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Showing posts from August, 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, lac…

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.

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 sho…

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, …

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 e…

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-t…

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 a…

Feral Fruit

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…

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 ha…