Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ranching Habitat

When I started my career with the California Cattlemen’s Association more than 20 years ago, the modern-day range wars had reached their apex.  The environmental community was certain that grazing cows and sheep were hastening the ecological apocalypse.  The ranching community was certain that the environmentalists and the government were conspiring to bring about the end of rangeland livestock production and ranching culture.  My introduction to agricultural policy included Bruce Babbitt’s Rangeland Reform initiative and the rise of the Home Rule movement in the Great Basin.  Ranchers and environmentalists didn’t seem to have much in common.  Nearly two decades later, I’m speaking at the 8th annual California Rangeland Conservation Coalition’s Summit in Davis later this week.  This coalition of ranching interests, wildlife and land management agencies and environmental groups represents an amazing departure from the antagonistic relationships of my early career.

In the late 1990s, a group of progressive cattle ranchers in Colorado and California founded rancher-governed and rangeland-focused land trusts.  These organizations started to build bridges with conservation groups who were realizing that vast stretches of natural habitat were indeed threatened, not by cows and sheep, but by asphalt and houses.  As the first executive director of the California Rangeland Trust, I had the opportunity to help build an organization that today has conserved more than 250,000 acres of privately owned rangeland in California.  The relationships established with agencies and conservation groups in the early years of these organizations, I think, helped build the foundation for today’s cooperation.

Early in my experience with the California Rangeland Trust, I started working with a young woman who was on the staff of the Sierra Nevada Alliance – a coalition of Sierra-based environmental groups.  Cristi Bozora (now Cristi Creegan) approached me about starting a discussion with ranchers about grazing issues.  At the end of the first meeting I organized in Jackson, one of the ranchers told Cristi, “I came here tonight expecting you to tell us all of the things we were doing wrong.  Instead, you just listened to us!  Maybe we can find some common ground on a few things.”  A year or so later, I spoke at the Alliance’s annual meeting.  An Alliance board member asked me, “Are we just leading each other down a path that goes nowhere?  I don’t see how we can ever agree on everything.” I replied that I felt we had to walk the path, using Cristi's example of listening before we spoke, before we knew where it was going.  In some respects, I think it was one of the many paths that led us to today’s increasing collaboration on rangeland issues.

As I mentioned above, much of today’s cooperation has grown out of recognition that privately owned rangelands – lands that are grazed – provide some of the last and best “islands” of habitat in an increasingly urbanized state.  Most of the remaining intact oak woodland and vernal pool ecosystems, for example, exist on private ranches.  Paradoxically, the economic success of ranching (once seen as a threat to these ecosystems) is now viewed as vital to the ecological integrity of these habitats.

In the years since I left the California Rangeland Trust, I’ve started my own small commercial sheep operation.  My daily work brings me into direct contact with the natural world.  I’ve seen hawks cruise the paddocks that we’ve just grazed.  I’ve walked through vernal pools that seem to feature a new flower every week as they dry during the spring.  I’ve experienced the enormous swings in grass growth that can result from changes in rainfall from one year to the next.  While my sheep ranching isn’t always profitable in an economic sense, it has rewarded me with an opportunity to be in nature every day.

While cooperation has succeeded in conserving significant acreages of privately owned habitat, however, we’ve not been as successful at conserving what I call ranching habitat.  Large, unfragmented landscapes are an important component of these ranching habitats, but there’s more to it.  The infrastructure of ranching, both on individual ranches and within communities, is disappearing.  Most of the land that I graze with sheep is not fenced, for example – and none of my leases have adequate stock water.  Our communities are losing infrastructure, too – the closest USDA-inspected lamb processor to my operation is in Dixon (I am required to have my lambs processed in an inspected facility if I want to sell meat to my neighbors).  I have to drive even farther to market my wool.  Finally, ranchland requires ranchers, but there seems to be a disturbing lack of young people with the knowledge and financial wherewithal to enter the profession.

In some ways, the increased cooperation between ranchers, agencies and environmentalists that has made an 8th annual rangeland summit possible is a direct result of California's rapid development in the 1990s and early 2000s.  During the real estate boom, the pace of rangeland conversion raised alarms for all of us.  The current pause initiated by downturn in the housing market is useful in many ways; it has allowed us to catch our collective breath and hopefully to plan for the next boom time.  I hope we’ll start to think a bit about ranching habitat as well as natural habitat.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Bad Checks

On the last Saturday before Christmas, I participated in the Old Town Auburn Farmers' Market for the first time in several months.  During the fall soccer season, our friends Matt and Callie Urner sold our meat and yarn at the market.  December 22 gave me a chance to catch up with friends and customers who I had not seen for quite some time - I had a great day!  As usual, the last Saturday before Christmas was a busy one at the market - despite the cold and rainy weather.

The following Monday, I went to the bank to make my deposit.  I discovered, among the half-dozen or so checks that I had received, a check with no name, address or bank information on it.  I couldn't decipher the signature, and I had no memory of who had written it.  I'd been so busy talking with folks that I hadn't paid any attention to it at the market.  While it was only a $30 check, I was annoyed with myself for failing to catch the problem at the time.

We've been selling products at the farmers' market in Auburn for more than 10 years, and we've always taken checks.  Before we started accepting credit cards with my smart phone this year, we even let customers send us checks if they didn't have enough cash at the market to make a purchase.  In all that time, we've never received a bad check - until now.

I find myself upset that somebody stiffed us - again, $30 isn't much, but the idea of knowingly taking something without paying for it is aggravating.  Had this person told me that he (or she) didn't have the money to make a purchase, I'd have tried to help out - that's one of the things I love about the Auburn farmers' market - it's a community.

Going forward, I'll probably be more careful about checking the information on the checks I receive from somebody I don't know - at least for a few more weeks.  Ultimately, however, I choose to trust the people who I do business with - even if it means that a stranger might take advantage of this trust now and then.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Technological Shepherd

In ancient times, a shepherd would pen his flock at night and lay near the gate to the pen to protect the sheep from predators.  These days, I use guardian dogs and llamas to serve the same function!  However, there may be a more technologically advanced way to address the problem of predators.  The following note appeared in this week's edition of American Sheep Industry Weekly:

"Meanwhile, sheep got in on the texting action, too. Biologist Jean-Marc Landry of KORA, a Swiss carnivore research group, connected heart rate monitors to text transmitters. When sheep in a research trial were scared by wolf-like dogs, their triple-speed heartbeats triggered texts."

I started thinking about how I might use social networking and modern technology to improve the efficiency of my sheep operation:

Each ewe should have her own twitter account.  This way, I can figure out when they need to move to fresh pasture, when they're about to lamb, etc.  Here's a sample tweet from a ewe who's ready to wean her lambs:

"If they head-butt my udder one more time, I swear - I'll call the coyotes myself!"

Perhaps our rams could have their own Facebook page.  In the interest of equal opportunity, maybe the ewes could go on!

One of the downsides to new technology is that my border collies are smarter than I am.  God help us if they develop opposable thumbs!  They'll take over.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Going for a Walk

This morning, the border collies and I moved the ewes (all 250 of 'em) from Shanley Hill near Auburn to another pasture about a mile away.  It was such a nice morning for a walk, I thought you might enjoy a few photos of our trip!

Leaving Shanley Hill
Headed for the second gate of the morning.
Gate number three
Rosie the Guard Dog enjoyed our walk, too!
Last gate - and greener pastures.

A proper cool-down period is always important after exercising!

Growing Up Near Yosemite

Ron Arrington, who taught agriculture at Sonora High School when I attended in the 1980s, used to say, "If you're luck enough to be in the mountains, you're lucky enough."  I don't know if R.A., as we called him, was the first person to say this, but it certainly stuck with me.  Growing up in the Sierra foothills, I definitely counted myself lucky to be in the mountains (or at least close to them).  Living in Auburn, I suppose I'm still lucky!

My family spent many summers camping in the Sonora Pass country of the central Sierra Nevada.  As a small kid, we spent 1-2 weeks camping on the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus.  As I grew older, we started camping further up the hill - at Dardenelles or near Kennedy Meadows.  As an adult, my Dad and I spent a weekend each autumn on the west fork of the Walker River - on the east side of Sonora Pass.  I was lucky enough.

I grew up in Sonora - about 90 minutes from Yosemite Valley when the weather was good.  Despite our proximity to one of the wonders of the world, we only went there a few times when I was growing up.  The mountains, to my folks - and later to me - meant solitude, which is generally in short supply in Yosemite Valley.  My fondest childhood memory of Yosemite as a kid was the trip my family took to the valley one winter - I was probably around 12 or 13.  Winter in Yosemite is a less crowded time - you can almost feel the valley catching its breath.

Our own daughters have spent a fair amount of time in the mountains.  We still camp each summer in the Sonora Pass country, and we try to spend time in the northern Sierra (closer to our current home in Auburn).  Lara, who is 15, was in Yosemite before she was 2 - but not since.  Emma, 9, had never been in Yosemite - until New Year's Day 2013.  For Christmas this year, we gave our girls the gift of a winter trip to Yosemite.  My sister and brother-in-law, along with their youngest daughter Hanna and her boyfriend, joined us for the day.

The icy roads and cold weather help keep the crowds thinned out during the winter in Yosemite.  You have to work a bit to get there!  We had a wonderful day - took an icy hike to lower Yosemite Falls, wandered through the Awahnee Hotel, made snow angels under the shadow of Half Dome, and ice skated (at least Emma did) at Curry Village.  I realized again how lucky we are to live in such close proximity to one of the natural wonders of the world.

I think people are either ocean people or mountain people.  I love the ocean, but I couldn't live without being close to or in the mountains.  I wonder sometimes if humans have a genetically imprinted connection for the land of their ancestors.  While I'm not sure where all of my ancestors originated, I suspect that I inherited my preference for the mountains.  Our wintertime trip to Yosemite reminded me of how lucky I am to live in the Sierra Nevada!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Side Hill Mechanic

As I was approaching the sheep on Shanley Hill on Thursday morning, I heard a clunk from the right front wheel of my truck, followed by a lack of steering.  Upon inspection, I discovered that the right tie rod had failed - in fact, the ball joint at the right wheel had come apart.  Since my 2005 Dodge has more than 245,000 miles on it, I wasn't shocked.  Stressed about the expense of the repair, yes - but not shocked.

Since I'd broken down on a muddy ranch road on the side of the hill, calling a tow truck was probably out of  the question.  Furthermore, the expense of having a mechanic fix it seemed overwhelming.  After shouting a few four-letter words to nobody in particular (except my dogs and the sheep), I decided I'd try to repair the tie rod myself.

This morning, equipped with a new tie rod (to the tune of $168 and change), my modest tool box, and my border collie Taff, I tackled the repair.  With some coaching from my brother-in-law Adrian (a much better mechanic than I) - and moral support from Taff, I was able to make the repair in about 90 minutes.  I'll need to have the front end of my truck aligned, but the repair is done.  If I'd had the mechanic do it, I'd have likely spent more than $400.  I shouted a few happy four-letter words to Taff and the sheep!

My experience has made me think about several topics I've discussed in recent posts.  In my essay "40 Acres and a Mule - or 75 Cows and a Living," I discussed the fact that life has become more expensive than it was 30 or 40 years ago.  One factor in this increased expense is the complicated technology upon which we rely.  My first truck was a 1963 Chevy.  I was able to do basic maintenance (tune-ups, oil changes, etc.) myself - no computers or special tools were necessary.  My 2005 Dodge truck - a diesel - is much more intimidating.  I've not done much maintenance - or any repairs (until today) - myself.  Consequently, my newer truck is much more expensive to own.

Removing the tapered pins on the tie rod ball joints from the steering knuckle requires one to strike the knuckle sharply with a hammer.  This particular repair required me to remove two pins in this fashion.  In another recent essay, "10,000 Hours of Farming" (posted on the Foothill Farming website), I've considered the value of putting in the time to learn a particular task.  I'm a much more efficient and effective shepherd today than I was 10 years ago - because I've invested significant time in building my skills.  When I picked up the parts from the mechanic yesterday, he gave me a bit of coaching.  "Do you know the difference between an apprentice mechanic and a journeyman mechanic?" he asked.  I did not. "It comes down to knowing how hard to swing the hammer!" he told me.  As I was swinging the hammer this morning, I finally swung it hard enough to accomplish the job!

I still have a few repairs to make to my truck, but I'm finding this prospect to be far less daunting that it would have been just last week.  I'm also finding myself longing for simpler times.  When I farmed with my mule, I joked that one of my motivations was the fact that I'd married a large animal veterinarian rather than a diesel mechanic.  Had I been riding my mule (or driving my '63 Chevy) on Thursday morning rather than driving my technologically "advanced" Dodge, it would not have been as big a deal!  Maybe successful small-scale ranching requires thoughtful simplification to be profitable!