Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Becoming a Part-Time Shepherd

As I begin to consider the economic realities described in my last two blog posts, I am realizing that these changes represent an evolution of our business model rather than a failure of our business.  That being said, the transition to becoming a part-time shepherd will require some difficult decisions about our animals, our approach to marketing and management, and our relationship with our community.  Despite the plans I’ve outlined below, I’m certain that our approach will continue to evolve as I try to fit my farming enterprises within the time constraints of a more formal part-time job.

Business Management
Like most people who go into small-scale, direct market agriculture, I enjoy doing physical work outdoors.  I dislike office work, which often means that the administrative details involved in running a business (including a small farm) get pushed to a back burner – things like bookkeeping are especially difficult for me to get excited about.  Moving forward, I’ll need to be especially focused on these business-oriented (as opposed to market-oriented and production-oriented) details.  I’ve now recognized that this may be an area where I need outside help!  Affording this outside help is another matter.

Production – Land and Animal Management
To help make my labor more efficient, and to avoid the time and expense involved in moving sheep from one end of the county to the other, we’ve decided to focus our management efforts on properties that are close to our home.  Not only will this reduce fuel costs and driving time; it will allow us to keep all of our sheep in one general location.  To accomplish this, we’ll need to do several things:

  1. Reduce our flock size to fit our stocking rate to the carrying capacity of our land base, and
  2. Develop irrigated pasture close to home that will maximize labor and water efficiency while allowing us to continue to produce high-quality, 100 percent grass-fed lambs.

Since starting in the sheep business on a commercial scale seven years ago, we’ve been in expansion mode.  This has meant that we’ve kept most of our ewe lambs as a way to increase the size of our operation internally (that is, with minimal capital investment).  Matching our flock size to our land base at this point in time will allow us to keep the best ewes – those that are most likely to have twins, those that have the best feet and legs, those that produce the best fleeces.  In some respects, this “re-set” will position us for expanding our flock with ewes that fit our system (if that time comes).

As grass-fed lamb producers, we rely on summer-irrigated pasture to finish our lambs.  In 2010 and 2011, we had the opportunity to lease pasture at Elster Ranch between Grass Valley and Auburn.  George Nolte, the owner of this historic ranch, and Bill Boundy, the cowman who has leased the property for more than 25 years, have established some of the best irrigated pasture I’ve ever seen.  With the help of our landlords at Oak Hill Ranch here in Auburn (and hopefully with Bill’s advice), we’re going to try to duplicate this effort.  The 20+ acres of pasture that we’ll establish at Oak Hill should allow us to finish close to 200 lambs each summer.

Finally, we’re focusing all of our management efforts on land that is within 3 miles of our home here in Auburn (in the last several years, we’ve grazed land that was 15 miles or more from our home).    Based on our current arrangements, we have access to about 250 acres (including slightly more than 30 acres of irrigated pasture), all of which we can graze without putting sheep in the trailer.  This arrangement will reduce our fuel costs – and create more work for the border collies, which they’ll love!  Because all of our pasture will be within a 10 minute drive of home, we’ll be able to respond to problems more quickly as well.

For more than four years, I’ve been able to set my own calendar.  As I anticipate becoming someone’s employee again, I’m keenly aware that I’ll be on a more rigid schedule.  Consequently, I’ll need to schedule weekly tasks (like building fence and moving sheep) more carefully.  More intensive production tasks (like trimming feet, shearing sheep, or vaccinating lambs) will also need to be calendared to accommodate my work schedule.  I’m hoping to find a job that will provide some seasonal flexibility – I’ll need more time away from a job during lambing season, for example.  Finally, my family is aware that part-time shepherding will require long days – I’ll be checking sheep and moving irrigation water before and after work.

As small-scale producers, we need to focus our marketing efforts on those outlets that will optimize our returns and our labor.  While the farmers' market has been the centerpiece of our current marketing strategy, I’m not convinced that it will be the most efficient use of our marketing time in the future.  I intend to explore this question in more detail this fall, but for now we plan on trying to sell as many whole and half lambs as possible.  We’ll also look at developing a local wholesale market for our lambs – restaurants and retail outlets may allow us to sell in bulk and still achieve better returns than we’d get on the commodity market.  We’ll work to develop similar channels for our wool.

I am concerned about maintaining regular contact with our community if we’re not at the farmers’ market every week.  Our website, email list, blog and facebook page have helped us connect with our customers, and we’ll continue to use these technological tools.  I also plan to open our operation to our customers more consistently.  I’m working on developing a fall event focused on sheep dogs and fiber arts.  We’ll look at weekly open houses during our lambing season, too.  We’ll continue to participate in fairs and music festivals (like the KVMR Celtic Festival) too.

Teaching has become an increasingly rewarding and enjoyable part of our business.  This year, we transitioned away from our formal apprenticeship program and developed a Shepherding Skills Workshop Series – hands-on workshops focused on animal husbandry.  As I contemplated these changes to our business, I wondered if I still had anything to offer in terms of education – after all, the business model we’d attempted had in essence failed.  I’ve realized that in some respects my experience is even more useful – hopefully I can help aspiring or beginning small-scale farmers avoid the mistakes I’ve made.  The land I manage and the animals I own are a tremendous resource that allows me to help others get started in this business.

The current financial realities of our business mean that I need to find part-time work in the very near future.  I’m hopeful that the right opportunity will present itself soon.  In the meantime, I have plenty of work to do in making this transition.  I hope that our friends, families and customers will continue to gift us with their perspectives and advice as we go through this process!


  1. This would be a fun job - maybe they will have something part-time come up in the near future: http://animalplace.org/job-openings