Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sharing Traditions

Hoshigaki drying in Courtney's kitchen.
Our friend and fellow farmer Courtney McDonald lives in the midst of an old persimmon orchard near Ophir.  Courtney is also a professional chef and the site manager of the Old Town Auburn Farmers' Market.  Like our family, Courtney and her partner Eric value the farming traditions that make our part of Placer County so rich.  Being blessed with and abundance of "free" persimmons, Courtney has taken it upon herself to learn from the older Japanese farmers who planted many of the persimmon trees that are so common in our part of the county.

Oak Hill Ranch in Auburn, which we've leased for going on 5 years now, has more than 100 old persimmon trees.  In past years, we've anxiously awaited the time when the hachiya persimmons soften on the tree - only then are they ready to eat.  I've tried them while they were still firm and have found them so astringent that my mouth feels dry for hours after taking a small bite.  Usually the birds can tell they moment they're ripe - it's a race to try to pick them before the starlings, mocking birds and jays get them.
Sometimes persimmons come in odd shapes!

The Japanese farmers in our area have developed several methods for dealing with this problem.  The most well-known method - hoshigaki - involves peeling the hard hachiya persimmons and hanging them to dry.  These peeled persimmons are massaged daily, and eventually the natural sugars in the fruit concentrate.  When they are finished, they taste almost like dates.  They're wonderful.  Last year, Courtney invited us to help peel a batch that she then dried in her kitchen.

A lesser known method - amagaki - involves dipping the petiole and stem of the persimmon briefly in 100 proof vodka and then sealing the fruit in an airtight container for 10-14 days.  The alcohol cures and ripens the fruit.  While the persimmon stays somewhat firm on the outside, it ripens and softens to a mango-like texture on the inside.

All this past summer, Courtney bugged Aki, a retired Japanese farmer, to teach her how to make amagaki.  This fall, he finally told her how to do it.  Courtney shared the method (and some of her first batch with us).  Tonight, Emma and I sampled our first attempt.
Sliced amagaki - yum!

They were incredible!  I think I like them better than hoshigaki!  Being lazier than Courtney, I think I prefer the method, too - dip the persimmons in vodka, seal them up and forget about them for 10 days (and then drink the left over vodka).
Emma sampling our first batch.

Thanks to Aki for teaching Courtney how to make amagaki, and thanks to Courtney for sharing it with us!

Take Your Dog To Work Day

The ewes just waiting for a border collie to tell them where to move next!
As a shepherd, I guess every day is "Take Your Dog to Work Day" for me - I'd be lost without my border collies, and my sheep would be coyote bait without my livestock guardian dogs.  Lately, I've been taking two or three border collies to work with me, but today was Taff's turn to be the only dog to go to work!
Taff - ready for work!

Our dogs have sorted themselves into a hierarchy, which is most easily seen when we're on a walk away from the sheep.  Taff, our oldest border collie (and my main dog), is the top dog - he's always closest to me.  Ernie, the youngest, would like to be top dog, but he still looks to Taff for direction.  Mo, who actually belongs to our daughter Lara, is in the middle age-wise.  Mo is a free spirit.  He ignores Ernie (his younger half-brother) and he looks up to Taff.  When he's not working, however, he'd rather be chasing butterflies or bird shadows.

From the standpoint of work, Mo is easily the most talented dog of the bunch.  As I've learned more about how to work in partnership with our dogs, Mo has excelled in all aspects of our daily work - from moving large groups to loading the trailer.  Ernie, on the other hand, is the first dog that I intend on training myself.  He'll be an outstanding dog if I don't mess him up.  Currently, I try to train Ernie on sheep 5-6 times each week.

Taff is a complicated dog.  He's easily the most loyal dog I've ever owned.  We call him the Buddha collie - he's also the easiest going and most relaxed of any border collie I've been around.  From a work standpoint, however, he has his faults (some of which he had when I got him; others of which I'm sure I've created).  He works far too close to the sheep most of the time, which can create problems.

When I first got Taff four years ago (when he was four), I left him home one day when I didn't need a dog.  He proceeded to destroy my rubber boots, which I'd left in the garage.  Since that time, he's gone to work with me nearly everyday.  Recently, however, as Mo and Ernie have come with us (and as they've taken on more of Taff's work), he's been grumpy.  He pouts and sulks when another dog gets to work.  So today, Taff was the only dog I took with me.  He gathered our flock of 200+ ewes and helped me move them onto fresh pasture.  When we finished, he was anything but grumpy - he bounced and skipped all the way back to the truck!

Speaking of working dogs, we continue to work with Vegas' puppies to prepare them for their lifetime of guarding livestock.  At this stage, we're trying to socialize them with sheep.  Their only interaction with humans is at feeding time (which our youngest daughter Emma handles) - we don't hold them or cuddle them at all (which is extremely difficult as cute as they are).  We've kept a handful of gentle ewe lambs at the house to help us in this training - the sheep aren't afraid of the pups, but they aren't aggressive towards them either.  We hope this interaction will prepare these puppies for their guardian responsibilities.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Weather Worries

A little more than a week ago, the weather forecast in the Sacramento Bee said we would not need to worry - the weekend wouldn't be "ruined" by wet weather.  While I've written on this theme in previous years, I never cease to be somewhat offended by the idea that rain during the rainy season is an inconvenience.  Since our sheep rely on the grass that in turn relies on precipitation, rain doesn't ruin my weekend this time of year!

Since I rely on grass, and because I work outside nearly every day, I take a personal interest in the weather forecast.  While this autumn started out with favorable rain in October, the storms that have been predicted over the last several weeks have fizzled.  While we've just barely started into the wet season, I start to get nervous when predicted storms fail to deliver.  We've reached the point in the year when the days are short and soil temperatures have dropped enough to where the grass won't grow much, even if we get rain.  I think this year's new grass looks dry and stunted - never a welcome sight to a grass-farmer!

While it's much too early to panic, we do start thinking about drought strategies when weather systems fail to deliver.  Our drought tool box includes selling ewes (especially those that are not bred), weaning the lambs early, and buying in extra feed.  None of these strategies are pleasant, but they reflect the reality of our way of life.

In the meantime, I'm hoping for a few more "ruined" weekends in the near future - let it rain!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


My daughters and I were discussing our favorite holidays this afternoon while we were hauling firewood to a customer in Meadow Vista.  Lara, our oldest, said that Thanksgiving and Christmas were her favorite holidays, and I have to agree with her.  I enjoy the short days, the cold weather, the sense of stocking up and settling in.  I also enjoy the chance to think about those things that make me grateful.  In many ways, this has been a difficult year for us.  We experienced more problems during lambing than we've ever had.  We found ourselves spread thin geographically and physically this summer.  This fall, I've struggled with the realization that I'm missing some of my girls' growing up time in order to market our products at farmers' markets.  Despite these challenges, I'm grateful for many things on this Thanksgiving eve.

I'm thankful for my family - Sami, Lara and Emma put up with my long hours, my frustration (at times) and my exhaustion.  My extended family has always been supportive of my farming dreams.  I'm thankful that I get to spend part of every day outdoors doing something physical.  I'm grateful to my dogs - the border collies and guardian dogs make it possible to raise sheep - and I'm grateful to my sheep.  I'm so fortunate to be able to do work that I love.  I'm thankful for the customers that "vote" for our products and our production system with their dollars every week, and I'm thankful for the friends I've made because of our products.  I'm grateful to my friends and colleagues who extend a helping hand without expecting anything in return.  I'm thankful that I can heat my home and feed my family with my own labor and with the labor and skill of people I respect and enjoy.

Tomorrow afternoon, we'll sit down to a feast that features food grown by people I know - a turkey grown by the Diestel family in Sonora (where I grew up), stuffing that includes Basque chorizo that we produced, spaghetti squash from Melon Jolly Farm in Auburn, salad with lettuce from Natural Trading Company in Newcastle, and mashed potatoes from Twin Brooks Farm in Loomis.  As we say our prayers of gratitude tomorrow, I'll remember Tim Diestel, Mike Holcomb, Shaun and Allison, Bryan Kaminsky, and Francis and Jan Thompson.  I'll think about my friends Roger Ingram, Cindy Fake, Ann Vassar, Allen and Nancy Edwards, Ellen Skillings, Courtney McDonald, Paul Lambertson, Alice Woefle-Erskine, Callie Murphy, Pat Shanley, Bud and Jean Allender, Rich and Peggy Beltramo - all of whom helped make our sheep operation work this year.  Thank you!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

LGD Puppies and Sheep Work

Vegas' puppies are now 3-1/2 weeks old - their eyes are open and they are becoming much more mobile!  Vegas is proving to be a great mother, although I suspect she's looking forward to the day the puppies are weaned.  The hardest part about rearing these pups is avoiding over-socializing them.  Now that their eyes are open, we hold them and pet them as little as possible - we want them to bond with our sheep.
Vegas is a great mama - she's very concerned about what
Sami's doing to her puppy.

Puppy pile-up!

Daddy Boise - the ghost dog!
Last night, we de-wormed all of the pups and clipped their toenails.  Our friend Kerry Williams, who raises working Pyrenees, suggested this.  Their nails can grow long and sharp before they start to walk, which can injure their mother's teats.  We clipped the sharp points off - it doesn't hurt them, but they don't like being held (which is probably a good thing, given their future occupations).

When the puppies are 10-12 weeks old, we'll begin selling them to other sheep and goat producers.  Based on their parents' guarding abilities, we think they'll be outstanding guard dogs.  In the meantime, they are awfully fun to be around!

Sheep Update

The first group of ewes in the footbath - the sheep enjoy a pedicure!

Today marks the end of breeding season for the sheep.  After setting up our homemade portable corrals and footbath, we brought both breeding groups in and sorted off the rams.  One of the groups went through the footbath (to prevent/cure foot scald and foot rot).  The other group seemed to have a fairly heavy internal parasite load, so they were de-wormed.  We combined both groups and turned them out together onto fresh pasture.  We'll put them through the footbath 2-3 more times in the next 3-4 weeks, culminating with feet trimming and preg-checking in early December.  Then we wait - the first lambs won't arrive until the third week of February 2012.
The reward for a long day's work!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Nothing like a Pendleton shirt!

Last week, the weather finally stayed cool enough during the day to justify breaking out my woolen Pendleton shirts.  My collection of Pendletons includes three or four shirts that I bought new or received as gifts.  The rest I've inherited from my Dad and my uncle Doug as they "outgrew" them.  I have at least one shirt (too small for me now) that dates from the late 1950s.  Others I can remember my Dad buying from Baer's Clothing in Sonora before I started school, which makes them at least 40 years old.  They may not be the most stylish garments, but then I'm not the most stylish person, either.  My Pendleton shirts are far and away my favorite clothes.

That a garment can last for many decades is a testament to the quality of the fabric and the skill of the craftsmen (and women) who manufactured it.  As a wool producer, I sometimes wonder if we'd be better served if wool didn't last so long - maybe folks would buy more wool if it wore out as quickly as cotton or synthetic fibers.  In all seriousness, I like the fact that the wool we marketed this year will still be in use for years to come - the legacy of our sheep, so to speak.

Pendletons are part of the legacy of my family, too.  I have a photograph of my Dad fishing on the beach in Southern California with his uncle Guy (who is wearing a silver Stetson and a Pendleton shirt) in the late 1940s or early 1950s.  Uncle Guy and aunt Lois (my Granddad's sister) came to California in the early 1930s over the "corduroy road" through the California desert.  They traveled in a caravan of cars that placed planks over the sand to make their journey.  They'd reach the end of the planks, walk back, and carry the boards ahead to cover the next stretch of desert.  Uncle Guy worked as a mechanic on the docks in Long Beach.  My Dad remembers him wearing a Pendleton shirt at nearly every family function regardless of season.  As my Dad says, they weren't "cool" shirts (literally or figuratively) - they were "just damn good shirts."

The oldest Pendleton I own is a board shirt that my Dad found in a pool hall in Redlands, California when he was going to college.  Since it is a "small," my Dad gave it to me as soon as it fit me (as it no longer fit him).  I might have been the only kid in my high school class to wear a shirt that was 25 years old.  My oldest daughter has the shirt now.

Baers Clothing in Sonora was the type of men's store that no longer exists these days.  I remember walking in the front door past the glass cases of Stetson hats and boxed Pendleton shirts.  They had a sign over their dress shirts that said "Custer's Last Shirt was an Arrow."  If you came in the back door, you entered on the second floor and walked past the dress shoes and work boots.  They also carried Sonora High School lettermen's jackets.  I specifically remember at least two Pendleton garments that my Dad purchased at Baers - a lightweight woolen western shirt (which I wore last week) and a beautiful western cut wool coat (which he still has).

Pendleton shirts have never been cheap, which I suppose can be interpreted several ways.  They are expensive relative to other shirts, yes; but they are also of amazing quality.  I'm happy that winter weather has arrived - I have an excuse to wear one nearly every day!  I think of my great-uncle guy, and my uncle Doug, and my Dad, every time I put on a Pendleton shirt.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium Report - Volume 1

Late last week, the 17th annual Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium was held in Petaluma, California.  Two of our former interns - Courtney McDonald and Callie Murphy - attended the entire conference (including a great tour of several sheep dairies on Saturday).  My friend Roger Ingram and I drove down for Friday.  More than 140 folks attended the symposium, including dairy shepherds from Canada and Mexico.

Upon her return to Placer County, Courtney shared the following information with us:

"Recent research at Spooner Station (at the University of Wisconsin) shows that dairy ewes pastured on clover and orchard grass (or any 50% legume) and fed 2-3 pounds high energy grain ration (whole corn) on the milk stand had better milk production and fat/solids composition than traditionally managed ewes fed alfalfa and high-protein grain ration on stand.  This study is included in the proceedeings booklet.  Having just seeded my pasture with clover and ryegrass, I find this encouraging as I am pasturing my ewes and feeding whole corn and barley on the stand!
"Hand milking is legal for both grade A and grade B dairies!
"Both Bellwether and Haverton Hill dairy wean their lambs at 2 days and then feed Jersey cow milk mixed with 1 raw egg/3 lambs.  They had both previously just used the cow milk or milk replacer and lost many lambs...the egg was a tip from an Italian dairy that has worked extremely well.  Weirach Farm will leave lambs on for 30 days before weaning.  Barinaga Ranch leaves lambs on for 30 days as well.
"Spooner research showed that ewes who kept their lambs on for 30 days but were separated at night and milked in the morning had almost no fat measured in their milk.  After much research they found that since the ewes knew they would be reunited with their lambs after milking they "saved" the fat from their milk for the lambs.  Bellwether used this method of weaning when they started and had the same problem - they couldn't make cheese from this milk and a local "old timer" explained why.
"Spooner research also shows that crossbreeding dairy ewes with other non-dairy ewes is ideal to promote hardier ewes but keep good milk production.  This holds promise for our Blueface Leicester x East Friesian ewes.
"Everyone I talked to who is making cheese right now in California spent time in Europe learning the craft."

Courtney will share more notes and photos soon!  Callie is starting a new intensive internship at a goat dairy in Marin County this week, but I'm hoping she'll find time to report on the conference on her blog at  I'm excited about the prospects for a sheep dairy right here in Placer County!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

My Favorite Season

I love autumn.  I love the scents - wood smoke, decaying leaves, moisture.  I love the sense of slowing down - our work slows, the world seems to slow.  I love the variety - sunny and comfortably warm one day, cold and wet the next.  I've always enjoyed change, and the transition from summer to winter is particularly wonderful.

Today's time change allowed me to sleep in without feeling especially guilty - I slept for nearly 10 hours last night, but I still got up by 7 a.m.!  My sister and her youngest daughter were visiting, and we had the most enjoyable and relaxing morning with them.  At mid-day, we drove to one of our leased ranches and cut firewood for several hours.  I then moved a group of sheep, fed the guard dogs, and herded one of our breeding groups back to our back pasture (they'd been grazing some grass for a neighbor who is selling their father's home).  Daylight ended with our chores at home and with splitting kindling for the next week.

Part of what I love about my work is that I can see my accomplishments at the end of most days - unlike the office jobs I've had.  Autumn represents the annual opportunity to observe these accomplishments.  Our lambs are finished and sold, our woodshed and barn (hopefully) are full of wood and hay (respectively).  Autumn, for a sheep farmer, is also a season of expectation.  Our ewes are with the rams - in preparation for next year's lamb crop.  Finally, autumn is the beginning of our rest - the decreasing daylight hours mean we can't work quite as long.  In many ways, autumn is a three-month sigh of relief!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I took a load of 37 lambs to our processor in Dixon this morning - the last of this year's lambs are finished.  For us, this marks tremendous progress in our operation - two years ago, the last of our lambs didn't finish until February - at 11 months of age.  We aim to finish our lambs at 95-100 pounds (lighter than conventionally finished grain-fed lambs). The oldest of this year's lambs were seven months of age.  This may not seem like a big difference, until you realize that it costs about $5 per month to feed and care for a lamb - in other words, this year's lambs cost us at least $20 less per head to raise.  As I think about our management system, our progress can be attributed to three factors: genetics, pasture and animal management and marketing sophistication.

This marks the third year of our use of the three-tier breeding system used in Great Britain to produce grass-fed lambs.  We breed our white-faced ewes (Dorset, Dorper, North Country and Border Cheviot, and Coopworth) to Bluefaced Leicester rams.  The ewe lambs from this cross-breeding (known as mules in England) are then bred to a terminal sire - this year's lambs were sired by a composite ram (British Suffolk, Texel and Columbia) from Hamilton Brothers in Rio Vista, and by an extremely thick Border Cheviot buck.  This F2 cross maximizes something called hybrid vigor - the offspring of this breeding perform better than either parent, in essence.  Some of this year's lambs gained more than a half pound per day on grass.

Our animal management systems have also improved.  Most shepherds have had some experience with footrot - a debilitating bacterial infection of the foot that causes significant production losses.  While our genetic program has selected for sheep with more resistance to this problem, our ability to put all of the sheep through a footbath on a regular basis has had a tremendous benefit.  We've also improved our mineral supplementation - our region is extremely deficient in selenium - which has improved health and weight gain.

We have been so fortunate to lease pasture at Elster Ranch between Grass Valley and Auburn for the last two years.  New owner George Nolte and cattle tenant Bill Boundy have invested incredible time and resources in improving the pastures at the ranch - we had 2 foot high clover to graze in October.  We learned this year the benefit of leaving the pastures longer after grazing - if we left grass and clover at an 8-inch stubble height after grazing, we were able to regraze in 25-30 days.  By leaving more, we were able to graze more.  While we won't be grazing at Elster Ranch next year (George is expanding his cattle operation and needs more pasture), we hope to apply what we've learned these last two years to the irrigated pasture we're leasing next year.

Finally, the commodity price for lamb has created more opportunity for everyone in the sheep business.  This year, we were able to market our lighter lambs at a profitable price, which allowed us to save our pasture for the better performing lambs.  We've also added several new products to the things we market directly to our customers.  Instead of only offering lamb at the farmers' market, we now offer sheep skins, yarn and wool roving.

Because all farming is tied to the rhythms of the seasons, progress can be slow sometimes.  I learn something new everyday, but the accumulation of this knowledge may not show results for a year or more.  At the age of 44, I hopefully have at least 30 more years to learn how to do this better - to make progress!