Friday, August 31, 2012

Triple Threats

The feedback I've had to my earlier blog post regarding my decision to seek off-farm employment (see has generated sympathetic feedback from customers and tales of similar challenges from fellow small-scale farmers.  Based on the comments of customers, however, I want to clarify the main challenges to small farms in our region (at least as I see them).

Contrary to the assumptions of some of our wonderful customers, my decision to seek off-farm employment is not the result of a lack of market for our grass-fed lamb.  On the contrary, I could sell more lamb if I could produce it!  After seven years of educating our community about the benefits (health and otherwise) of our 100 percent grass-fed lamb, we feel like we've arrived in terms of our marketing opportunities.

So why can't we seem to make a living as sheep producers?  We seem to be facing three main challenges: lack of capital, lack of contiguous land, and ever-increasing overhead expenses.

Let me tackle the last factor first.  Overhead expenses, from an economic perspective, are those costs that do not vary with the level of production.  For example, we must have liability insurance whether we have 10 sheep or 1000.  Fuel costs and equipment depreciation are also not directly related with the number of sheep we own.  We've consistently subsidized our biggest overhead expense - labor - by not taking a salary out of the business.  These overhead expenses are the primary driver in determining the appropriate scale for our operation.  Based on my economic analysis, we need to have at least 600 ewes to generate sufficient income to pay all of our expenses - including my own salary.

The other two challenges stand in the way of achieving this scale.  At current ewe prices, we'd need to invest about $80,000 just to achieve the 600 ewe target.  Unlike farming annual crops (like vegetables), livestock production requires capital investment in productive capacity (as opposed to labor-saving equipment).  We cannot substitute labor for capital equipment as we're growing - we must either invest in sheep or retain all of our female lambs to grow internally.  Philosophically, I struggle with borrowing money to achieve this scale.  At the same time, conventional sources of capital (e.g., local banks) are generally not well versed in providing loans for purchasing livestock.

The last challenge - access to enough land - is largely the result of increasing fragmentation in the foothills.  On un-irrigated pasture, we need 1.5-2 acres to support a ewe for a full year (or .75-1 acre per ewe from October through April).  Irrigated pasture is more productive - one acre will support 6-8 sheep from April to October - but it's in much shorter supply.  Doing the math, we'd need 450-600 acres of annual rangeland and about 100 acres of irrigated pasture to support 600 ewes and their lambs.  At least in Auburn, this quantity of contiguous land is not available for lease.  A fragmented operation, as ours has been, requires trucking animals from one property to another - which drives up overhead expenses.

There is a chicken-or-egg element to the land question.  Having more sheep means I could potentially lease larger pieces of land, but I need more land before expanding the size of my flock.  That being said, large parcels with 75 acres or more of irrigated pasture and 500 acres or more of annual rangeland are exceedingly rare in our community.

Our answer to these challenges, at least for now, is to regroup and to re-size our operation to fit the land base we have available to us.  We have access to about 30 acres of irrigated pasture and about 250 acres of annual rangeland in Auburn.  This land is somewhat contiguous - the individual parcels are close enough that we'll be able to walk our sheep from one pasture to another (rather than trucking them).

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Symbiosis and Diversity

sym-bi-o-sis [sim-bee-oh-sis] - noun: 4. any interdependent or mutually beneficial relationship between two persons, groups, etc.

di-ver-si-ty [dih-vur-si-tee] - noun: 2. variety; multiformity.

We have the good fortune at the moment to be working with two other farmers in a mutually beneficial (symbiotic!) arrangement.  We're providing sheep, fencing and grazing management in exchange for green grass (which is in short supply at this time of year).  We're also adding diversity to these operations.
Our ewes are managing weeds at Elster Ranch.

At Elster Ranch (between Grass Valley and Auburn), we're trading access to irrigated pasture (to finish our grass-fed lambs) for weed control services (as I described in my last post).  This morning, I moved the ewes out of a paddock where they had been grazing brush and blackberries.  The new paddock incorporates several electric fencelines, a drainage ditch and a ranch road.  Normally, the folks at Elster Ranch would have to spray or mow the weeds in these areas - tall weeds short out the electric fence, and roadsides and ditches can provide a place for invasive plants to gain a foothold (and ultimately move into irrigated pastures).  Our sheep are providing a chemical-free option for maintaining the ranch infrastructure - saving money for the ranch!

Lambs on green grass between blocks at Amber Oaks.
We're also grazing ewe lambs and feeder lambs at Amber Oaks Berry Farm here in Auburn.  In this case, we're grazing under chestnut trees, between blocks of vegetables and berries, and within blocks that are being converted to a different crop.  This autumn, we'll graze the ewes on crop aftermath. Again, the sheep are providing a service - they are managing vegetation that would otherwise require mowing.  Amber Oaks saves fuel and labor, while we get access to green grass.

The addition of sheep to both operations has allowed George Nolte (at Elster Ranch) and Tim Boughton (at Amber Oaks) to diversify their operations.  Sheep give George the flexibility to manage areas of the ranch that are difficult to graze with cattle.  From our perspective, the lack of sheep at Elster Ranch on a year-round basis means that we're dealing with far fewer opportunities for our animals to get internal parasites.  Cattle are a dead-end host for sheep parasites (and vice versa).  At Amber Oaks, the addition of a ruminant animal allows the farm to convert a problem (weeds) into a product (meat and wool).

I have generally viewed agricultural diversification has a technique for adding revenue and reducing risk.  Diversification can add revenue by giving the farm another product to sell.  Risk reduction is related to this additional income stream.  In theory, more products means less risk from low prices or crop failures.  This approach to diversity assumes that one farm (and one farmer) is doing all of the diversification.
Grass-finishing our lambs at Elster Ranch.

The chestnut orchard at Amber Oaks also provides
grass for our lambs!

The challenge to this approach, at least for me, is that small farmers rarely have enough time to do everything!  When we started farming commercially, we grew vegetables, raised chickens for meat and eggs, raised sheep for meat and wool, provided targeted grazing services with sheep and goats, and cut firewood. At our scale, I couldn't afford to hire others to help with these enterprises, which meant I needed to do everything.  These issues of scale and labor necessarily meant that each enterprise remained very small - too small to make sense economically.  As our farm evolved, we eventually eliminated many of these enterprises and focused on those activities that were big enough to be profitable (and that we enjoyed doing).

Our experience over these last several weeks suggests another approach to diversification.  By developing these mutually beneficial relationships, we've diversified our forage base while Elster Ranch and Amber Oaks have diversified the suite of products they produce.  As we reorganize our business, these symbiotic relationships will become increasingly important, I think.  We may also find ways to diversify our product mix by involving other farmers.  Diversity and symbiosis, then, are products of a vibrant farming community.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Once More at Elster Ranch

Several weeks ago, I arrived at one of the ranches we lease to find that about a third of our irrigated pasture had been mowed by our landlords.  My jaw (and my heart) dropped - as grass-fed lamb producers, we rely on a plentiful supply of healthy pasture to finish our lambs.  We try to manage our pastures to allow enough time for them to regrow between grazing sessions.  This allows the desirable plants (like clover and orchard grass) to flourish, in turn crowding out the less desirable plants (like smut grass).  The portion of the pasture that had been mowed was the most productive, and it had only been rested for about 7 days (this time of year, we try to rest our pastures 35-40 days).  While I'm still not sure what possessed our landlords to mow down our forage, I knew that afternoon that we'd need to try to find alternative feed to finish our lambs.

I made several phone calls and found some leads, but nothing concrete.  The next day, my friend and our local farm advisor, Roger Ingram, was meeting with the folks at Elster Ranch between Grass Valley and Auburn.  We had finished our lambs at Elster Ranch the last two years, but owner George Nolte was expanding his cattle operation and felt that he needed every blade of grass he could grow this year (who could blame him)!  After talking with Roger and learning of my predicament, George offered to let us graze our feeder lambs at Elster Ranch for 30 days, in exchange for bringing our ewe flock to the property to help control weeds.  What an incredible gift!

The pasture at Elster Ranch is beyond compare - it's by far the highest quality forage we've ever grazed with our sheep.  George's vision, cowman Bill Boundy's years of experience, and ranch manager Rob Thompson's irrigation expertise have created in lush pastures that result in amazing gains in our lambs (and in George's grass-fed steers).  We hope to duplicate their effort at Oak Hill Ranch here in Auburn next year.

I've written before about the pleasure I take in working with other stockmen.  George, Bill and Rob understand both the science and the art of pasture and livestock management.  Our experience at the other ranch this year has highlighted for me the challenges in communicating our management approach and needs with someone who doesn't have the same stockmanship ethic.  As we move forward in reorganizing our business to permit me to work off-farm part-time, I'm thankful that our landlords/partners in the Mt. Vernon area of Auburn are supportive, understanding and enthusiastic about our operation.  In the meantime, I'm enjoying grazing our sheep at Elster Ranch one more year!

For more information about Elster Ranch, go to!  Check out their grass-fed beef!

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!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Continued Evolution of Flying Mule Farm

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:

  1.  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?
  2. How can (or should) smaller-scale farmers get access to affordable credit that will allow them to increase the scale of their operations quickly?
  3. 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?
  4. Do small farms need to be more diversified than ours?  If so, how do I address the added labor requirements (and costs)?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. Is a livestock operation different in terms of economics than a vegetable or fruit operation?
  9. 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!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What Does It Mean to be a "Small" Farm?

We currently care for approximately 250 ewes and their lambs.  About two-thirds of these animals belong to my family; the balance are owned by friends and other family members.  To provide adequate grazing land for our sheep, we rent, graze for free or get paid to graze (for vegetation management purposes) around 500 acres of annual rangeland and irrigated pasture.

I’m not certain whether the scale at which we currently operate makes us a large farm or a small farm.  We’re certainly much larger than when we started in 2005 with 27 ewes and one ram.  On the other hand, we’re much smaller than the commercial sheep operations in the Delta or the San Joaquin Valley.  Perhaps acreage and livestock number are not the best way to determine scale – perhaps we should look at income.  Based on our income from farming, we’re definitely small-scale!  In 2011, our farming business (which includes income from meat sales, live animal sales, wool sales, contract grazing, firewood sales, consulting and teaching) paid me a salary of less than $20,000. Fortunately, my wife’s business allows us to have catastrophic health insurance and other essentials.  We took a 2-night camping trip and several trips to see our extended family last year – that was the extent of our "vacation."

Our farm business provides an incredible way of life – I get to work outside with animals in partnership with nature every day.  I get to sell my products directly to my friends and neighbors.  I get to work with my family on a regular basis.  Our farm business does not, however, provide a living – at least not yet.  By my calculation, I worked approximately 2,800 hours last year (over 50 hours a week) on the farm – which earned me an income of just over $6 per hour.

A significant part of this economic pressure has to do with overhead.  I have to pay for fuel, repairs, and insurance for my truck (among other things) – whether I have 10 sheep or 300.  These overhead costs imply that a certain size is necessary to achieve profitability (and to pay the owner a salary).  Based on my analysis, this scale needs to be around 600 ewes for our operation.  At the moment, we’re too big to be part time and too small to make a full-time living.

The local food movement has raised awareness of the value of locally produced food from a nutritional and quality of life perspective.  The movement has failed, largely, to address the economic issues I've briefly discussed here.  We seem to have a romantic notion of the “modern” homesteader producing enough extra meat, fruit, vegetables, etc. to feed his or her neighbors.  We forget that “modern” homesteads usually come with a mortgage attached.  We forget that the “modern” farmer needs health insurance.  We forget that economic sustainability is critical to ecological and social sustainability.

Here in Auburn, a group of community activists is discussing the possibility of a local food cooperative (modeled after the Briar Patch Community Market in Nevada County).  One of the organizers told our local newspaper that the purpose of a cooperative would be to make cheap locally produced food more readily available.  As someone who has marketed my meat, vegetables and wool at the farmers’ market for nearly 10 years, I take exception to this statement.  It implies that my food is not cheap.  It reflects a lack of knowledge about what it takes to produce food beyond a family scale (both in terms of the work and the costs of production).  It suggests a continued devaluation of the work of producing the food and fiber that sustains life in our community.

Over the last several years we’ve sold weaned lambs to people who wanted to raise their own meat (and in at least one case, who didn’t want to pay our meat prices).  Invariably, these folks discovered that producing a quality product took a great deal more work and knowledge than they expected.  Farming at any scale takes an incredible amount of expertise, but as a society we tend to discount the work that farmers do – we assume that anyone can farm!

These questions are difficult to answer, but we must try.  Access to affordable land, access to affordable credit, access to more affordable health care – each of these is a part of the equation.  We must also decide what we mean by small-scale farming.  At least in Placer County, we probably don’t have enough arable land, water resources, and most importantly, skilled management and labor, to grow all (or even most) of our food three to five acres at a time.  We need professional farmers who operate at a scale that makes a living for them and for their families.  We need to figure out how to get there as quickly as possible.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Feral Fruit

"Wild" Bartlett pears.
Our part of the Sierra Foothills was once famous for growing fruit (still is!).  The first fruit shipped by rail from California to the East Coast was grown in Placer County.  Many of the folks in the generation just older than my own spent their summers picking and packing pears, peaches, and other tree fruit. While disease, urban sprawl and competition wiped out most large-scale commercial orchards in the 1970s through the 1990s, fruit production is making a comeback here.  But this post is about the joys of "feral" fruit rather than commercial production.  Feral fruit comes from trees and vines that were planted long ago and managed to survive things like pear blight, pavement and drought.  Feral fruit is one of the unexpected delights of my livelihood of shepherding!

One of the ranches we lease was once a cherry and persimmon orchard.  Most of the cherry trees died long ago (somebody once told me that cherry trees are like sheep - they're born looking for a place to die).  Fortunately, not all of the cherry trees on the old Musso place (they called the ranch the Number 7) died (nor have my sheep).  If I can beat the birds to the tree, I can gorge myself with incredible cherries in May. The Number 7, along with another ranch we lease, also grew plums.  I'm not sure what variety the plums are, but I know they are incredibly sweet if we pick them when they're soft.

Following the plums, our feral fruit pursuits turn to vines.  Himalayan blackberries are an incredibly invasive weed for most of the year - their brambles can make building fence or irrigating pasture miserable.  However, in July and early August, their shiny black fruits are often part of my lunch.  I think my favorite ice cream is homemade blackberry - it's definitely worth braving the thorns!

At some point every August, I awake to a morning that feels like autumn - something about the air temperature and scent, I think.  I start looking for pears and figs in late August.  On the Number 7, there are still a few Bartlett pear trees that survived the decline that wiped out Placer County's pear industry in the 1970s.  You've not tasted a proper pear until you've picked a tree-ripened Bartlett that's still warm from the sun.  I think the lack of regular irrigation makes the fruit even sweeter.  Another pasture that we graze features a giant fig tree that was planted by a bird many years ago.  Tree-ripened figs are just as good as the pears - I can't wait for this year's crop to be ready!

As we move into autumn, the feral apples start to ripen.  With the prevalence of coddling moth in our area, these apples are usually protein enhanced.  If my pocket knife happens to be clean (usually an iffy proposition), I'll cut the offending worm out of the apple.  These feral apples are usually pretty small - just the right size for a snack when I'm out moving sheep.

In late October and November, the persimmons at the old Number 7 start to ripen.  There are more than 100 old persimmon trees still producing fruit on the ranch - mostly Hachiyas (the astringent persimmons that have to be soft before you eat them), with a few chocolate Fuyus in the mix as well.  The sheep love the persimmons that fall.  My girls and I test the fruit until we find a soft one.  The flesh is the consistency of custard, and we all go home sporting orange chins.  Last year, we learned how to make omigaki - firm Hachiya persimmons that are "cured" by dipping the petiole into 100 proof vodka and then sealing them up for 10 days.  We decided that it was our favorite way to eat persimmons.

I thoroughly enjoy the fruit I purchase or trade for at our farmers' market.  Fruit grown by dedicated, professional farmers is wonderful.  On the other hand, the unexpected "wild" fruit tree is an incredible delight, especially when I come upon one when I'm hungry!

Omnivorous Responsibilities

We just returned from our annual camping trip on the Stanislaus River in the Sonora Pass country of the Sierra Nevada.  I realized during our drive into the mountains that I'd spent part of every summer and/or autumn for the last 40+ years in that part of the Sierra range.  This year, my daughters were more interested in fishing than they've ever been, which sparked a fascinating discussion about the responsibilities of people who eat meat.  My youngest, Emma, generally doesn't care to eat trout - but she loves catching them!  We talked about only keeping the fish that we were going to eat.  Ultimately, Emma decided that she'd eat some of the fish she caught as long as I'd help her consume the entire fish.  We decided that we'd stop fishing or release our catch once we'd caught enough to feed our family.  Emma, who turns 9 next week, even helped with cleaning the fish.  I would think that most 8 year old girls would be squeamish about this task, but Emma handled it with calm respect - it was part of her responsibility as the person who'd caught the fish.
Lara and Emma with our first day's catch.

My folks joined us on Saturday afternoon, which was wonderful - my Dad gave me my love of trout fishing (and my Mom always let me clean my fish on the kitchen counter!).  Dad told a story about our friend Mel, who turned 96 this year.  Mel grew up in Tuolumne County.  During the 1930s when times were tough (this recent "downturn" is no comparison), Mel and his brother and father would hike into the Stanislaus near the present-day Beardsley Reservoir on a regular basis.  They'd each catch all the fish they could carry (70-80 trout). On the way back to what is now Highway 108, they'd each shoot a deer and pack it out, too.  They provided meat to their entire "neighborhood" (near the mill town of Standard) - when their supplies dwindled, they went back and repeated the process.  They ate everything they caught/killed.

This fall, I intend to go deer hunting for the first time.  I didn't grow up hunting or with firearms, but I have enjoyed the venison that friends have given me over the years.  Last year, I purchased a Marlin 30-30 rifle, which my brother-in-law Adrian has helped me learn how to use safely.  In several weeks, I'll attend a hunter safety course and get my first hunting license and deer tags.  In late September and October, I'll start looking for a deer.

I'm still working out my motivation for hunting. It's not for sport - I see lots of deer during the course of my daily work, including lots of bucks.  I'm always thrilled to see wildlife - it's part of the reason I've chosen a life of working outside in nature.  For me, taking direct responsibility for the food that sustains me and my family is a critical factor - I've raised the lamb, beef and chicken that we put on our plates each night (we've not consumed meat that we didn't produce for several years).  Since I like venison, I feel like I have a responsibility for putting it on the table.  However, my motivation runs deeper than that, I think.  I feel like taking the life of an animal to sustain my own life requires respect.  For me, the only way to show this respect is through my direct participation.