Sunday, October 31, 2010

Canyon View Preserve - Day 3

Another quiet day on this project - we just needed to check fences and feed the guard dog (Reno).  Everybody seemed pretty happy (including Emma)!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Canyon View Preserve - Day 2

The goats and sheep have made good progress in the 24 hours they've been on site at the Canyon View Preserve.  Based on what they've consumed so far, I think this first paddock will take them about 5-6 days.  Here's a photo of the goats and sheep in the midst of the blackberries.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Canyon View Preserve

We turned 15 goats and 45 ewe lambs onto the Placer Land Trust's Canyon View Preserve in Auburn today.  We're using the critters to graze/browse invasive brush, including blackberries and scotch broom.  Stay tuned for updates on this project.  Believe it or not, sheep do a great job on brush (if they're "trained" to eat it)!

Barnyard Bags and other fun stuff

For years, we've tried to find a way to re-use the feed sacks that seem to pile up around any livestock enterprise.  After a farmer's market customer showed me a shopping bag made from a wheat sack in Africa, we hit on the idea of Barnyard Bags - shopping bags made from feed sacks.  Since I'm not much of a seamster (I guess that's the masculine version of seamstress), Sami has been designing and making these great bags!

For more information on our Barnyard Bags and other gift items, go to!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Rainy Day

Since we rely on grass for our livelihood, the first real rain of the fall is a big event.  We generally need at least a half an inch of rain to germinate the grass, and the earlier in the fall it comes, the more grass growth we'll get before the cold and dark of December brings things to a halt.  While we've had a few sprinkles since the autumnal equinox, tonight marks the first sustained rainfall of the season.  This should be our germinating rain

Of course, while the rain is welcome, it complicates our outdoors work.  I just returned home from moving 3 groups of sheep (in Grass Valley and Auburn).  While the border collies love working in the rain (it's part of their Scottish heritage), I need more protective gear to make the day somewhat comfortable.  Even the best rain gear leaves me somewhat clammy when I'm working; I've found that a wool shirt is the best underlayer for keeping me warm in the wet weather.

We also worry about the sheep in weather like this, particularly when they are lambing.  The ewes and lambs in Grass Valley looked good - their wool coats enable them to deal with the wet weather, too.  As long as they have enough feed and trees or brush for shelter, they seem to do fine.

Now I'm home.  I've got a fire going in the woodstove, the Giants game on the radio, and a glass of whiskey in my hand - a great way to end the first real rainy day of fall!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Local and Grass-fed - Worth More?

Value is a term that is not often applied to food.  In this country, most of us seem more interested in affordability (some would say cheapness) when it comes to our food.  Indeed, we spend the lowest percentage of our income on food of any developed country in the world.  Our cheap food "policies," intentional and otherwise, have serious consequences for the environment and for the people who grow our food (farmers, ranchers, and the people who work for them).

We produce grass-fed lamb and beef for local customers.  What does this mean?  For us, it means that we feed only grass to our lambs and steers.  Producing a high quality and delicious product strictly on grass requires significant expertise in pasture management, animal husbandry, and animal selection.  Unlike producers who sell into the commodity market, this means that we must manage the entire process - from raising the animal to processing the meat to selling the final product.  As a example, for me to sell one package of lamb chops at a local farmers' market, I must spend 7-8 months caring for the lamb (and 12 months caring for its mother).  Because I'm required to obtain USDA inspection before I can sell my meat, I must make two trips to Dixon (to my processor) and back (once to have lambs processed and once to pick up meat).  Finally, I must store my meat in a county-approved facility before finally offering it for sale at a farmers' market.  In the industrial food system, each of these functions is performed by a separate entity; in a local food system, these functions are often performed by the farmer.  I believe strongly that the local system results in better food that's better for the land and the people who raised it; I also believe that it may be more "expensive" to produce food this way.

Among the challenges that we face in producing local and grass-fed meat is that these terms mean different things to different producers and customers.  For some, lamb that is produced in Idaho but processed in Dixon might be considered "local."  There are producers that insist that animals that are fed grain in a pasture (rather than in a feedlot) are "grass-fed."  While this lack of standard definitions for these terms is frustrating to me at times, I believe that the ability of individual producers to talk directly with customers about these definitions is more important than standardization.

What does this ambiguity mean for my customers?  First, I need to educate my customers about our values and production practices.  By grass-fed, for example, we mean that our animals are eating grass - nothing else!  We value this type of production because we feel that it results in a healthier product (for the eater and for the land).  By local, we mean that our animals were raised locally (in Placer and Nevada County) and processed as locally as USDA inspection rules allow (our beef is processed in Reno).

To return to the question posed in the title of this entry, I think local and grass-fed meat is worth more than conventionally raised meat for several reasons.  Local and grass-fed meat is more nutritionally dense - our customers get more (and higher quality) nutrients per dollar spent on our meat versus something that comes out of the industrial food system.  Second, because our product is processed in smaller batches (and generally at smaller facilities), more care is taken with its handling.  Our restaurant customers tell us that they don't have nearly as much waste with our lamb as they do with commodity lamb, for example.  Finally, because my customers can see my animals and the land that I manage directly, I have greater accountability to my community.  I feel obligated to take greater care because my neighbors are also my customers.

In many ways, producing and selling meat locally requires us to return to an older system while working within a regulatory and marketing system that favors large scale production based on cheap petroleum.  If we simply try to compete with the modern system on price, we'll fail.  If we compete in terms of value, flavor, nutrition, community and land stewardship, we'll succeed.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fall Lambs

Last May, we purchased roughly 50 older ewes from another sheep rancher in the Delta.  While most sheep are seasonal breeders (that is, they only breed when the days are growing shorter), these ewes were "out-of-season" breeders.  When we got them home, we turned our Blueface Leicester rams in with them.  About 150 days later (last Sunday, to be exact), these ewes started lambing.
Mo says "I'm ready to go to work!"

Vegas - our youngest guard dog.

I love lambing season - there's something about new life that makes the days exciting.  This is our first year lambing in the fall, however, and we're finding it a bit different.  First, the feed quality is not what it is in the springtime (when we normally lamb), which makes meeting the nutritional needs of the ewes more difficult.  We're finding that we need to supplement the pasture grasses just to keep the ewes going.  Second, since it's been warm (actually, downright hot), we've been somewhat worried about dehydration in the lambs.  Third, since these ewes weren't raised in our system of pasture lambing, we're having to adjust to their mothering style.

New arrivals!
The upside of lambing in the fall is that we'll have product to sell next spring.  The wether lambs that are being born this week will reach a finished weight next April or May.  We're also hoping that the ewe lambs being born now will inherit some of their mothers' out-of-season breeding ability.  While the results of this experiment won't be known until sometime in the future, I'm enjoying the daily gift of new life!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Motivating a New Generation of Farmers

I spoke tonight to the Future Farmers of America chapter at Del Oro High School in Loomis.  After I talked about our farm and about the Placer Ag Futures Project, I asked the kids to tell me what would motivate them to become farmers.  I asked the same question to a group of FFA members at Bear River High School three or four years ago.  Interestingly, I got the same answers both times - more money and more information.  In other words, some kids wanted to make more money than small-scale farming generally provides.  Other kids wanted more information about the fact that small-scale farming was actually a career.

I think this suggests several courses of action for those of us who are worried about where our food comes from.  First, our society generally places very low value on the production of food and fiber.  Our nation spends the lowest percentage of gross income on food of any developed country.  Food, and the way it is produced, is just not very important to many people.  We need to change this - there is nothing more fundamental to life than what we eat, and yet we're not willing to vote for good food with our dollars.

Second, those of us who do farm have not done a good job of educating those who will replace us.  In part, this is related to the first problem - we tend to tell young people that they need to choose another career because they won't be able to make a living farming.  The issue quickly becomes more complex, however; we're also not very good at sharing our knowledge - we feel threatened by competition, perhaps, or feel that our work doesn't take much skill.

I'm interested in what others think about these questions!  What do we need to do TODAY to make certain we have good food TOMORROW?

Placer Farm and Barn Tour - 2010

On Sunday, October 10, we hauled sheep and border collies to the Forster Ranch in Ophir as part of the 2010 Placer Farm and Barn Tour.  We've been part of every Farm and Barn event, but this was the first time we've demonstrated our dogs.  We thought you might enjoy some photos!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fields of Dreams

This summer, we've had the good fortune of running sheep on the Elster Ranch between Auburn and Grass Valley.  This ranch has been well-managed with cattle by Bill Boundy for many years.  George Nolte, who purchased the ranch several years ago, has been working to improve the ranch's productivity even further.  With Bill's help, George has installed a new K-Line irrigation system (go to for a video) and has planted a number of new irrigated pastures.  Our grass-fed lambs have been the beneficiaries of these improvements.

I love watching big league baseball in person, and one of my favorite things about going to the ball park is the moment when I first see the field.  A well-kept ball field shines like an emerald - it's so green it hurts my eyes.  Seeing the Elster Ranch pastures for the first time was a similar experience.  I came over a low rise and saw the most beautiful clover and grass pasture I've ever seen.

Elster Ranch is my first experience with a landlord who is committed to making his or her property more productive.  Many people who purchase large properties see them as real estate (to be developed) or toys (to be played with).  George and Bill are vastly different - they care for the land and want to improve its agricultural and ecological productivity.  What a refreshing change!

Monday, October 4, 2010

KVMR Celtic Festival

We took sheep (all from the Celtic world) to the KVMR Celtic Festival in Grass Valley last weekend - great fun was had by all!  Thought you might enjoy these pictures of a faerie princess with her North Country Cheviot ewe, Falfa!

Note the very sleepy faerie princess and the alert border collie in the background!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Turning in the Rams

As I wrote several days ago, today marks our new year (at least in sheep terms).  Today, we split our ewes into breeding groups and turned the rams in with them.  In the process, we evaluated the condition of each ewe (her degree of fat cover, the health of her feet, etc.).  The day marked one of our regular chances to check in and take stock of our successes (and failures) as shepherds.

Overall, we marked our successes today.  The ewes were in appropriate condition for breeding.  The rams, based on their behavior once they were with the ewes, were also in VERY appropriate condition.

Our interns, Paul and Alice, were a huge help today!  They helped gather, evaluate and sort the sheep, and they helped put them in individual paddocks.  I can't thank them enough!  For more information about our Shepherd Apprentice Program, go to

The true test of our success over the last 6 weeks (and through the next 6 weeks of breeding season) will be the number of lambs born next spring.  In late February 2011, we'll begin to see new lambs.  Our hope is that every other ewe will give birth to twins - we call this a 150% lamb crop.  We'll keep you posted!