Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Since 2001, I've kept a weather diary.  Most days, I write down the high and low temperatures, the sky conditions, precipitation in the last 24 hours, and other general observations of the natural world.  At Christmas, I always think it's fun to look back at the weather on Christmases past!

2001 - Cloudy, 38F (30F @ 11 p.m. on the previous night)
2002 - Partly cloudy, 30F and frost
2003 - 34/48 - Cloudy, popcorn snow @ 4:30 p.m. - temperature dropped 9 degrees in 15 minutes.  Saw great blue heron fly over. 0.20" rain, 7.71" for the month.
2004 - 30/53 - clear and very frosty
2005 - 50/55 - cloudy and rain
2006 - 39/56 - cloudy
2007 - 24/48 - clear in the morning, cloudy in the afternoon
2008 - 32/44 - showers, hail in the morning, then clearing.  1.15" rain (3.75" for the month)
2009 - 27/57 - clear
2010 - 38/53 - cloudy, showers in the afternoon.
2011 - 25/56 - clear.
2012 - 35/45 - cloudy, rain developing around mid-day.  Heavy rain in evening.

As of yesterday, we've had 9.75" of rain for the month of December.  We'll be over 10" with today's rain, and we'll have had close to 20" for the season by tomorrow morning.

I'm not sure what this tells me, except that I'm a weather geek - a geek in so many ways, actually!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Stranger's Advice

Note: I originally wrote this poem more than 10 years ago, but I thought it was especially appropriate this year.  Merry Christmas!

I’d been to the sale earlier that day
To sell a load of lambs,
And drivin’ back I was mighty depressed
About what the buyer had paid.

We’d bought the ranch a couple years before
And it’d be tough to make it through
Another year like this one;
We couldn’t take much more.

The headlights of my truck flashed on a man
Up ahead alongside the road.
It was snowin’ pretty hard by then,
So I stopped and offered him a hand.

I could see that he was pretty old
As I looked him over in the cab.
His long white beard was full o’ ice,
And he shivered in the cold.

“Thanks for the ride,” he said and grinned,
“I knew you’d be along,
I’m headed the very same direction,
And I knew where you’d just been.”

How’d you know I’d been to town,
And how do you know who I am?
How do you know where I’m goin’?
I asked him with a frown.

“Dan, I know a lot more’n you think,”
He answered with a  chuckle.
“I know you took a beatin’ on those lambs
You sold,” he added with a wink.

Yeah, well, I said, it’s not much fun –
We’re barely getting by.
What’s worse we’ll have no Christmas –
Now what’ll I tell my son?!

“That’s why you picked me up,” said he,
“So I could tell you what to say.
Tell your boy why you chose this life,
And he’ll begin to see

“That he gets a gift most every day
By you livin’ there on the ranch.
That’s what you’re givin’ this Christmastime;
He’s bound to see it this way.

“He fishes all summer down at the crick,
Goes huntin’ with you in the fall.
Winters he helps with all the chores –
What else would a ranch kid pick?

“So don’t dwell on what you couldn’t get,
Store-bought gifts are over-rated!
Be thankful he’s growin’ up out here,
Your ranch is the perfect fit!”

Then he asked me to pull over once more
And let him out of the truck.
“This is as far as I need to go,”
He said, “and like I tried to say before,

“Don’t worry about what you couldn’t buy
Or what’s not underneath your tree,
‘Cause the gift you’ve already been given
Comes from up on high.”

As he climbed down from the cab he paused
And said, “Can’t you figure out who I am?”
And as he disappeared into the snow night,
I realized he was Santa Claus!

So now I’m thankful that we’re livin’ out here,
And that I’m raisin’ my family to ranch.
So I’m wishin’ you all a Merry Christmas
And the happiest of all New Years!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Shepherd's Table - Our Favorite Soup and Stew Recipes

Several days ago on facebook, a friend asked for a recipe for scotch broth - which our family has on Christmas Eve every year.  I started thinking about soup and stew - it's perfect weather for it!  I plan on putting all of our recipes onto a new Shepherd's Table page on our website (www.flyingmulefarm.com) - in the meantime, I'll post a few of my favorite wintertime recipes here!  Enjoy!

Scotch Broth
3 lbs lamb or mutton neck slices (or shoulder chops)
8 cups cold water
1/2 cup barley
3 TBS butter
2 carrots, diced fine
2 stalks celery or fennel, diced fine
2 small white turnips or rutabagas, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, diced fine
Freshly ground pepper

Remove most of the fat from the meat. Put it in a pot with the cold water. Bring to a boil and stir in the barley. Simmer, partially covered, for 1-1/2 hours, or until the meat and barley are tender, adding more water if any evaporates. Remove the meat from the bones. Cool the soup and skim off the fat. Melt the butter in a skillet and add the carrots, celery (or fennel), turnip (or rutabaga), and onion. Cook over low heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Add to the soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook for another 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Serve piping hot.

Mutton Curry
2 lbs boneless mutton shoulder - trimmed and cut into 1" cubes
4 cups lamb or chicken broth
1/2 onion - chopped
3 large cloves garlic - chopped
1/4 cup coconut milk
2 large potatoes - peeled and diced
1 large carrot - diced
1 can stewed tomatoes
1 can garbanzo beans
1 can tomato paste
3 fuyu persimmons or medium butternut squash, peeled and diced
2 tsp meat curry seasoning (available from Spice Grills at the Auburn Farmers' Market)
Salt to taste

Cube the mutton shoulder and brown in olive oil.  After browning the meat, saute the onions until slightly browned.  Add all ingredients EXCEPT persimmons to slow cooker.  Cook on low all day if possible.  An hour before serving, dice the persimmons with the skins left on and add to the curry. (we used chocolate fuyus, but any fuyu persimmon will work).  If you're using winter squash, add earlier in the process.  Serve over rice.

Sheep Camp Beans
Note: this recipe changes everytime I make it - depending on what ingredients I have on hand!

2 lbs lamb or mutton shoulder - trimmed and cut into 3/4" cubes
1 TBS olive oil
About a half cup of onion
5 cloves garlic
Some red wine (not sure how much - pour till it looks good!)
Some water (same deal as above)
1 can pinto beans (drained)
1 can kidney beans (drained)
1 can stewed tomatoes (I like the Italian seasoned variety)
1 can diced green chilies
Dash of cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste

I like to make this recipe in a cast iron dutch oven over a camp fire, but it can be made indoors as well!  A crock pot works great!

Prepare meat and brown in the dutch oven.  Remove from pot.  Add olive oil and saute onion and garlic.  Add sausage, beans, wine, water and chilies.  Season to taste.  Cook low and slow for several hours (or all day, if possible).  Have a taste of the red wine.  Cook a bit longer.  Serve with good bread!

Sheepherder Stew

2 pounds lamb kabobs or stew meat (or mutton)
1 large onion – chopped
3 cloves garlic - chopped
1 medium winter squash (butternut or acorn) – peeled and cut into 1” cubes
1 can stewed tomatoes
2 cans beans (pinto, black and/or kidney)
1 can diced Ortega chilies
1 cup red wine
2 cups chicken broth
Season to taste (we use salt, pepper, a pinch of cumin, bay leaves, paprika and basil)

Brown meat in olive oil.  Combine all ingredients in crock pot or dutch oven and cook until vegetables and meat are tender.  Serves 4 (with leftovers

Please share your own favorite soup and stew recipes!  Go to www.facebook.com/flyingmulefarm to post, or leave a comment below!  Cheers!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Meat Happens

On occasion, I’ll receive a phone call or an email asking if we have a whole lamb for sale.  Generally the potential customer who makes contact in this manner needs a whole lamb within the next week or two, and I’m usually unable to comply.  For us, the sale of meat is just the last step in a very long chain of decisions and actions.  I thought it might be useful to explain how meat happens – at least at Flying Mule Farm.

In many respects, the total quantity of meat we have available in a given year is determined by how we manage our flock as much as 15 months before we’re able to sell a single lamb chop.  Each year in August, we evaluate our ewes and begin the process of “flushing.”  Flushing increases ovulation in our ewes by improving the quality of their nutritional intake.  We flush the ewes by putting them on irrigated pasture or feeding alfalfa for 4-6 weeks before we actually turn rams in the ewes for breeding season.

The time of year in which we have fresh lamb available is determined by the breeds of sheep that we use.  In our three-breed crossbreeding scheme, we use Border and North Country Cheviot ewes crossed with Blueface Leicester rams to give us our maternal flock of “mule” ewes.  We cross these mules with a third breed – a composite of Suffolk, Texel and Columbia – to give us lambs that will finish quickly on nothing but grass.  Because our maternal breeds are seasonally anestrous – that is, because they’ll only ovulate when the days are growing shorter – we breed the sheep in the fall and lamb in the early spring.  Since our lambs need 6-9 months to reach a finished size, this means that we have lamb available in the fall.  While there are several sheep breeds that can be bred year-round, we’ve found that these breeds present other challenges in our system.

By mid April, all of our lambs are born.  We select some of the ewe lambs for replacing ewes in our flock – those that didn’t conceive or lamb successfully are sold.  The balance of the lambs represents that year’s marketable crop.  When we separate the lambs from the ewes in June (a process called weaning), we also evaluate the quantity and quality of irrigated pasture that we have during the summer.  Grass-finishing lambs require incredibly high quality green forage – which in our Mediterranean climate means irrigated pasture in the summer months.  We try to match the number of lambs we keep for finishing with the amount of pasture available.  Sometimes, despite our best planning efforts, the amount of pasture changes unexpectedly.  This year, for example, one of our landlords decided to mow a significant amount of our irrigated pasture in August – severely limiting the amount of forage we had available for the fall.

Sometime in October, the first of the year’s lambs are ready to be processed.  We determine this by weight and by the degree of fat cover on each lamb.  Fat cover is directly related to the eating quality of the meat – we want enough fat for your lamb chops to be juicy, tender and flavorful.  At this point, we’ve incurred the expense of caring for the lamb’s mother for a full year, along with the expense of raising the lamb.  These costs include things like vaccines to prevent common diseases, rent payments for our pastures, fuel for my daily “commute” to check our flocks, dog food for our border collies and livestock protection dogs, payments to our sheep shearer, supplemental feed (hay and minerals), and other incidental expenses.

As we begin processing our lambs, we move into the heavily regulated part of the meat business.  For us to sell meat legally, we must have our lambs processed at a federally-inspected facility.  Both the harvesting process and the cutting and wrapping of our meat must be inspected.  We’re fortunate to live just 65 miles from the closest federally-inspected lamb processor – other producers must travel much greater distances to have their animals processed.

Processing requires us to play close attention to financial and logistical details.  Financially, processing represents our greatest per head expense.  We pay $25 per lamb for harvest services, and $55-65 per head for cut-and-wrap services.  If we can bring 10 or more lambs to our processor and have them cut-and-wrapped in an identical manner, we pay the lower fee.  Processing greater numbers of lambs allows us to reduce our per-head transportation costs, as well.  Each load of lambs requires two trips to our processor – one to deliver live animals on Tuesdays, and another to pick up meat on Fridays.  In terms of mileage and time, each load represents an expense of roughly $200.  If we only take 10 lambs per trip, the transportation cost alone amounts to $20 per animal.  We usually try to take 15 or more in each load.

Logistically, scheduling our trips to the processor requires careful coordination.  In order to get on the processing calendar on a given Tuesday, I need to call the processor by the prior Friday with the number of lambs I’ll be bringing.  On Monday afternoon or early Tuesday morning, I’ll sort the lambs that I’m hauling from the rest of the flock (a process that usually requires me to bring the entire flock into our corrals).  Early Tuesday morning (hopefully before 6 a.m.) I’ll load the lambs and begin the drive to Dixon.  Pulling a stock trailer through Sacramento rush-hour traffic can sometimes be a challenging job.  At the plant, we unload and weigh the lambs, and then I pre-pay the harvest fees.  I also provide a sheet for each group of lambs with the cuts of meat our customers want, along with the per pound price for each cut.  Usually the processor follows my instructions; sometimes they make mistakes (which I don’t find out about until I pick up our meat on the following Friday).  On Friday, I make a similar trip to Dixon (this time without the trailer) to pick up the finished product.  The meat from each lamb is put in its own box – if I’ve had 20 lambs harvested, I haul 20 boxes back to my meat locker in Roseville.  I also pay the cut-and-wrap fees at this time.  By the time I have meat to sell, I have incurred expenses of at least $80 per lamb just to get my product!

I should also note that we must pay attention to the amount of product we can expect from each lamb.  We try to finish our lambs at 90-100 pounds live weight.  Depending on how we have the lamb cut-and-wrapped, a 100-pound lamb will give us just 30-35 pounds of meat.  Our prices reflect both the costs outlined above and this yield factor.

At last, we have product for our customers!  Hopefully, we’ve selected the cuts that people want to purchase.  If we’ve had rib chops made by our processor, and our customers want rack of lamb, we’re both out of luck.  We store our products in a rented meat locker in Roseville (another expense – we pay $125 per month for about 400 cubic feet of storage space.  We also need to pay attention to our marketing expenses – our annual farmers’ market membership fees, our weekly stall fees, and our marketing time all add to the cost of producing our lamb.  Hopefully, we can sell our lamb quickly enough – and for enough money – to have some money left over after we’ve paid all of our expenses!

If I’ve done my job in planning, we will have enough lambs to meet our known demand – and to be able to meet the needs of new customers as well.  Even if I’ve planned successfully, however, the logistical and financial challenges involved in selling meat make it unprofitable to take one or two lambs to my processor for the customer that calls to order a whole lamb for next week.  I’d have to charge this customer substantially more just to cover my processing and transportation costs AND make a profit.

Like many small businesses, raising livestock and selling meat is immensely complicated – even more so if I want to do it profitably.  Basic biology requires me to make the right decisions well in advance of actually selling a lamb chop – the decisions I make in August determine the quantity and quality of products I have available 15 months in the future.  Unfortunately, I can’t simply walk out to the sheep tree and pick a ripe lamb when a customer calls!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

No Two Years Alike

As I write this, we're in the fourth day of an expected five days of rainy weather.  Since Wednesday morning, we've measured over 4.5 inches of rain - and we're predicted to get at least another 3 inches by Monday morning.  For the season, we've received more than 10 inches.  By comparison, we'd received less than 4 inches by December 1 last year - and we wouldn't get much more rain until February 2012.  I can see the difference in the years when I look at my pastures - I see green this December where I saw only brown last year.

Some of the impacts of last year's winter drought were immediate.  Because we had little if any green forage in December and January, we were forced to purchase supplemental protein for our ewes.  The protein allows a ruminant's digestive system to process dry grass (which is higher in cellulose).  Like any feed source that must be purchased (as opposed to the feed that grows naturally in our pastures), this protein greatly increased our costs of production.

On the other hand, we didn't realize some of the impacts until later in the year.  In May when we sheared the ewes, we discovered that we had "wool break" in some of our fleeces.  Wool break, which is a weakening of the wool fibers, is caused by some source of stress for the sheep.  The timing of the stress can be determined by where the fiber breaks, and wool break makes the wool less valuable when it's sold.  In our case, the break occurred in the middle of the fiber - about 6 months before shearing.  In other words, in December 2011.

We've also noticed that this year's lambs have not gained weight as fast as normal.  Some of our later lambs (we had a group of ewes that didn't lamb until late April) didn't perform well at all.  While some of this difference might be attributed to a change in the irrigated pasture we had access to this year, I think some of it resulted from the dry conditions in December and January - in the last half of our ewes' pregnancy.

This year, we've had the perfect combination of fall rains and warm weather.  The grass started growing with the first germinating rain in the second half of October.  With only one frost so far, we've had warm enough weather to keep the grass growing.  The short days and colder temperatures of December and January will force the grass into a dormant period, but we've had enough growth to keep the sheep going until longer days and warming temperatures start the grass again - usually about the time the lambs start to arrive in late February.

Unfortunately, one farmer's perfect weather is another farmer's wreck.  Last year, while we were struggling with higher feed costs and frequent pasture moves, our mandarin-growing friends were enjoying one of the best harvest seasons they'd had in a number of years.  Without the usual December rain and wind, they were able to pick nearly every day of December.  We enjoyed mandarins into January last year.  This year, while our ewes are thriving on this late fall burst of green forage, mandarin growers are trying to fit a day or two of picking in between rain storms.

While the technology and techniques of farming give some of us more options for dealing with variations in weather, all of us are ultimately reliant on what nature gives us.  My dependence on nature is the source of great satisfaction for me - and also the source of great frustration at times.  And while science and technology are an important part of our farming system, it is the art of dealing with nature's gifts (or lack thereof) that keep me interested in farming year after year.

Now I think I'll head out into the storm and move the ewes onto fresh green grass!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

40 Acres and a Mule - or 75 Cows and a Living

In mid-November, I had occasion to drive through Fall River Valley and Big Valley east of Redding with my friend Larry Forero, who is the livestock farm advisor for Shasta and Trinity Counties.  He remarked, somewhat offhandedly, that these valleys used to be full of small ranches with 60-100 cows.  Today, they are dominated by much larger operations – 500-1000 cows (or more) and large-scale hay ranches.  I asked him what had changed.

“Life got more expensive,” he replied.  Things like health care, fuel, and pick-ups are more expensive today than they were 30 or 40 years ago.  I think our expectations have changed, too – we think we need more material goods than our predecessors did – we need a big television, a new truck, a Hawaiian vacation. I was struck by the fact that these changes happened within my lifetime – I don’t feel that old!

Like the families that farmed the 40 acre farms of our past with a mule, I suspect that families that raised 75 mother cows in 1970 didn’t make their entire living from cattle.  Somebody generally worked off the ranch – as a school teacher or a nurse or a bus driver.  In that respect, the ranches of my youth were not that different than the small farms of my middle age – an off-farm income is still necessary today.  What’s changed in these communities is that the 75 cow operation has totally disappeared.

In the Sierra foothills where I live and ranch, the question of scale is very different for livestock operations than it is for high-value vegetable farms.  An acre of mixed salad greens might generate net income similar to the net income from 2500-plus acres of un-irrigated pasture land.  Given these economic facts, why would somebody (like me) choose to raise sheep instead of arugula and mizuna? Why would somebody choose to farm at all?

I think there are plant people and there are animal people – few of us are both!  I much prefer working with livestock to weeding a bed of salad mix, partially because I’m better at livestock than I am at vegetables!  Part of it has to do with the nature of the land we manage.  Rangelands, by definition, are too steep, dry, cold, hot, wet – too something – to produce a crop.  Much of the land I graze with my sheep is unsuitable for producing vegetables or fruit – and yet it produces incredible grass that my sheep love.

So what is the answer?  If we want to buy our salad greens from someone who knows every square inch of her one-acre farm, how do we make sure she stays in business?  If we want to buy our t-bone steaks from someone who remembers how a particular cow’s grandmother performed in dry years, how do we do that?  In short, how do we make sure we have small to mid-sized farms and ranches that are part of the fabric of our communities?

Those of us who farm or ranch at this scale will probably need to lower our expectations in terms of our standard of living.  Like our predecessors, we’ll need some off-farm income (and the benefits that often come with such job).  We must be compelled to farm, much as an artist is compelled to paint.  Our customers – our communities – must recognize the value of local food production by acknowledging that higher food prices might be necessary.  Our local governments must recognize the stresses that land fragmentation place on the economic viability of our farms.  Our society must again realize that food production must make a living for those who do the work.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Mutton Curry - Flying Mule Farm Style

On Wednesday night, we created our own recipe for mutton curry.  It was so delicious, I thought I'd try to share the recipe.  Enjoy!

Mutton Curry
2 lbs boneless mutton shoulder - trimmed and cut into 1" cubes
4 cups lamb or chicken broth
1/2 onion - chopped
3 large cloves garlic - chopped
1/4 cup coconut milk
2 large potatoes - peeled and diced
1 large carrot - diced
1 can stewed tomatoes
1 can garbanzo beans
1 can tomato paste
3 fuyu persimmons
2 tsp meat curry seasoning (available from Spice Grills at the Auburn Farmers' Market)
Salt to taste

Cube the mutton shoulder and brown in olive oil.  After browning the meat, saute the onions until slightly browned.  Add all ingredients EXCEPT persimmons to slow cooker.  Cook on low all day if possible.  An hour before serving, dice the persimmons with the skins left on and add to the curry. (we used chocolate fuyus, but any fuyu variety will work).  Serve over rice.

Mutton has a reputation for being strong flavored, tough and greasy.  In our experience, this couldn't be further from the truth.  We've started using mutton as we would normally use lamb - and our family loves it!  This curry dish is a great winter stew - enjoy!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thankful Today

Today (and always), I'm thankful for my family - for Sami, Lara and Emma.  For my extended family - my parents, my sister and her family and for Sami's family.

Today, I'm thankful for my friends, near and far.  I'm grateful for their support, their help - their friendship. I'm thankful that "neighbor" is an active verb in my community.

I'm thankful for the incredible meal we'll eat this afternoon, and for the people that grew, processed, transported and sold our food.  I'm grateful that I know many of these folks personally - and count a number of them as friends.  I'm thankful that I'm an active participant in my community's food system.

I'm thankful to live in a state and a country where most of us can take our food (and so many other freedoms) for granted - we're pretty unique in this respect.

Today, I'm thankful for the chance to work outside nearly every day.  I'm grateful for the sheep that help make my living.  I'm especially thankful for my dogs - my border collies that make my sheep work enjoyable, my guardian dogs that protect our sheep day-in and day-out.

Today, I'm thankful to have a roof over my head to keep me dry, a fire in the woodstove to keep me warm, and enough material goods (probably more than I need) to keep me comfortable.

I'm thankful for the gifts of music and art and humor - I can't imagine life without singing and laughing.

Thanksgiving is a day to focus on what we have, rather than what we need.  For me, the day is a reminder to show gratitude all year.  What are you thankful for today?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Compelled to Farm

A Facebook friend recently posted a link to the following article: http://www.denverpost.com/athome/ci_21967690/feeling-grateful-yet-teenage-poultry-farmer-dishes-straight

As a farmer who has struggled with the economics of our operation, and as a direct marketer who has heard many of the same questions and comments from customers has this young lady, the article struck a chord with me.  I subsequently shared the article with my own Facebook community.

My friend Marcie Rosenzweig, who used to farm in Placer County but who now lives in Oregon, posted the following comment:
"I've often said that farmers farm for the same reasons painters paint or writers write - because they are compelled to do it.  However, if we want the fresh, organic sustainable food we ask for, we must be willing to support it financially."
As Marcie suggests, I am compelled to farm.  I love the work of raising sheep like nothing else I've ever done.  Because it's an avocation for me, I think I've improved my husbandry skills immensely over the years that we've raised sheep.  The work itself has become easier.

Unfortunately, the economics of farming have not become easier.  I've discussed the economic challenges we face in previous posts; what I hope to do here is to discuss the emotional impact of not being able to farm full time, and to suggest some ways for us to talk about the type of farming we'd like to see as a community.

The recognition that I cannot make my living solely from raising sheep (at least at the scale at which I can currently operate) is discouraging.  Imagine a doctor who loves his work having to seek a part-time job outside of the medical field in order to continue doctoring.  I'm certain there are examples of this, but I'm finding this realization to be painful at times.  I'm good at what I do, but I can't make a living doing it.

That being said, I don't wish to dwell on my own frustration - a frustration that is shared by Miss Grebenc in the article above, and by other small farmers in our own community.  We need to have a conversation about what a truly sustainable local food system looks like.  Surely economic sustainability needs to be part of the equation - if we want our food produced on smaller-scale, local farms that take care of their environment, their animals and their neighbors, we need to make sure that these farmers can make a living doing so.  Americans spend the lowest percentage of their disposable income on food of any "developed" country - but the REAL costs of a cheap food system are much greater than our monthly grocery bill.  As Marcie suggests, we must be willing to support such a system financially.

As a farmer, I must also recognize that my customers face economic challenges similar to my own.  I should also be willing to share the reality of producing food with my community.  Instead of complaining when a customer expects me to be able to provide any cut of grass-fed lamb they'd like year-round, I should invite that customer to spend a day (or a week!) with me.  Not only would my customer learn something - I'd benefit from seeing my farm through a different set of eyes.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Learning to Drive

Like many kids who grew up in rural communities in the 1980s, I learned to drive before I turned 16.  My folks, I think, approached the task of teaching me to drive with a mix of trepidation and happiness.  They were nervous about turning me loose on the roads of Tuolumne County, but glad that they wouldn't need to pick me up from after-school practices.  The half-hour trip to town, just to retrieve me from football or baseball practice, made their long days even longer.  By the time I was 16 years old, I'd learned to drive both an automatic (my Mom's car) and a 3-speed manual (my own 1963 Chevy pick-up).  I passed my written exam and driving test on the first try.

Today, I got a first-hand dose of what I must have put my parents through. The girls helped me pick up fence on Shanley Hill this morning.  Since it's about a mile back to the gate (on ranch roads) from where we were working, I told Lara (who will turn 15 next Saturday) that she could drive.  With a mix of apprehension and excitement (on her part as well as mine), she climbed behind the wheel of our truck and moved the seat up so she could reach the pedals.  I'll admit I grew a bit more nervous when she asked which was the brake pedal!  Despite my jitters, she did just fine - and we all made it to the gate in one piece.

In our culture, I think learning to drive is one of the rights of passage that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.  Watching Lara drive made me proud, sad and nervous - all at the same time.  I can't believe my oldest child is growing up - I miss the little girl.  I'm also so proud of the young lady she's becoming!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Lambing on a Large Scale

I was invited to spend a few days helping out with lambing at McCormick Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista this week.  They are lambing out 1350 ewes (give or take a few) - much larger scale than our operation.  It's a beautiful place with an amazing history - here are some photos:

Lambing "jugs" - pens where ewes are allowed to bond with their lambs for
a day or two..

More lambing pens - inside this time.

Even  the geese know that something's up during lambing!

The main sheep barn.

Mo and my shadow - looking for more sheep on the hill.

Look closely - you'll see a peafowl on the granary catwalk!

Ewes with single lambs - awaiting their ear tags.

Mo - "If I don't look at them, they don't exist."
Bottle baby lambs are always curious!

Bellying up to the lamb bar.

Heading out on the hill this morning.

Drifting pairs back toward the headquarters.

Some of the tools of my trade today - my notebook
and a set of lamb hobbles.

Ready to go back to mom!

The old horse barn - it use to take 28 horses to pull
the combined wheat harvester.  Imagine harnessing
(and un-harnessing) 28 horses everyday!

Just thought this was a cool truck!

Inside the horse barn.

Ellen and Jill headed for a new pair (a ewe and her lamb).

Straw bales provide shelter from the wind and sun.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Stuck in the Middle

Local food and small-scale farming seem to fit hand-in-glove - folks interested in locally grown food want to buy from small, family-owned farms that are part of the community.  Small-scale farmers want (and need) to sell directly to consumers - selling to the end user eliminates the need for a "middleman" who takes a cut of the value of a farm product.  While I've considered these issues in this space previously, I'm increasingly convinced that the middle - that space between micro-scale and large-scale farming - is a difficult place to be.

Micro-farms (on the very small end of the small-farming scale) are a great place for new farmers to begin.  The mistakes I made growing a quarter acre of vegetables were far less costly than they would have been had I been growing on 10 acres (let alone 1,000).  Despite this obvious advantage, micro-farms are probably not ever going to feed our community.  There simply aren't enough people interested in growing food for their neighbors on this scale to feed our ever-growing population.

On the other end of the scale spectrum, "industrial" farms are not what most consumers seem to want from our food production system.  Very large farms enjoy significant economies of scale - they can spread their overhead costs over vastly greater gross revenues.  They can purchase inputs at a discount and can negotiate substantial savings for services like processing, storage and marketing.  On the other hand, producing food on an industrial scale can potentially bring other issues from a social, economic and environmental perspective.  The food produced on this scale seems cheap, but we often fail to account for the true costs of this type of production system.

A vibrant local food system, then, requires a diverse community of medium-sized farms - enterprises that produce on a big enough scale to make food affordable but on a small enough scale to be personal.  In his book Eaarth, author Bill McKibbon puts it this way, "what [a local food system] really requires is not huge commodity producers or small, incredibly wonderful gourmet farms.  What [we] need are 1950s-size farms."  If this scale is so desirable from the standpoint of quality and community economics, why are mid-sized farms increasingly rare?

As a struggling mid-sized farmer, I think there are several reasons.  Some small-scale farmers start small with the specific intent of growing their operation.  Others start small but treat their farms as true businesses.  Many, however, are hobby farms that do not truly account for the cost of doing business.  I've had several micro-scale farmers tell me, "I don't really care if I make any money - it's something for my kids [or grandkids] to do."  While I don't discount the value of teaching a new generation about the skills involved in producing food, I do think that this approach to agriculture devalues the act of farming.  When these micro-scale farms sell their products for less than it costs to produce them, it puts downward pressure on everyone else who's operating in a local marketplace.

On the other end of the scale, industrial farms can out compete mid-sized farms.  The factory model of purchasing inputs, converting them to a marketable form, and selling them at a profit, allows industrial-scale farms to enjoy significant economic advantages.  Farming at this scale pays the farmer, in most years, a living wage.

Farming at my scale - right in the middle of these two extremes - involves full-time (and then some) work on the part of the farmer.  At least for me, our farm has not yet provided a full-time wage, let alone retirement, paid vacations or health benefits.  In other words, our farm is too big to require part-time work and too small to provide full-time pay.

The answers to this problem are elusive and challenging.  Local food security is dependent upon mid-sized farms being profitable.  Perhaps increasing processing and shipping costs will reverse the economic advantage currently enjoyed by industrial-scale farms.  Perhaps we need to recognize that in demanding cheap food, we get what we're willing to pay for.  As a mid-sized farmer who is taking a part-time off-farm job so that I can continue to farm, I hope our community continues to seek these answers.

Friday, October 26, 2012

No Deer - But Worth the Effort (or My First Deer Season)

As I posted earlier this month, I hunted for deer for the first time in my life this fall.  With just two days left in the season, I don't think I'll get a buck.  On the other hand, I was reminded each time I hunted this month that there are other rewards to spending time being quiet in the woods!

This morning, I got to see the sun rise over the Sierra Nevada.  From my vantage point on the west side of the north fork of the American River near Colfax, I saw the sun come up over the newly snow-capped crest of the Sierra.  As I was walking along the ridge, a golden eagle landed in a dead tree not far from the trail - a spectacular site at any time of day, but especially breathtaking at sunrise.

During the hours I've spent looking for the elusive buck, I've observed things I wouldn't see if I was cutting firewood or herding sheep on this land (which I've done in past autumns).  I've seen a black bear and her cubs on several occasions - and once saw her footprints on top of my own from earlier in the day.  I've seen evidence of some kind of animal being dragged along the ridge - probably by a mountain lion.  I've seen last spring's fawns nursing on their mother - they're so big they lifted the doe's hindquarters off the ground in their attempt to get milk.  I've watched squirrels, woodpeckers, bandtailed pigeons and stellar jays gathering acorns in preparation for winter.  I've observed changes in the look and feel of the land that come with the first storm of the season.  And while I didn't fire a shot this fall, I've seen several bucks.

I've also learned things - about deer, about hunting and about myself - that I would not have learned without the chance to be quiet and by myself.  I've learned to pay attention to the wind and to the sounds that I make.  I've learned that my knowledge of low-stress livestock handling has helped me in my approach to deer - the techniques I use with flighty sheep and cows work when I'm trying to approach deer.  Being still is difficult for me, but I've learned that constant motion can sometimes be counter-productive.

I've decided that hunting, at least for me, is partly about food and partly about slowing and quieting myself.  While I failed in the food category this year, hunting has allowed me to slow down and be quiet.  It's allowed me to re-discover the wonder that I've always felt when I'm in nature.  In my daily work, I've noticed that I'm more open to this wonder, too - I'm seeing wildlife and other things that I've probably taken for granted in the past.  I'm looking forward to trying to get a deer again next year, and I'm looking forward to taking pleasure in being in the wild until then!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Farmland Fragmentation and Local Food

In my ongoing effort to make sense of the challenges we've faced in building our small commercial sheep ranch, I keep running up against the question of scale.  Starting small makes sense (small mistakes are less costly, for one thing), but at some point an enterprise must achieve a certain scale to be economically sustainable.  For a vegetable farm, this may be 10-20 acres.  For a pasture-based livestock operation, this may be 500-1000 acres.  Fragmentation - through development, inheritance and other factors - runs counter to this need for achieving scale.  Land prices and land tenure also present challenges.  Perhaps we need a combination of fresh thinking and old approaches to effectively address this issue.  Ultimately, a successful local food system will require enough contiguous farmland for farming (and ranching) to produce food in quantity and at a price that the community can afford.

Some context might be helpful here. We currently manage about 200 ewes and another 40 ewe lambs - not enough for a full-time income, but enough to supplement the income from my imminent part-time job.  As we reorganize our operation, we'll manage these sheep (and their annual "crop" of lambs) on 400 acres (most of it contiguous) about 3 miles from our home.  If all goes as planned, we'll irrigate about 25 acres out of this total.  The land we graze is owned by more than 15 different families - the largest parcel is 100 acres; the smallest is about 3 acres.  Some of it we lease; most of it we graze through a cooperative arrangement with the owners.  We manage their vegetation in exchange for free grazing.

Real estate values, even in the current economic downturn, are far greater than the value supported by agricultural production.  For example, one of the properties we currently graze is on the market for $1.4 million.  Based on it's agricultural production, it's probably worth about $500,000.  Because of this differential, we've built our business on leased rather than owned land - we simply can't afford to buy land with the income generated by sheep production.

Despite its economic advantages, leasing land presents a number of challenges.  For example, one of our landlords decided to mow the irrigated pasture we were depending on for finishing our grass-fed lambs this year.  Other landlords have decided that they can receive greater income from other uses of their properties (from boarding horses in one case).  Even with written lease agreements, priorities change and our long-term access to land is tenuous at best.

Our experience in finding land is not unique.  Other farmers face similar challenges.  Vegetable and fruit production rarely generate enough income to justify purchasing the 10-40 acres necessary for establishing an economically viable farm.  Even long term leases don't provide the same stability and predictability of ownership.

If we look back in our national history, the Homestead Act may offer a framework for re-establishing a local food production system.  At the risk of grossly oversimplifying the Homestead Act (and acknowledging the displacement of Native Americans that the Homestead Act facilitated), this program encouraged the establishment of farms by rewarding the agricultural improvement of vast tracts of land.  Families who invested 10 years of sweat equity were rewarded by receiving title to the land they were working.

What would a modern Homestead Act look like?  I'm not the first person to suggest this idea - others may have different ideas.  From my perspective, a private Homestead Act, administered by local governments and nonprofits, could encourage the establishment of medium-sized commercial farms that market their products locally.  My concept is admittedly vague at this point, but here's the basic approach:

Local communities could identify key farm and ranch properties with willing sellers - farm and ranch land that should remain in agriculture because of it's soil properties, productivity and history.  While conservation easements have traditionally been the method of choice for keeping land in agriculture, a local "Homestead Act" would require nonprofits and local governments to acquire these lands in fee title.  Upon acquisition, the new owner would identify a qualified farmer who would take over the day-to-day management of the property, initially subject to a long-term lease (5-10 years).  In exchange for paying rent, the tenant would be responsible for all property expenses (property taxes, water, infrastructure development and maintenance, etc.).  If both parties were satisfied with the relationship after the term of the lease expired, the farmer would be offered a life-estate on the property - that is, he or she could farm the property for the rest of their lives.  Upon the retirement of the farmer, the property would be made available to a new grower under similar terms.

Obviously, there are many logistical questions to such an arrangement.  Property taxes would have to be assessed on the land's agricultural value (rather than on its development value).  Some mechanism for securing capital for infrastructure investment would need to be developed.  An objective evaluation of the performance of both parties to the initial lease would need to be developed.  Regardless of these obstacles, I believe that such a program would help solve several critical issues relative to agricultural land conservation:

  1. Land trusts and government agencies typically don't make good farmers - they are effective at protecting land from fragmentation but are not good day-to-day managers.  Farming, if done well, requires that somebody - the farmer! - have intimate knowledge of a piece of land in all its seasons. Land trust and agency staff, who are usually responsible for multiple parcels, generally don't have this intimate relationship with a specific piece of land.
  2. Our current method for valuing conservation easements rarely diminishes the underlying value of a piece of land to the point where a new farmer can afford to buy it.  Currently, conservation easements are appraised based on the diminishment in value caused by the restrictions placed on the use of the land.  For the land to be affordable from a farming perspective, the underlying value should be based on the land's agricultural productivity.
  3. Such a program would provide successful small-scale farmers with an economical, long-term option for scaling up.
As our region looks at options for increasing local food production and sustaining the economic viability of local farming and ranching, we need to address the issue of land tenure and affordability.  A new "Homestead Act" might represent one such opportunity.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Reflections of a New Hunter

Hunting is a repeating theme in many of the novels of one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry.  Most of the male characters in his novels (which all take place in Kentucky) are hunters.  One character in particular (Burley Coulter) will often disappear for several days to follow his dogs (who, in turn, are following a raccoon).  Like me, Burley is a farmer, but Berry uses him to tell us how some of the best farmers have one foot planted in the domestic world and the other foot planted in the wild.

I grew up in a fishing family.  Some of my fondest memories of my elementary school years were the days that my Dad and our friend Mel would pick me up at lunchtime so we could fish all afternoon on the Stanislaus River below Beardsley Reservoir.  As I've grown older, I found it difficult to get away during the busy summer months to enjoy trout fishing in the Sierra.  I did not grow up a hunter; my only experience with firearms was with a BB gun.  In this, my 45th year, I've decided to try my hand at hunting deer.

I'll admit that I made this decision with some trepidation.  I've been nervous about my lack of experience with a rifle.  At times, I've felt like I was being disloyal to my upbringing - fishing seemed okay, but taking a fellow mammal for food, for some reason, seemed off-limits.  Despite my reservations, I'm finding that I am enjoying the experience of hunting immensely (even though I've yet to fire my rifle at a deer).  I've been out three times in the last week, and I'm planning on heading out again for several hours early tomorrow morning.

The attractions, for me, are several.  I find that I like the opportunity to be outdoors without the noise that often accompanies my work.  I've been hunting in the woods, mostly, and my work in the woods generally involves the use of a chainsaw.  Stalking deer, by contrast, requires me to be as quiet as possible.  I'm finding that I see and hear things that escape my notice while I'm working.  The stellar's jays and bandtailed pigeons are especially noticeable at this time of year as they gather acorns for the winter.  I'm also finding that I am more aware of surroundings visually.  As I look for deer tracks, I'm also noticing other signs of wildlife - I've seen bear tracks, coyote tracks, squirrel prints, raccoon tracks, and other footprints I can't identify.  I've also seen a huge variety of deer tracks - fawns, does and bucks - along with other signs of deer (broken branches along deer trails, tufts of hair, and droppings).

While the deer are skittish (especially at this time of year), I am noticing behavioral similarities with my sheep.  The deer seem to bed down and chew their cuds during the middle of the day - much like my sheep.  In the late afternoon, they emerge to graze and get water.  My sheep also graze late in the day.  I'm hoping that the deer are out grazing early tomorrow morning - I know my sheep will be.  Yesterday, I observed a large fawn nursing on its mother.  Like my large lambs, it lifted its mother off the ground as it nosed her udder to get her milk to let down.  I've seen two bucks - an older buck with gnarled antlers and a younger forked-horn buck.  The older buck was bedded down with several does, which I failed to anticipate - he was gone before I could raise my rifle.  The younger male was watching me from a line of trees.  I couldn't tell he was a buck until he bounded off into the brush.  Had I been patient, I would have had a shot at him.

Like Burley Coulter, I'm finding that I'm enjoying these brief breaks from the work of farming.  While most of my days are spent outside, I rarely have the opportunity to quiet myself to the extent that deer hunting demands.  Likewise, patience has never been my strength - and hunting (like trout fishing) requires patience.  Finally, all food production requires humans to interact with nature.  I am finding that this interaction is much more direct with hunting.  Whether I get a deer this year or not, I think I'll hunt for the rest of my life!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Strong Words

As a kid, my folks taught me to use the word "hate" with great caution.  They taught me that it was okay to dislike someone or something, but hating a person or a thing was over the top.  They and their parents lived through the Second World War, after all.  My parents were also active in the civil rights movement, when certain words conveyed an unreasonable hate of others due simply to the color of their skin.  This distaste of the word "hate" has stayed with me as an adult - I rarely use it.  I certainly don't mean to trivialize hateful speech or actions, but I have to say - I absolutely hate cocklebur plants.
Spiny cocklebur - what a lovely plant!
Common cocklebur and spiny cocklebur are invasive plants that seem to be increasingly common in our part of California.  Both plants have large seeds that are covered with Velcro-like spines that hook onto any receptive host - socks, pants, sheep, dogs - you name it.  Shearing sheep that have grazed in cocklebur is an especially unpleasant experience - the hooked spines on the burs seem to break off in the shearer's hand and cause lovely infections.  Our friends at Yolo Wool Mill tell us that the burs we miss in our fleeces cause problems in their carding machine, too.

This afternoon, the dogs and I moved one of our breeding groups about a mile up the road onto fresh pasture.  The sheep broke into a patch of spiny cocklebur in the midst of some green grass, and I had no choice but to send the dogs to bring them back onto the road.  When we finally got home just before 7 p.m., I spent 45 minutes picking the burs out of the dogs - Mo and Taff each had more than 50 burs stuck in their fur.  Left untended, these burs would cause sores and other problems.  The dogs dislike this process (they might even hate it).  After a very long Monday, I did not particularly enjoy it either.

As a grazier and a conservationist, I dislike invasive weeds.  My dislike for yellow starthistle, medusahead barley and barbed goat grass is especially intense.  I have to say, however, that I reserve the word "hate" for cocklebur.  I'm on a mission to eradicate it!  After tonight, so are my dogs!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Modern Shepherding

When I wrote the description of our farm for last year's KVMR Celtic Festival, I started with the phrase "combining Old World traditions and modern technology" to summarize our approach to raising sheep.  As we prepare for this year's festival, I've finally given some thought to what I meant by this.

In his essay “Let the Farm Judge,” Wendell Berry proposes allowing the farm (that is, the land and its associated resources and topography) to play a role in selecting the right type of sheep (or other livestock) for the farming operation.  While he concedes that the “industry standard,” as represented by the show ring and the processor, is important, he also advocates for local adaptation:

“Intelligent livestock breeders may find that, in practice, the two questions become one: How can I produce the best meat at the lowest economic and ecological cost?  This question cannot be satisfactorily answered by the market, by the meat packing industry, by breed societies, or by show ring judges.  It cannot be answered satisfactorily by “animal science” experts or by genetic engineers.  It can only be answered satisfactorily by the farmer, and only if the farm, the place itself, is allowed to play a part in the selection.”

In our own operation, we’ve tried to balance the need to meet the demands of our customers for flavorful, tender grass-fed lamb raised without antibiotics or added hormones with the demands of our land.  Our operation exists entirely on rented ground, which means that we don’t live on the property where our sheep graze.  Our customers are mostly the end users of our lamb, which means we receive direct feedback from the people that are eating our product.

Based on our observations, we need sheep that will meet the following criteria:

·         Our sheep must be able to utilize a wide range of feed resources – from irrigated pasture to annual grasses to invasive weeds to brush.
·         Our customers want moderately sized cuts of lamb, so we need lambs that will finish at 90-110 pounds.
·         Since we finish our lambs entirely on grass, we need medium-sized sheep that do well on our feed resources.
·         We lamb in our pastures rather than in a barn.  Because we operate on rented land at some distance from our home, we cannot be with the lambing ewes around the clock.  This means that we need ewes that can lamb on their own without our assistance.  We need lambs that can get up and nurse quickly, and we need ewes that can produce sufficient milk from grass.
·         We lamb in the early spring.  Out-of-season breeding is not emphasized in our system.
·         The bacteria that cause foot rot and foot scald seem to be endemic in the pastures that we lease.  We’ve noticed that sheep with black feet seem to have more resistance to foot rot.
·         To optimize our profitability, we need ewes that will produce a 150 percent lamb crop with little or no external feed inputs.
·         To reduce costs, we need sheep that are resistant to internal parasites.
·         While wool is not a significant product for us (at least economically), we do want sheep that produce fleeces of sufficient quality and quantity to cover the cost of shearing them.

In the "new" world, I think we've largely lost the ability to raise the type of livestock that our "place" requires - we largely raise the same sheep as everyone else.  At Flying Mule Farm, we've tried to walk a different path.

From a stock handling and sheep management perspective, we're also fairly traditional.  We rely on our border collies for many different tasks, including moving sheep from pasture to pasture, catching ewes and lambs for medical treatments, loading the trailer, sorting sheep, and other activities.  We've invested significant time improving our dog handling skills, as well.

Our predator protection system is largely based on systems developed in Eurasia - especially in Turkey.  We rely primarily on livestock guardian dogs that come to this country from Turkey and from the Basque region. These dogs - Akbash, Anatolian Shepherds and Great Pyrenees - evolved with herding cultures and fill the "large canine" niche in our environment.  I may jinx myself, but we've never lost a sheep where we've had a guardian dog protecting them.

Speaking of tools, we use several traditional tools in our day-to-day work as well.  During lambing season, I rely on a traditional shepherd's crook to catch newborn lambs for processing (ear tagging, etc.).  Since we lamb out in our pastures, we must catch each newborn lamb before it's 24 hours of age.  A crook (and a dog) make this possible.  Throughout the year, I use a sheep hook (or a leg crook) to catch a sheep that needs medical attention.

Our marketing program is probably more traditional than modern as well.  We market many of our lambs (and some of our mutton) directly to people we know.  In this sense, we're probably closer to the Old World model - our neighbors and friends purchase their lamb (and more recently, their yarn) directly from us.

Finally, we rely on the oldest transportation technology around - walking!  In the last 10 days, I've moved 200 ewes more than 2 miles total.  I've also moved 175 lambs about 1.5 miles.  In both cases, the sheep walked - as did I!  Shoe-leather is much less expensive than petroleum!

Switching gears, we also rely on very modern technology in our operation. Since most (if not all) of our leased pastures are not fenced for sheep, we rely on portable electric fencing systems.  Our electro-nets are powered by New Zealand electric fencers and solar-charged batteries.  Occasionally, we use solar-powered water pumps to provide stockwater to our sheep.  This technology allows us to graze properties that would otherwise be inaccessible.

I've recently purchased an iPhone - and I've added apps that allow me to estimate pasture acreages and to update my customers on new products.  We now accept credit cards for payment at the farmers' market, thanks to an iPhone app.  Each application makes me more efficient!

Finally, this essay represents a use of modern technology.  While I rely on the "old" approach of marketing directly to the folks who eat my lamb and wear my wool, I stay connected with these customers through my blog and through social media (www.facebook.com/flyingmulefarm).

I find this mix of old and new to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work.  I love the day-to-day work of sheep raising, and I also love being able to connect my work with the larger community.  I'm also reassured by the fact that if all of our modern technology disappeared tomorrow, I'd still be able to raise sheep!