Friday, May 25, 2012

Mutton is Delicious! No, Really - It Is!

So we tried a little experiment this week.  We have a handful of 2-3 year old ewes who have never had lambs - for whatever reason, they seem to be infertile, which happens sometimes.  On Monday, we had one of these ewes processed.  Yesterday, I picked up the meat, and we barbecued loin chops for dinner last night.

First a word about mutton.  In this country, any sheep over one year of age is considered mutton (in other countries, there's an intermediate class of meat - a "hogget" is an animal between one and two years of age).  Mutton has a reputation for being strong flavored and greasy - some people don't like lamb because they've been served bad mutton.

We've tried our own mutton in the past - we make sausage and stew, and we've thoroughly enjoyed it.  This time, however, we decided to have the meat processed exactly as we'd have lamb processed.  Our box of meat included loin chops, racks, sirloin and shoulder roasts, kabobs, riblets, shanks and stew meat.  When I got home last night, I put loin chops in a marinade of red wine, olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic.  They marinated for about 3 hours, at which time I put them on the grill.  I think we were all a bit nervous as we took our first bites.

We loved them!  They were tender, wonderfully flavored and juicy.  Because this was an older animal, the chops were larger than our normal lamb chops, which we enjoyed.  We can't wait to try the other cuts!  I'm certain that some mutton deserves its nasty reputation; however, our grass-fed mutton was fantastic.  Stay tuned for further updates!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Laid Up

Our border collies, as friends and regular customers know, play a huge role in our operation.  We rely on our dogs to help move sheep from one paddock to the next, to bring sheep into the corrals, to doctor sheep in the pasture, and to load trailers.  I always have at least one dog with me every day - most days, I have both Taff and Mo (and sometimes Ernie as well).  My canine partners lend structure to my day - if I'm running errands in town, I look for shady parking places and make sure my truck windows are rolled up to a level that will prevent them from hopping out to follow me.  I rely on our dogs to make my work efficient and un-stressful.  Sometimes I don't realize how much I rely on them until they are not available.

On Saturday afternoon, I took Taff with me to check on a small group of ewes at Blossom Hill Farm here in Auburn.  While I was checking on the sheep, a beekeeper drove into the farm to check his bees.  Taff decided that the shade under his car was inviting - too inviting.  As the beekeeper left, he injured Taff.  I'm not entirely sure what happened, but Taff has sore ribs and a sore front leg.  He's laid up for the next 2-3 weeks.

Mo, who is without question our most talented dog (I say "our" - he belongs to our oldest daughter Lara, who let's me use him), ended up with foxtails in his right front foot over the weekend.  He was okay Sunday, but as I prepared to leave for work this morning, he was hopping around on 3 legs.

Without Mo and Taff, I was down to Ernie - who's not quite ready for prime time yet.  I had planned to bring one flock of sheep into the corrals today to put them through a footbath.  Without any canine help, I wasn't up to the task.

While my lack of dog power changed my work today, I most noticed the little changes.  I didn't need to worry about shady parking places or window height. I didn't have anyone to talk to as I was driving from one ranch to another.  I realized how much I miss both the companionship and the help.

I joke with kids who visit our operation that one of the best things about my job is that I get to take my dogs with me everywhere I go.  Days like this - without dogs - make me realize that this is no joke!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Through Another's Eyes

We hosted a 2-day wool handling school last weekend - taught by Ron Cole, who consults on wool for the American Sheep Industry Association.  Saturday's activities were classroom-based - Ron taught us about managing our sheep and our facilities for quality wool production.  We learned about new fabrics, about what happens to our wool after it leaves our farms, and about methods for improving the quality of our wool.  On Sunday, we met at Thompson Ranch - our shearing site.  Derrick Adamache, who has sheared our sheep every year, sheared approximately 125 ewes on Sunday (he sheared the rest of the flock on Monday).  We learned how to evaluate fleeces, how to prepare our wool for sale, and how to properly set up a shearing site.

In addition to my regular crew (my friends and fellow sheep producers Roger Ingram and Callie Murphy), the class consisted of 20 students.  Some, like Robin Lynde (of Meridian Jacobs) were already in the sheep and wool business.  Others, like Paul Tu, were beginning to contemplate purchasing sheep.  All of us learned a great deal.

One of the reasons I enjoy offering our farm as a learning opportunity is that it gives me a chance to see our operation through the eyes of other people.  Dona Snow was gracious enough to share some amazing photos.  Seeing our farm through Dona's lens, I realize how fortunate I am to be doing what I do!  I share some of my favorites below - enjoy!

Mo and Taff show their eagerness to work in different ways!

The first group of ewes - waiting for us to get started!

We separate the ewes from their lambs while we're shearing.  This ewe is not happy about our system.

A bumper sticker on Derrick's truck - I couldn't agree more!
Swords into plowshares (or perhaps shearing gear).

We use a "bull pen" shearing set-up.
Ten ewes are put into the shearing pen,
which makes them easier to catch.

The fleeces look so clean and pretty from the inside out!

Ron Cole (in the blue shirt and shorts) teaching the class how to evaluate
and "skirt" a fleece.

Ron Cole spreads a fleece on the skirting table.

Laura Armstrong (on of our farmers' market customers) throws a fleece
onto the skirting table.  Laura is a fiber artist!

Bringing another flock into the holding pen.  Who's the short shepherd?!

Mo at work!

Taff at work!

Sometimes the easiest way to herd a lamb is to catch her and carry her to the flock!

Cooling off.

Our mule ewes.

Locks of wool (and vegetable matter contamination).

I hope to shear as well as Derrick someday!  Derrick is a wonderful teacher who takes time to
instruct even in the midst of a busy day of shearing.

Skirting a fleece on Robin Lynde's outstanding homemade
skirting table.

Portrait of a happy Border Collie!

Throwing a fleece onto the skirting table.  This technique allows the second cuts - short pieces of wool - to fall through the table.  This increases the value of each fleece (because long fibers are easier to process).


Sewing up a "sausage pack" wool sack - each sack weighs nearly 200 lbs.

Big ewe - big fleece!  She's much cooler now!

Black-eyed Sue

Bruce - one of our 11 rams.  Shearers charge double for rams - they are larger, stronger, and more difficult to shear!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Shearing Other People's Sheep

In May 2010, I went to a sheep shearing school at the University of California's Hopland Field Station in Mendocino County.  Over the course of 5 days, I struggled to learn how to shear sheep - despite my experience with sheep, I found learning to shear to be incredibly challenging, both physically and mentally.  By the last day of the school, however, I finally felt like I was getting the hang of it.  Last spring and summer, I sheared more than 100 sheep - some of our own, and some for other folks.  This year, I've just started shearing again - entirely for others at this point.  As the daylight hours grow longer, my work days lengthen.  I wonder, sometimes, why I make them longer by shearing other people's sheep.  I think there are several reasons.

First, shearing is an incredibly physical activity - world class shearers are said to rival world class marathon runners in terms of their stamina and strength.  While I'm not world class, I do enjoy challenging my physical abilities with real work.  Shearing well requires a combination of muscle memory, physical strength, and choreography - shearing has been referred to as the "90 second dance."

Second, I like learning from other sheep producers and, in turn, sharing my knowledge.  Invariably, we talk about sheep husbandry, ovine nutrition, and grazing management.  Every time I shear, I learn something new; hopefully my customers do the same!

Third, I enjoy working with sheep and wool.  I'm amazed by the thought that every wool garment starts with somebody removing the wool from a sheep (usually with more skill than I have).  In an age of technology and mechanization, the first step in creating woolen fabrics is basically unchanged in the last 75 years.

Finally, I appreciate the culture of sheep production.  Shearing is one of the significant mileposts in the sheep production cycle.  It is a group effort (when it's done well) - each of the "crew" has an important role to play.   The shearer gets the "glory" (if you can call bending over a struggling sheep "glorious"), but an efficient sheep shearing requires a team.  Somebody has to ensure the shearer always has sheep to shear.  Somebody else has to ensure that the wool is gathered from the shearing board.  Yet another person must ensure that the wool is prepared for marketing.  Shearing, in other words, is one of those communal tasks - like a barn raising - that combines hard work with good times.

As a shepherd, I feel like I have a responsibility to know how to do all of the work necessary to raise sheep humanely and successfully.  Shearing is an integral part of this system, and I hope I continue to improve in my abilities.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Pricing Our Products

I belong to an email list based in the next county north of us that includes small-scale farmers, local food advocates, and homesteaders.  The listserve is a great forum for discussing issues, advertising products and seeking advice on a wide range of farm-related topics.

Recently, someone posted an offer of "organic" eggs for $2 per dozen.  This person, it seems, was overwhelmed by spring egg production in his small flock (chickens always pick up their production when the weather turns nice this time of year).  As you may well imagine, his extra eggs were snapped up quickly at this price!

As for me, I found myself struggling with this offer.  We also have a small flock of laying hens - they are cared for by our youngest daughter, Emma.  By choice, we have kept this flock small - partly so that our 8-year-old can manage it on her own.  We've also made sure that Emma is beginning to understand the economics of her farming enterprise.  She charges $4/dozen for her eggs.  From this income, she pays $1/dozen for feed.  The remaining margin covers her labor - twice-a-day feeding, watering and egg gathering, weekly pen cleaning, and marketing and sales time.  We've done some rough calculations and have determined that she earns roughly $8/hour on her enterprise - minimum wage!

We use conventional feed - organic feed is nearly twice as expensive in the quantity we'd need, and we're not sure we can get the $5-6/dozen for organic eggs that we'd need to maintain Emma's return to her labor.  We've also decided that we don't want to expand the enterprise - our 15 hens seem to be just about right for Emma.

Getting back to the $2/dozen organic eggs, those of us who sell food that we produce within our community have a huge responsibility.  We are responsible to our customers, obviously - folks who buy our food expect it to be of the highest quality and wholesomeness.  We also have a responsibility to our fellow farmers.  If we can assume that farm income is critical to the economic success and livelihood of most farmers, then we each have a responsibility to understand our costs of production and to price our food accordingly.  I suspect that the person who sold his eggs for $2/dozen has no idea what it costs him to produce that dozen eggs.  While it's none of my business whether he makes a profit, it is my business when his prices put downward pressure on my prices.  Competition is a good thing, provided we're competing on the basis of sound economic analysis.

As I've written before, many of us enter the "profession" of small-scale farming at least partly because we reject the mainstream emphasis on profit and material wealth.  Despite my own rejection of these "values," I do need to make a profit from my work - profit allows me to pay the mortgage, save for my daughters' education, and maybe even take a few days of vacation each year!  When my fellow farmers price their products at a level that results in a loss (whether through ignorance or indifference), it impacts my ability to make a living.