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.