Friday, May 6, 2011

Diversified Ranching in Sierra Valley - a Sierra CRAFT Workshop

Through a grant from the Western Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (WSARE), a group of farms and ranches in our region (our farm included) has been presenting a series of workshops on a variety of production, marketing and business management topics.  The Sierra Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (Sierra CRAFT) is focused on providing opportunities for farmers and ranchers to learn from each other.

Yesterday, with the help of UC Cooperative Extension and Plumas Rural Services, we held a tour of three Sierra Valley Farms that have successfully diversified their operations.  I wanted to share a few of the key lessons I learned - I'm sure that each participant learned something different.  We had a wonderful day!

Our first stop was at Harvey Ranch in Calpine.  Don and Anna Harvey raise about 3000 commercial ewes, along with a "spinning" flock consisting of about 50 Coopworth, Romney and Rambouillet ewes.  They also have a logging and firewood operation, which utilizes the timber on their property.  They mill lumber (mostly for ranch infrastructure) and produce peeled logs and bundled and bulk firewood.

The Harvey's lambing barn - made with lumber they milled!
A Romney fleece on the skirting table.
The Harveys' firewood processing equipment.
Anna stressed the importance of observation - knowing your land makes a difference, she said.  Don demonstrated his firewood processing machinery, telling us that he thinks a new piece of equipment should pay for itself in a year.  The firewood processor, for example, can produce 3 cords of wood an hour, making the $30,000 capital investment worthwhile.

Sierra Valley Farms

Gary Romano in his newest greenhouse enterprise.
The greenhouse is sunken into the ground for
temperature moderation.
Our next stop was at Gary and Kim Romano's Sierra Valley Farms near Beckworth.  The Romanos produce organic vegetables and native plants.  During the summer, they operate a farm stand and an on-farm farmers' market.  They also hold "Dinners in the Barn" in partnership with Moody's Bistro of Truckee - an event that recently made the list of the top 10 things to do in the Tahoe region.

Gary told us to try new things.  "You can over-analyze things sometimes," he said.  "Knowing the numbers is important, but eventually you've just got to try a new enterprise to know whether it will work."  He added, "Don't be afraid of failure!"

Despite the often harsh growing conditions and
an extremely short growing season, Sierra
Valley Farms produces vegetables for much of the year!

The final stop of the day was Green Gulch Ranch, where we were hosted by the entire Harrison family.  Green Gulch Ranch farms about 1500 acres of hay.  They also graze cattle and operate an upland bird hunting club.  This year, they are experimenting with a pumpkin patch as well.

Byrd Harrison says there are three reasons to diversify, in his mind.  First, some ranches diversify to increase their cash flow.  Second, diversification can help a ranch make more complete use of it's infrastructure.  At Green Gulch Ranch, they are adding a natural beef enterprise that will utilize the existing feedlot and pasture.  The third reason to diversify, Byrd told us, is to take a personal or family passion and turn it into a business.  The Harrisons are obviously passionate about the shooting sports, and the success of their hunting club is a direct result of this passion.
Green Gulch Ranch

Some of the chukar that Green Gulch provides
for its hunting club.

Byrd Harrison discussing the restoration of Green
Gulch's 100+ year old hay barn.

Indeed, passion for ranching was a common theme throughout the day.  Each family obviously loves what they do for a living.  Ranching is not without its challenges, obviously, but passion for the land and the work involved seems to carry each family through the rough spots.  Anna Harvey told us, "You've got to love what you do - ranching is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week job."

Heritage was also an important aspect of each operation.  The Harrisons have restored several 100+ year old barns at Green Gulch Ranch - these old barns are iconic symbols of the Swiss-Italian immigrants that first started ranching in Sierra Valley.  Gary Romano talked about spending summers on the ranch putting up hay and feeding hogs.  Anna Harvey told us, "I'm the fourth generation here - I have a responsibility to keep the ranch going."

For more information on Sierra CRAFT, check out the Foothill Farming website at

1 comment:

  1. One other common theme occurred to me - each operation has a very clear idea of their markets. The Harveys differentiate between the needs of handspinners versus the commercial wool market. The Romanos work closely with restaurants to try new varieties and products. The Harrisons understand that the market for their hunting club is different than the market for their natural beef.