In our video library, we have a British documentary film entitled “The Year of the Working Sheep Dog,” which was released in 2000. In many ways, it’s an outstanding look at the annual cycles of work on a sheep farm on the Devon coast of England (which aren’t that much different than the cycles of work on our farm here in the Sierra foothills). As a student of the economics of sheep production, I’m especially intrigued by the introduction. Narrator Christopher Timothy says:
“Two hundred years ago, a large flock of sheep would have numbered 150, and a farm of 100 acres would have employed a half dozen men. But times change. It now takes a flock of 900 breeding ewes to support one farming family…. Modern economics mean that rather than retaining a ready supply of full time labor, help can only be hired in at the busiest time of year.”
We’ve struggled with similar economic pressures. About three years ago, I made the decision (with the help and support of my family) to farm full-time. With grass-fed lamb as the centerpiece of our business, we tried to put together enough different enterprises to provide us with a consistent cash-flow and a reasonable profit. When I decided to go full time, we had around 125 ewes. My projections suggested that we would need to have 500 or so to make the business economically viable. Lacking capital, we decided to try to grow our business internally by retaining most of our ewe lambs every year.
Three years later, we’ve made progress. We now have approximately 265 ewes and ewe lambs (plus another 60 that we manage for other folks). I’m much more efficient with my time and much more skillful in my work – I’m convinced that I have the management abilities that would allow me to manage 500 ewes (or more) without much outside help. We’ve built a loyal following for our lamb and mutton within our local community. We’ve developed a successful targeted grazing enterprise that pays us for grazing our sheep to manage vegetation. Our processed woolen products (yarn and roving) are increasingly popular, as are our educational workshops.
However, we continue to lack the capital necessary to grow to 500 ewes quickly – we’re still trying to grow internally. After three years of scraping by on a minimal income (some of which I take in product to feed my family), I’ve reached a key decision point: Can I hold out until we’re big enough to pay me (the owner of the business) a full-time wage, or do I need to do something else? I’ve concluded that I need to get a “real” job again, at least on a part-time basis. The painful part of this decision for me is that I love the day-to-day work like no other work I’ve ever done. It’s a wonderful life, but it’s not a living – not yet, anyway.
My decision will require changes in our operation – we are reducing our flock size to fit our land base. We have long term arrangements on about 300 acres of land within 3 miles of our home. For now, we’re cutting back to 150 ewes. We intend to make some improvements to our current land base that will allow us to avoid hauling our sheep between multiple ranches – we have enough contiguous pasture to keep all of these ewes and their lambs. From a marketing standpoint, we’ll still try to market at least half of our products directly to our customers (through the farmers’ market or otherwise). We’ll likely eliminate our vegetation management service, as a part-time job will necessarily take precedence over managing grazing contracts.
Granted, this is an emotional decision for me. As time passes, I’m certain I’ll be more rational in my thinking about the role for small-scale livestock farming in building a local/regional food system. For now, however, I’m very discouraged. I’m pondering the following issues and questions:
- Does my decision represent a failure of my business model or an adaptation to existing conditions (financial and otherwise)? How will my business evolve from this point?
- How can (or should) smaller-scale farmers get access to affordable credit that will allow them to increase the scale of their operations quickly?
- Can someone who doesn’t own enough land for livestock production gain long-term access to enough leased property in our part of the Sierra foothills (especially irrigated pasture) to build an economically viable operation?
- Do small farms need to be more diversified than ours? If so, how do I address the added labor requirements (and costs)?
- Many of the small-scale farmers in our community have retired from other careers, which means they have health insurance and a retirement income (in most cases). Can young families get started as full-time farmers without this safety net?
- I believe that small-scale farmers must market most of their products directly to their customers to offset higher production costs. Direct marketing, however, takes substantially greater energy, time and effort than wholesale marketing. How do direct-market farmers avoid burn-out?
- Some of my fellow farmers subsidize their operations with incomes from other businesses or jobs. Others do not evaluate the economic success (or failure) of their farm businesses. How do I compete with this approach?
- Is a livestock operation different in terms of economics than a vegetable or fruit operation?
- How is part-time farming different from hobby farming?
I intend to consider these questions over the coming months as our farming operation transforms into a part-time business. I’m certain that additional questions and issues will occur to me in this process, and I hope that others will weigh in with their perspectives.
Sheep-raising is so much of who I am – so much of my identity – that I can’t bring myself to give it up entirely. I suspect that regardless of the part-time job I take, I’ll still introduce myself to others as Dan Macon, sheep rancher. At some point, I hope I can add “profitable” and “full-time” to that introduction!