the ewes for 6 weeks.  When we pull the rams, we'll trim everyone's feet and booster their footvax vaccinations.  Then we have about 6-8 weeks of relative ease (that is, we'll only be moving the ewes onto fresh feed every few days).  After the Holidays, we'll booster the ewes 8-way vaccinations (which will provide some disease protection to their lambs as well).  In early March, our new lambs will begin to arrive.

I look forward to these milestones in our sheep year.  Breeding, lambing, shearing, weaning and harvesting are times when we can take stock of our success as managers.  On Friday, we'll check all of the ewes for body condition (an evaluation of their external fat cover) and for the condition of their feet.  This systematic approach has helped us improve the health of our flock and the productivity of our ewes.  Friday will be a long day, but we'll feel satisfied when we're done.  Over the weekend, we're taking sheep to the KVMR Celtic Festival, and the work this week will make us feel like we've earned a brief vacation this weekend!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Requiem for Number 7

Purchased on the courthouse steps during the first Great Depression,
You were named for your number on the list of foreclosures.
Your fertile soil and plentiful water yielded cherries, pears and persimmons,
And your family made a living.

Your family, in one way or another, owned you for more than 60 years.
After your orchards declined, you produced grass and hay
For draft horses and Angus cows and the occasional grass-fed steer.
And your family made a living.

Near the end of the century, you were sold to another family,
And another chapter in your life as a farm began.
For awhile you still produced grass, but your soil became dirt –
Dirt to be graded and paved over for houses.

By the time I met you, you’d been cut into pieces.
Your new family saw the land as a toy and as an “asset.”
You were no longer a farm – you were real estate –
And parts of you were sold off or returned to the bank.

I only knew your entirety for two years –
For two years your soil and water grew grass and lamb and beef.
We sheared our sheep in your barns and
Fed hay in your fields when it snowed.

I miss the coolness along your creek after a hot summer’s day.
I miss the walks up and down your hills to move pipe.
I miss watching my dogs gather sheep in your fields,
And I miss eating cherries in the springtime and your pears in the fall.

You were a gift – your soil fed a community.
But our community’s relationship with the land changed.
Soil became dirt, farms became houses.
And we’re all poorer for the change.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Intern Blog: Tales of a Lapsed Vegetarian - Part I: We don’t go to church, We’re vegetarian (by Alice)

Most people don’t choose their religion, but are born into family’s with certain beliefs and grow up believing the same. As we grow up many people begin to question these beliefs and practices and may depart from what their parents believe, or change the way they feel about their families way of practicing. My family is not religious. We don’t believe in god, and we never went to church. I think the only religious literature in our house was an old I Ching Book of Changes, left over from the sixties. We were not religious, we were vegetarians. It was the comprehensive belief system we practiced every day, and in many ways, defined our family.
We weren’t fundamentalist vegetarians; we used leather and ate eggs. We didn’t care, or weren’t aware of animal rennet in cheese and ate marshmallows containing gelatin. It was fine for other people to eat meat, but my brother and I were taught that meat is not food. It is the flesh of dead animals, and you do not put it in your mouth. My mom even went so far as to refer to meat as “negative energy,” I’ve never had any idea what that means but being a vegetarian kid definitely felt different. Growing up in liberal diverse Los Angeles, in the late 80s, I didn’t know anyone else who was vegetarian. I didn’t even know anyone who knew what a vegetarian was. The other kids at school all seemed to have baloney or turkey in their sandwiches. I would sit at the lunch table, reluctant to open my He-Man lunch box, afraid of what might be in my sandwich. Despite of my public self-consciousness, I accepted and liked being vegetarian at home. I ate every strange vegetable concoction put in front of me and used to rub it in the face of my brother, who was not an enthusiastic eater of plants, by saying “thank you mama for making such a delicious dinner.” What a suck up I was! I loved animals and was proud not to eat them, but I didn’t like being different. I was very uncomfortable about people scruitinizing my food; I didn’t want to be questioned about it and avoided eating around people I didn’t know.
In high school I was still insecure the weird food I ate, but by this time there were a few other vegetarians around; Girls who loved cute animals or wanted to rebel against red-blooded barbecuing dads. It was good to have others eating ketchup-mustard-and potato chips on a bun at barbecues, but these recent converts were not the same. They had chosen their alienation. They knew what bacon tasted like, and they were righteous. They were giving up something delicious and inconveniencing their parents to save piglets. By age twelve I had no delusions about the humanity of being vegetarian. I knew what happened to dairy animals, I wore leather, I still ate marshmallows with gelatin. I was not vegetarian because I thought it was important or right, I was vegetarian because I had been taught that dead animals weren’t food.
College is when a lot of people leave their upbringing behind, physically and metaphorically. In my second year of college I noticed that my best friend and roommate, who did not believe in god, hung a rosary around her bedpost. I often questioned her about this contradiction. She never asked me why I didn’t eat meat. The answer would have been the same: It’s hard to change what you’re brought up to believe, even when those beliefs stop making sense.
            In college Vegetarianism was a non-issue. It was the 21st century, people were Vegan, people were transgendered, people were astrologists. Being Vegetarian wasn’t part of my identity. When someone found out I hadn’t ever eaten meat there was the usual disbelief and pity, followed by the same twenty questions I’d been asked all my life. I was not fighting vegetarian battles; I didn’t believe I was helping any environmental or humane cause. I would always answer, “I am vegetarian because that is how I was brought up.”
Two significant events in my dietary development did happen in College, though they did nothing at the time to change my practice or beliefs. The first was that I realized that I might spend my entire life as a vegetarian. This realization was followed by the idea that I might not spend the rest of my life as a vegetarian. Since vegetarianism wasn’t a big part of my identity this wasn’t really a big deal. I didn’t care If I ate meat or not. But the seed had been planted… In my third year of college I intentionally ate a single bite of chicken. I figured I should at least try it. Maybe it would change my life. I sat with the fork inches from my mouth for about three minutes, trying to make myself eat it. I was terrified. Finally I put the fork in my mouth and chewed. It tasted like nothing. The world did not end. It was the most anticlimactic event of my life. It changed nothing.
            So how did I go from lifelong vegetarian scared of eating meat, under whelmed by the taste of chicken, to raising, eating and selling top quality lamb, beef, and mutton? The journey was long and strange, covering five years, three continents, and thousands of miles.
Next time…I can kill it and cook it, but can I eat it? Coming soon: Tales of a Lapsed Vegetarian. Part II An American Vegetarian in London, or How to say “Vegetarian” in Polish.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Field Trips and Fairs

Last week, our kids exhibited animals at the Gold Country Fair in Auburn.  Emma, our youngest, showed her rabbit and one of our dogs (Taff).  Lara showed two market lambs and her dog, Popcorn.  They both had successful fairs - Lara's lamb was the 4-H grand champion, and she received a whopping $21 per pound at the junior livestock auction.  So much for learning about the realities of the sheep business!

On Sunday, we hosted to classes taught by our friend Susan Marshall at Humboldt State University.  The classes, one in ranch planning and development and the other in range improvements, were on a field trip to central California.  Our landlord, George Nolte, talked about the development of the Elster Ranch - he's installing new fencing, planting new pastures, and putting in new irrigation systems.  I talked about our sheep business, about conservation easements, and about the California Agricultural Leadership Program.

The common theme in these two activities, obviously, was education.  Our girls are learning about animal husbandry and livestock production.  While the fair offers a somewhat artificial view of livestock production, our girls do learn responsibility and teamwork.  We are especially grateful to our friend Ann Vassar for helping Lara become a better showman and stock handler.  The college students, I hope, got a realistic picture of the challenges and rewards of ranching in California.  While our operation is not typical of most sheep operations, I think it does provide a model for new producers to consider.  I hope there are future sheep producers in both groups - the kids at the fair and the students at Humboldt!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dog People

Some people are dog people - some are not!  I think dogs can sense this - they like people who like them back. Dogs can certainly sense fear, so why not kindness?  Dogs also respect honesty and clarity of communication, and respond well to people who understand this.

This weekend, we moved our ewe lambs from a property in Loomis because our guard dog, Boise, was intimidating to the landowners and their employee.  Boise is a large dog who can seem quite ferocious.  His anxiety level seems to increase greatly when people are afraid of him.  On Sunday evening, he got out of his paddock.  While he was apparently charging the person who called me, when I arrived he only wanted to be back with his sheep.  I've observed him acting aggressively with people who yell at him out of fear, and I've also observed him relax when a person ignores him or tells him to "knock it off" forcefully and without fear.  On Monday, our friend Roger Ingram (a definite dog person) approached him (after not having seen him for 3-4 months), and Boise greeted him enthusiastically.

Last night, after a long day moving sheep, Roger, Courtney and I worked our dogs here at home.  Courtney's dog, Lucy, was ignoring Courtney's corrections and commands until we improved the timing our corrections.  I think we were able to help her see that we weren't punishing her - we were simply trying to help her understand what we were asking.  Similarly, Roger's dog, Bella, responded very well to timely corrections and sweet-voiced commands.

Most of the problems that I encounter with my working dogs (or with other animals) seem to be related to my inability to communicate effectively and to my inability to read subtle differences in the animal's behavior.  I suspect that human relationships present similar challenges!