Saturday, January 30, 2010


I participated in the PlacerGROWN farm conference today at Lincoln High School.  This annual gathering of small farmers is sponsored by our local small farm marketing organization, and it features workshops on a variety of topics.  This year's key note speaker was Lynn Miller, editor and publisher of the Small Farmer's Journal, a quarterly publication dedicated to sustainable, and mostly animal-powered, farming.  I feel fortunate to count Lynn as a friend.  During his presentation, Lynn said something that will stick with me for a long time:

"The only stunningly original idea we've had as a species is to grow our own food."

I've been thinking about it all day.  In many ways, the idea that we could cultivate the soil and husband livestock was (and is) revolutionary.  Our ability to grow food for others makes everything else we think of as "culture" possible.

As Lynn and I were talking after the conference, it's hard to be pessimistic after such a gathering of small-scale growers.  I think farmers, by nature, are optimists - you can't put a seed in the ground or turn a ram in with a bunch of ewes and be anything but optimistic.  I always come away from this gathering energized and ready to face the new growing season.  I feel so fortunate to be part of a community of farmers!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Great Videos from University of California

Since we don't have television, I'm sometimes in the dark about what's available on TV.  For example - who know that the University of California had a television station?  Here's a link to a great video produced by UCTV on pastoral livestock production:

Also, my friend Holly George, who is a farm advisor in Plumas and Sierra Counties, has put together an outstanding video series called Passion for the Land.  You can see one of the segments at

If you look hard enough, there are things worth watching!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Shepherd Apprenticeship Program

Flying Mule Farm’s Shepherd Apprenticeship Program offers an exceptional hands-on learning experience in all aspects of grass-based sheep production.  Whether you are an experienced shepherd or exploring sustainable sheep production as a possible business enterprise, our Shepherd Apprentice Program will provide you with the skills, tools and experience you need to make an informed decision about grass-based sheep production.

About Flying Mule Farm: Dan and Samia Macon have raised sheep for 20 years.  In 2001, the Macon Family established Flying Mule Farm, a small, diversified operation that produces grass-fed meat, sustainable forest products and pastured poultry.  We are transitioning to draft power (using mules) for our forestry and farming enterprises.  We are growing our current flock of 120 ewes to a flock of approximately 400.  We also manage meat goats and beef cows in our operation, and we have recently added a very small dairy sheep enterprise.

The Flying Mule Farm Shepherd Apprenticeship: Our apprenticeship program is divided into four quarters.  Applicants have the option of apprenticing for any one or as many as four quarters.  Each quarter includes hands-on experience in animal husbandry, pasture management, marketing and business management.  In addition, specific practices (like pasture lambing, irrigation management and contract grazing) are season-specific.

Curriculum: In addition to hands-on experience in our sheep operation, we expect our apprentices to read extensively about grass-based livestock production, sustainable agriculture and direct marketing.  We are active participants in our local agricultural community, and we encourage our apprentices to participate along with us.  We also design season-specific projects for each apprentice to help them gain confidence and experience in self-directed activities.  We use herding and guardian dogs extensively, and you’ll have the opportunity to learn about stockmanship and sheep dogs from nationally-recognized experts.

First Quarter (January – March) – LAMBING: Hands-on experience includes ewe management, electric fencing, pasture lambing systems, temporary shelter construction, lamb processing and marketing, and business management.

Second Quarter (April – June) – SHEARING/WEANING: Experience includes lamb management, shearing preparation, skirting fleeces, wool marketing, weaning and lamb management, lamb processing and marketing, and business management.  Late lambing and spring breeding also occur during this quarter.

Third Quarter (July – September) – IRRIGATION MANAGEMENT AND TARGETED GRAZING: Experience includes hands-on pasture irrigation management, soils management and conservation, contract and targeted grazing, grass finishing of lambs, lamb processing and marketing, and business management.

Fourth Quarter (October – December) – BREEDING MANAGEMENT AND TARGETED GRAZING: Experience includes breeding preparation and management, ram selection and management, fall lambing, targeted grazing, lamb processing and marketing, and business management.

Sustainable Forestry Option: We also offer an option for our apprentices to learn about our sustainable forestry enterprise.  We are helping to manage a local tree farm to increase forest health, reduce wildfire threat, and adapt to climate change.  We produce firewood, peeled poles and custom-milled lumber.

Terms of Apprenticeship: During this apprenticeship we will provide you with semi-formal instruction, a one-of-a-kind reading list including materials from our own extensive library, and hands-on experience in all aspects of sheep husbandry and marketing.  You will compensate us with your labor on the farm.

Housing:  We will assist you in finding local housing.  Since our operation exists on both owned and leased land, you must have a vehicle and a valid driver’s license.

Expectations and Schedule:  Hours of work in exchange for teaching will be arranged to suit both of our schedules, and will vary based on the season.

For this to be a positive experience, you should . . .
  • Have a strong desire to learn the business of grass-based sheep production and marketing;
  • Enjoy working with animals; and
  • Be very strong, healthy, physically fit, and love working outdoors.
For our part, we will do our best to make your Flying Mule Farm experience . . .
  • Fun;
  • Challenging;
  • Rewarding; and
  • Highly educational
 You will leave our Apprenticeship Program with the skills and knowledge necessary to start your own grass-based livestock business or to expand your existing enterprise.

For more information:

Dan Macon
Flying Mule Farm

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Why I LIke Auburn

I've lived most of my life in the Sierra foothills - growing up in Sonora, moving to Penryn after college, and later moving to Auburn. The proximity to the mountains, the distinct seasons, the mix of snow and rain in the winter, the nice weather in the summer - these are some of the reasons I've chosen to stay in this region.

At the 80th birthday party of a friend who has been in Auburn most of his life, we were talking about what makes this part of the foothills so attractive.  For me, a big reason to stay here (both as a farmer and as an eater) is our year-round farmer's market.  We're incredibly fortunate to live in an area where it's so easy to get locally grown food 12 months out of the year.

My parents have now lived in Sonora for more than 40 years, and while they aren't quite "old timers" compared to the families who have been in Sonora for 4-5 generations, they've been there long enough to not be considered newcomers.  Auburn has a more transitory feel - our proximity to Sacramento has created a lot more growth pressure than other foothill towns have experienced.   This difference, at least to me, makes it seem like one can be an "old timer" sooner than in other places.  I have also come to think that being an old timer is more a matter of perspective and less a matter of chronology.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Mulligitawny Soup

Last week at the Old Town Auburn Farmer's Market, Eric Alexander from Carpe Vino prepared Mulligitawny Soup using our boneless lamb shoulder.  It was an outrageously good soup, and we thought you might enjoy the recipe!

Mulligatawny soup is a product of the British colonization of India. The British preferred a separate soup course with their dinner which differed from the Indian custom of serving all the foods in the meal at one time. The dishes closest to soup in Indian cuisine at the time were thin sauces that accompanied rice and curry dishes; however, they were not drunk by themselves. The word mulligatawny is a corruption of the Indian word milagu-tannir, meaning “pepper water”. (Notice the large amounts of black pepper in the recipe).

Mulligitawny Soup

2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced
1 Tb fresh ground black pepper
2 tsp. ground turmeric
1 Tb garam masala
5 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp. fresh grated ginger
2 Tb. olive oil
2 onions, small diced
1lb. lamb stew meat, diced ½ inch cubes
2 quarts chicken stock
1/3 cup tomato paste
2 carrots, diced
2 apples, peeled & diced
1 lb. assorted root vegetables, peeled & diced
Juice of ½ lime, optional
Salt to taste
1 Tb. chopped cilantro

Combine the jalapeno, black pepper, turmeric, garam masala, garlic and ginger in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to form a coarse paste.  Heat the olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until golden brown. Add the spice paste and lamb and cook for another five minutes. Add the tomato paste and stock and simmer until the meat is almost tender, about 25 minutes.  Add carrots, apples, and root vegetables and simmer until everything is tender. Season with salt and lime juice. Finish the soup with the cilantro and serve.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Working with Nature - Some Days it's Easier than Others!

My farming philosophy involves working closely with nature to produce high-quality products in the most sustainable manner possible.  This means we rely on our animals to harvest the grass that Mother Nature grows each year.  It means that we try not to import feed from outside our area (or even from off the properties we manage) if we can help it.  It means we time our production year to the cycle of the seasons.  Most days, working with nature (instead of fighting her) makes my life easier and more rewarding.

Today, however, was not one of those days.  Today, Mother Nature brought 50 mph winds and horizontal rains to Doty Ravine, where we currently manage 200 +/- sheep, 21 goats and 32 cow-calf pairs.  The wind made the simple act of walking across the pastures exceedingly difficult.  The rain, which was also moving at 50 mph, stung wherever it found bare skin.  I can honestly say that even the best rain gear fails to keep the rain out when it's accelerated to such an extent.

Most days, I love being a shepherd.  I didn't dislike my job today, but I was definitely worn out, cold and wet when I finally got home.  Maybe tomorrow, Mother Nature will feel like being my partner again!

Monday, January 18, 2010


Wouldn't you know it - the lambs started arriving on the wettest, windiest day of the year so far!  This morning, Courtney and Julie discovered a single new ewe lamb, born to a maiden ewe, when they arrived at the Lincoln ranch.  Later in the day, Sami and Lara assisted Lara's ewe, Wooley, in delivering 2 enormous ewe lambs here at home.  We probably have 2-3 more ewes that will lamb early (before the majority of our ewes start in mid-February).

I think it must have something to do with the changing barometric pressure - seems like ewes that are close to lambing will wait until crummy weather.  Fortunately, most of our ewes are good mothers who produce a lot of milk and who take good care of their lambs.  We'll keep a close eye on them during the storms that are due in this week.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Our oldest daughter, Lara, has a ewe that's due to lamb anytime.  The dairy ewe that we share with Courtney McDonald is also do any day.  This is the hardest part for me - waiting.  Every did knows that the longest day of the year is not the winter solstice; it's Christmas Eve!  These days of waiting for the ewes to begin lambing are just as long!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Nature vs. Nurture

This will seem like a very strange posting, but try to stay with me.  I found a brass bolt in the back of my truck this morning.  It was stripped and had fallen out of a tool that I had repaired some months ago.  I started to throw it away, but then I heard my Dad's voice, and my Granddad's voice, saying "Save that for scrap - it's worth something."  My Granddad had a salvage yard in Southern California after World War II.  My Dad was an auctioneer - he has a barn full of great things that he's saved over the years.  Needless to say, I couldn't bring myself to throw away the bolt.

This made me think - is there something genetic in the Macon clan that makes us hang onto things?  Are we genetically inclined to being pack rats, or is this a learned behavior?  I don't know.  It also made me think about our livestock and our dogs.  Our sheep learn to eat certain plants - the lambs seem to learn from their mothers and from each other.  The ewes eat a more widely varied diet than the lambs.  Do they learn this, or is it genetic?  Our border collies possess tremendous instinct to go around the sheep, which seems to be genetic.  Some handlers I know, who speak without an accent in most cases, have a Scottish burr when they are working their dogs.  Is this because these dogs evolved on the border between Scotland and England and have heard a brogue for many generations?  My friend Roger has a border collie that came from Argentina.  She will sit when given the command in Spanish, which Roger has never used himself.

I've concluded that we learn much of our behavior, but our ability to learn and the ways in which we learn best are genetically coded in some way.  It's fascinating to watch.  Most ewes, when they have their first lambs, know exactly what to do.  Those that don't know how to be a mother don't last long in our flock - we need sheep that know how to do their jobs.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Here Comes Winter (Finally)

December's snow storm notwithstanding, the winter thus far has been a disappointment (at least in terms of precipitation).  If the forecasters are to be believed (and their track record isn't great), that will change next week - we may get as much as 6 to 12 inches of rain in the next 10 days, with 10 feet of snow possible in the high country.

This weather will present some short term challenges for us.  The ground will be so saturated that we won't be able to drive out to the sheep and goats (to haul water, replace batteries, etc.).  The sheep are well-equipped to deal with wet weather (their wool coats keep them warm), the goats are less hardy.  We'll likely be erecting shelter for them in the midst of the storm.  Wind and rain can also impact attendance at the farmers' markets.

Over the long term, these storms are exactly what we need.  The soil profile will be fully saturated, which translates to grass when the days grow longer and warmer.  Snow in the mountains means water in the reservoirs - essential to our summer irrigation season.

I'll admit - I love winter weather.  There will come a time that I grow weary of the mud and dampness, but for now, I'm looking forward to stormy days!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Taking a Break

I must admit that I'm taking guilty pleasure in last night's heavy rains. I had planned on cutting firewood and falling a rather difficult tree today. With the muddy conditions and continued threat of rain, I decided that I'd be safer doing other work. I enjoy cutting wood, but once in awhile it's nice to take a break from the physical demands of the job. This morning I did my banking, got my financial record-keeping system organized for the coming year, and worked on my internship program. I'll still get some "outside time" - we'll move both groups of sheep onto fresh feed this afternoon. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the excuse to stay inside by the woodstove!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bonk Burgers

We enjoyed Bonk Burgers night before last - actually ground lamb burgers using a recipe created by our friend Bob Bonk from Snow's Citrus Court. Here's what we did:

1 lb ground lamb
Splash of Snow's Citrus Court Zesty Mandarin Vinaigrette
Two Spicy Ladies Couscous seasoning (to taste)
Crumbled feta cheese from Dedrick's Cheese

Combine ingredients, form 1/4 to 1/3 lb patties and grill over direct heat for 5 minutes on each side. Serve with hamburger fixin's!

Bonk Burgers were great - we highly recommend them!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Great Livestock Guardian Experiment of 2009 - Part II: Courtney and Lucy in a Tent (by Courtney McDonald)

Continuing where I left off ... we sadly had to return Chester to Dan. Now I had 18 ewes in my care in the pasture, hopefully ready to lamb over the next few weeks. Leaving them without a guardian was out of the question, so I decided (with Dan's approval) to set up my tent in the pasture and guard the sheep myself.

There are coyotes out here for sure, as well as other predators. I have seen their scat around the barn behind the house where a group of deer were living before Chester came. I can hear the coyotes singing at night and I remember what coyotes can do to livestock from growing up in the country. I have learned from Dan that coyotes are somewhat lazy predators and will always look for the easiest meal possible. Even a girl with a flashlight is reason enough for them to go looking for dinner elsewhere.

At first (actually for the duration of my camp out), Eric thought I had lost my mind. Sleeping outside with the sheep? In my own mind it was an important learning experience. I really wanted to keep the sheep in our pasture. Having these animals at home 24 hours a day was going to round out what I was learning at the ranch as an intern. And to have the opportunity to do it was, well, when might this ever be possible again?

So over the next 32 nights Lucy, our dog, and I slept outside with the ewes. I had a high-powered flashlight by my side at all times. The weather was a little crazy during their stay; one night the wind and rain was so bad that I had to stay inside.

I learned all kinds of things about the sheep in the dark ... the most surprising of which was that they graze at night. I often awoke in the middle of the night when their grazing migrated to right outside my tent. The sound of their munching became a comforting sound. And every morning without fail, when I opened the tent the flock of ewes were laying as close to the tent as they could get, as though they knew I was there to watch over them. That's what I like to think, anyway - in reality I was probably just a convenient wind block.

Throughout this time, I was moving their grazing paddock every other day or so, along with the tent, and trimming and treating feet as necessary. After about a week a few of the ewes would come up to me to pet them, which I could never do before. Everyday I would walk through them to see if any were getting close to lambing.

One day, a ewe's udder began to fill, signalling that she was close to lambing. I watched here like a hawk, and what seemed like an eternity (probably a couple of weeks), she had a very cute mule ewe named Chiquita.

Two days later the ewes had grazed the entirety of our pasture, so it was time for them to leave. I was so happy to have kept them at my own house, and on top of that for a lamb to have been born there. I'll call it my "immersion shepherd" experience, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Getting ready to lamb

Yesterday, we made the last major preparation for lambing, which will get underway in earnest in about a month. On New Year's Eve, we moved the ewes to the Doty Ravine Preserve in Lincoln, where they'll stay until they are done lambing in March. Yesterday, we vaccinated all of the ewes and ewe lambs for tetanus, over-eating disease and other disorders. By vaccinating a month before lambing, we ensure that the lambs have some protection from these diseases, as well. We also trimmed feet on all of the lambs and moved each set of sheep onto fresh pasture. Now, we wait!