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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.

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