January Morning

January Morning

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Stuck in the Middle

Local food and small-scale farming seem to fit hand-in-glove - folks interested in locally grown food want to buy from small, family-owned farms that are part of the community.  Small-scale farmers want (and need) to sell directly to consumers - selling to the end user eliminates the need for a "middleman" who takes a cut of the value of a farm product.  While I've considered these issues in this space previously, I'm increasingly convinced that the middle - that space between micro-scale and large-scale farming - is a difficult place to be.

Micro-farms (on the very small end of the small-farming scale) are a great place for new farmers to begin.  The mistakes I made growing a quarter acre of vegetables were far less costly than they would have been had I been growing on 10 acres (let alone 1,000).  Despite this obvious advantage, micro-farms are probably not ever going to feed our community.  There simply aren't enough people interested in growing food for their neighbors on this scale to feed our ever-growing population.

On the other end of the scale spectrum, "industrial" farms are not what most consumers seem to want from our food production system.  Very large farms enjoy significant economies of scale - they can spread their overhead costs over vastly greater gross revenues.  They can purchase inputs at a discount and can negotiate substantial savings for services like processing, storage and marketing.  On the other hand, producing food on an industrial scale can potentially bring other issues from a social, economic and environmental perspective.  The food produced on this scale seems cheap, but we often fail to account for the true costs of this type of production system.

A vibrant local food system, then, requires a diverse community of medium-sized farms - enterprises that produce on a big enough scale to make food affordable but on a small enough scale to be personal.  In his book Eaarth, author Bill McKibbon puts it this way, "what [a local food system] really requires is not huge commodity producers or small, incredibly wonderful gourmet farms.  What [we] need are 1950s-size farms."  If this scale is so desirable from the standpoint of quality and community economics, why are mid-sized farms increasingly rare?

As a struggling mid-sized farmer, I think there are several reasons.  Some small-scale farmers start small with the specific intent of growing their operation.  Others start small but treat their farms as true businesses.  Many, however, are hobby farms that do not truly account for the cost of doing business.  I've had several micro-scale farmers tell me, "I don't really care if I make any money - it's something for my kids [or grandkids] to do."  While I don't discount the value of teaching a new generation about the skills involved in producing food, I do think that this approach to agriculture devalues the act of farming.  When these micro-scale farms sell their products for less than it costs to produce them, it puts downward pressure on everyone else who's operating in a local marketplace.

On the other end of the scale, industrial farms can out compete mid-sized farms.  The factory model of purchasing inputs, converting them to a marketable form, and selling them at a profit, allows industrial-scale farms to enjoy significant economic advantages.  Farming at this scale pays the farmer, in most years, a living wage.

Farming at my scale - right in the middle of these two extremes - involves full-time (and then some) work on the part of the farmer.  At least for me, our farm has not yet provided a full-time wage, let alone retirement, paid vacations or health benefits.  In other words, our farm is too big to require part-time work and too small to provide full-time pay.

The answers to this problem are elusive and challenging.  Local food security is dependent upon mid-sized farms being profitable.  Perhaps increasing processing and shipping costs will reverse the economic advantage currently enjoyed by industrial-scale farms.  Perhaps we need to recognize that in demanding cheap food, we get what we're willing to pay for.  As a mid-sized farmer who is taking a part-time off-farm job so that I can continue to farm, I hope our community continues to seek these answers.

Friday, October 26, 2012

No Deer - But Worth the Effort (or My First Deer Season)

As I posted earlier this month, I hunted for deer for the first time in my life this fall.  With just two days left in the season, I don't think I'll get a buck.  On the other hand, I was reminded each time I hunted this month that there are other rewards to spending time being quiet in the woods!

This morning, I got to see the sun rise over the Sierra Nevada.  From my vantage point on the west side of the north fork of the American River near Colfax, I saw the sun come up over the newly snow-capped crest of the Sierra.  As I was walking along the ridge, a golden eagle landed in a dead tree not far from the trail - a spectacular site at any time of day, but especially breathtaking at sunrise.

During the hours I've spent looking for the elusive buck, I've observed things I wouldn't see if I was cutting firewood or herding sheep on this land (which I've done in past autumns).  I've seen a black bear and her cubs on several occasions - and once saw her footprints on top of my own from earlier in the day.  I've seen evidence of some kind of animal being dragged along the ridge - probably by a mountain lion.  I've seen last spring's fawns nursing on their mother - they're so big they lifted the doe's hindquarters off the ground in their attempt to get milk.  I've watched squirrels, woodpeckers, bandtailed pigeons and stellar jays gathering acorns in preparation for winter.  I've observed changes in the look and feel of the land that come with the first storm of the season.  And while I didn't fire a shot this fall, I've seen several bucks.

I've also learned things - about deer, about hunting and about myself - that I would not have learned without the chance to be quiet and by myself.  I've learned to pay attention to the wind and to the sounds that I make.  I've learned that my knowledge of low-stress livestock handling has helped me in my approach to deer - the techniques I use with flighty sheep and cows work when I'm trying to approach deer.  Being still is difficult for me, but I've learned that constant motion can sometimes be counter-productive.

I've decided that hunting, at least for me, is partly about food and partly about slowing and quieting myself.  While I failed in the food category this year, hunting has allowed me to slow down and be quiet.  It's allowed me to re-discover the wonder that I've always felt when I'm in nature.  In my daily work, I've noticed that I'm more open to this wonder, too - I'm seeing wildlife and other things that I've probably taken for granted in the past.  I'm looking forward to trying to get a deer again next year, and I'm looking forward to taking pleasure in being in the wild until then!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Farmland Fragmentation and Local Food

In my ongoing effort to make sense of the challenges we've faced in building our small commercial sheep ranch, I keep running up against the question of scale.  Starting small makes sense (small mistakes are less costly, for one thing), but at some point an enterprise must achieve a certain scale to be economically sustainable.  For a vegetable farm, this may be 10-20 acres.  For a pasture-based livestock operation, this may be 500-1000 acres.  Fragmentation - through development, inheritance and other factors - runs counter to this need for achieving scale.  Land prices and land tenure also present challenges.  Perhaps we need a combination of fresh thinking and old approaches to effectively address this issue.  Ultimately, a successful local food system will require enough contiguous farmland for farming (and ranching) to produce food in quantity and at a price that the community can afford.

Some context might be helpful here. We currently manage about 200 ewes and another 40 ewe lambs - not enough for a full-time income, but enough to supplement the income from my imminent part-time job.  As we reorganize our operation, we'll manage these sheep (and their annual "crop" of lambs) on 400 acres (most of it contiguous) about 3 miles from our home.  If all goes as planned, we'll irrigate about 25 acres out of this total.  The land we graze is owned by more than 15 different families - the largest parcel is 100 acres; the smallest is about 3 acres.  Some of it we lease; most of it we graze through a cooperative arrangement with the owners.  We manage their vegetation in exchange for free grazing.

Real estate values, even in the current economic downturn, are far greater than the value supported by agricultural production.  For example, one of the properties we currently graze is on the market for $1.4 million.  Based on it's agricultural production, it's probably worth about $500,000.  Because of this differential, we've built our business on leased rather than owned land - we simply can't afford to buy land with the income generated by sheep production.

Despite its economic advantages, leasing land presents a number of challenges.  For example, one of our landlords decided to mow the irrigated pasture we were depending on for finishing our grass-fed lambs this year.  Other landlords have decided that they can receive greater income from other uses of their properties (from boarding horses in one case).  Even with written lease agreements, priorities change and our long-term access to land is tenuous at best.

Our experience in finding land is not unique.  Other farmers face similar challenges.  Vegetable and fruit production rarely generate enough income to justify purchasing the 10-40 acres necessary for establishing an economically viable farm.  Even long term leases don't provide the same stability and predictability of ownership.

If we look back in our national history, the Homestead Act may offer a framework for re-establishing a local food production system.  At the risk of grossly oversimplifying the Homestead Act (and acknowledging the displacement of Native Americans that the Homestead Act facilitated), this program encouraged the establishment of farms by rewarding the agricultural improvement of vast tracts of land.  Families who invested 10 years of sweat equity were rewarded by receiving title to the land they were working.

What would a modern Homestead Act look like?  I'm not the first person to suggest this idea - others may have different ideas.  From my perspective, a private Homestead Act, administered by local governments and nonprofits, could encourage the establishment of medium-sized commercial farms that market their products locally.  My concept is admittedly vague at this point, but here's the basic approach:

Local communities could identify key farm and ranch properties with willing sellers - farm and ranch land that should remain in agriculture because of it's soil properties, productivity and history.  While conservation easements have traditionally been the method of choice for keeping land in agriculture, a local "Homestead Act" would require nonprofits and local governments to acquire these lands in fee title.  Upon acquisition, the new owner would identify a qualified farmer who would take over the day-to-day management of the property, initially subject to a long-term lease (5-10 years).  In exchange for paying rent, the tenant would be responsible for all property expenses (property taxes, water, infrastructure development and maintenance, etc.).  If both parties were satisfied with the relationship after the term of the lease expired, the farmer would be offered a life-estate on the property - that is, he or she could farm the property for the rest of their lives.  Upon the retirement of the farmer, the property would be made available to a new grower under similar terms.

Obviously, there are many logistical questions to such an arrangement.  Property taxes would have to be assessed on the land's agricultural value (rather than on its development value).  Some mechanism for securing capital for infrastructure investment would need to be developed.  An objective evaluation of the performance of both parties to the initial lease would need to be developed.  Regardless of these obstacles, I believe that such a program would help solve several critical issues relative to agricultural land conservation:

  1. Land trusts and government agencies typically don't make good farmers - they are effective at protecting land from fragmentation but are not good day-to-day managers.  Farming, if done well, requires that somebody - the farmer! - have intimate knowledge of a piece of land in all its seasons. Land trust and agency staff, who are usually responsible for multiple parcels, generally don't have this intimate relationship with a specific piece of land.
  2. Our current method for valuing conservation easements rarely diminishes the underlying value of a piece of land to the point where a new farmer can afford to buy it.  Currently, conservation easements are appraised based on the diminishment in value caused by the restrictions placed on the use of the land.  For the land to be affordable from a farming perspective, the underlying value should be based on the land's agricultural productivity.
  3. Such a program would provide successful small-scale farmers with an economical, long-term option for scaling up.
As our region looks at options for increasing local food production and sustaining the economic viability of local farming and ranching, we need to address the issue of land tenure and affordability.  A new "Homestead Act" might represent one such opportunity.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Reflections of a New Hunter

Hunting is a repeating theme in many of the novels of one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry.  Most of the male characters in his novels (which all take place in Kentucky) are hunters.  One character in particular (Burley Coulter) will often disappear for several days to follow his dogs (who, in turn, are following a raccoon).  Like me, Burley is a farmer, but Berry uses him to tell us how some of the best farmers have one foot planted in the domestic world and the other foot planted in the wild.

I grew up in a fishing family.  Some of my fondest memories of my elementary school years were the days that my Dad and our friend Mel would pick me up at lunchtime so we could fish all afternoon on the Stanislaus River below Beardsley Reservoir.  As I've grown older, I found it difficult to get away during the busy summer months to enjoy trout fishing in the Sierra.  I did not grow up a hunter; my only experience with firearms was with a BB gun.  In this, my 45th year, I've decided to try my hand at hunting deer.

I'll admit that I made this decision with some trepidation.  I've been nervous about my lack of experience with a rifle.  At times, I've felt like I was being disloyal to my upbringing - fishing seemed okay, but taking a fellow mammal for food, for some reason, seemed off-limits.  Despite my reservations, I'm finding that I am enjoying the experience of hunting immensely (even though I've yet to fire my rifle at a deer).  I've been out three times in the last week, and I'm planning on heading out again for several hours early tomorrow morning.

The attractions, for me, are several.  I find that I like the opportunity to be outdoors without the noise that often accompanies my work.  I've been hunting in the woods, mostly, and my work in the woods generally involves the use of a chainsaw.  Stalking deer, by contrast, requires me to be as quiet as possible.  I'm finding that I see and hear things that escape my notice while I'm working.  The stellar's jays and bandtailed pigeons are especially noticeable at this time of year as they gather acorns for the winter.  I'm also finding that I am more aware of surroundings visually.  As I look for deer tracks, I'm also noticing other signs of wildlife - I've seen bear tracks, coyote tracks, squirrel prints, raccoon tracks, and other footprints I can't identify.  I've also seen a huge variety of deer tracks - fawns, does and bucks - along with other signs of deer (broken branches along deer trails, tufts of hair, and droppings).

While the deer are skittish (especially at this time of year), I am noticing behavioral similarities with my sheep.  The deer seem to bed down and chew their cuds during the middle of the day - much like my sheep.  In the late afternoon, they emerge to graze and get water.  My sheep also graze late in the day.  I'm hoping that the deer are out grazing early tomorrow morning - I know my sheep will be.  Yesterday, I observed a large fawn nursing on its mother.  Like my large lambs, it lifted its mother off the ground as it nosed her udder to get her milk to let down.  I've seen two bucks - an older buck with gnarled antlers and a younger forked-horn buck.  The older buck was bedded down with several does, which I failed to anticipate - he was gone before I could raise my rifle.  The younger male was watching me from a line of trees.  I couldn't tell he was a buck until he bounded off into the brush.  Had I been patient, I would have had a shot at him.

Like Burley Coulter, I'm finding that I'm enjoying these brief breaks from the work of farming.  While most of my days are spent outside, I rarely have the opportunity to quiet myself to the extent that deer hunting demands.  Likewise, patience has never been my strength - and hunting (like trout fishing) requires patience.  Finally, all food production requires humans to interact with nature.  I am finding that this interaction is much more direct with hunting.  Whether I get a deer this year or not, I think I'll hunt for the rest of my life!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Strong Words

As a kid, my folks taught me to use the word "hate" with great caution.  They taught me that it was okay to dislike someone or something, but hating a person or a thing was over the top.  They and their parents lived through the Second World War, after all.  My parents were also active in the civil rights movement, when certain words conveyed an unreasonable hate of others due simply to the color of their skin.  This distaste of the word "hate" has stayed with me as an adult - I rarely use it.  I certainly don't mean to trivialize hateful speech or actions, but I have to say - I absolutely hate cocklebur plants.
Spiny cocklebur - what a lovely plant!
Common cocklebur and spiny cocklebur are invasive plants that seem to be increasingly common in our part of California.  Both plants have large seeds that are covered with Velcro-like spines that hook onto any receptive host - socks, pants, sheep, dogs - you name it.  Shearing sheep that have grazed in cocklebur is an especially unpleasant experience - the hooked spines on the burs seem to break off in the shearer's hand and cause lovely infections.  Our friends at Yolo Wool Mill tell us that the burs we miss in our fleeces cause problems in their carding machine, too.

This afternoon, the dogs and I moved one of our breeding groups about a mile up the road onto fresh pasture.  The sheep broke into a patch of spiny cocklebur in the midst of some green grass, and I had no choice but to send the dogs to bring them back onto the road.  When we finally got home just before 7 p.m., I spent 45 minutes picking the burs out of the dogs - Mo and Taff each had more than 50 burs stuck in their fur.  Left untended, these burs would cause sores and other problems.  The dogs dislike this process (they might even hate it).  After a very long Monday, I did not particularly enjoy it either.

As a grazier and a conservationist, I dislike invasive weeds.  My dislike for yellow starthistle, medusahead barley and barbed goat grass is especially intense.  I have to say, however, that I reserve the word "hate" for cocklebur.  I'm on a mission to eradicate it!  After tonight, so are my dogs!