Monday, September 30, 2013

Experimental Stew

I like to experiment in the kitchen - when I have time!  Usually my experiments turn out well - or at least edible!  I especially like to experiment with stews and soups!  Mutton, at least in this country, has a reputation for being greasy and strong flavored.  Our mutton, in my opinion, is neither - but I always like to cook some of our mutton before recommending it to our customers.  Yesterday, I made up a new recipe - with pretty good success!

I started with about 2 pounds of mutton. We had this latest batch cut into 2-inch, bone-in cubes.  I trimmed the fat and some of the bones, and browned the meat in olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper. I then sauteed one medium onion and 2 large cloves of garlic in olive oil.  I added the meat and onion/garlic mixture to the crock pot.  I poured 4 cups of homemade chicken broth and a half can of coconut milk over the top, and seasoned it with salt, pepper, and ras al hanout seasoning (a mixture of ginger, cumin, tumeric, cinnamon, black pepper, coriander, allspice, nutmeg, paprika, garlic, cloves and cayenne).  I also threw in 2 bay leaves for fun.  I also added 4 diced potatoes.

I love the crock pot because I can start a meal in the morning, go off and work all day, and come home to dinner!  When we returned from a day of wood-cutting, I added a cup of lentils (in retrospect, I should have added 1/2 cup - the beans soaked up most of the moisture).  I also added 12 padron peppers (cored and diced).  We let the stew cook another hour.

The meat was WONDERFUL!  Mild and tender, and quite tasty!  I should have added more liquid when I added the lentils, but that was the only fault we could find with the stew!  This recipe would be great in a dutch oven over the campfire, too.  We'll keep experimenting!  In the meantime, I'm having the leftovers for dinner tonight!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Place or Profession - Where do my loyalties lie?

One of the questions I've struggled with as I've considered whether to take a job with McCormack Ranch in Rio Vista is whether place or profession is more important to me.  In some ways, this is a variation on a question posed in The Small Farmers Journal some years ago.  Lynn Miller, the publisher of The Small Farmers Journal, asked his readers, "Where is the best place to farm?"  At the time, I answered, "Wherever you are!" - I felt that it was possible to pursue one's farming dream wherever one happened to live.  Experience - indeed, my own attempts to transition from a start-up farm to a full time enterprise, have helped me realize that the answers to this question are far more complicated than I first imagined.  Scale of operation, access to markets, farming infrastructure, and access to quality farmland are all critical parts of answering this question!

Having grown up in the foothills on the way to the Sonora Pass country of the central Sierra Nevada, I was drawn to the Auburn area after graduating from UC Davis.  I think most people can be divided into those who prefer the mountains and those who prefer the coast - and I fall squarely in the former group.  While I enjoy the ocean, I'm most at home in the mountains.  That said, there have always been parts of the Central Valley and Delta regions that I found attractive - including Rio Vista.

But place (or preference for place) is not the only trait in my self-identity.  I also see myself as an agriculturalist generally, a rancher more specifically, and a shepherd most specifically.  Despite its frustrations, hardships and long days, shepherding is the most rewarding work I've ever done (though not in financial terms).

Given these two elements of how I view myself, my decision came down to a matter of priorities.  Am I a foothills guy who is also a shepherd, or am I a shepherd who happens to work in the foothills (at least at the moment)?  I've written previously about the struggles I've encountered in trying to make my living with sheep in the foothills.  In the final analysis, I had to decide if making my living from raising sheep was more important than the geography in which I made that living.  Accepting that I could never achieve an economically viable scale in my current location (and with my current access to capital) helped me realize that the opportunity to work for McCormack Ranch was too good to pass up!  It also helped that Rio Vista is a rural community that happens to be about halfway between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Nevada!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Big Changes at Flying Mule Farm

If you’ve followed Flying Mule Farm at all over the last year or so, you’ll know that we’ve been struggling to make the economics of our business work.  Scale, in my opinion, has been our biggest challenge – we lack the capital and the land base necessary to raise enough lambs to pay ourselves a full-time wage (for our full-time work).  Last winter, I made the decision to take a half-time job with the University of California Cooperative Extension.  While the job is great, I’ve realized that I’m working time-and-a-half for half-time wages.  And while I love the work of raising sheep like nothing else I’ve ever done, I can’t afford to do it if it doesn’t pay its way.
After a great deal of thought – and some persistent persuasion from my friends Ellen Skillings, Jeannie McCormack and Al Medvitz– I’ve decided to take a second part-time job with McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista, California.  The McCormacks have raised sheep and grown grain in the Montezuma Hills along the Sacramento River since the 1880s.  Jeannie and her husband Al have placed their ranch in a conservation easement, ensuring that it will be used for farming and ranching in perpetuity.  The land currently produces lambs (for Niman Ranch and for direct markets), wool, winegrapes, alfalfa and grain.  As co-manager of the sheep operation with Ellen, I’ll have the opportunity to do the work I most enjoy – and to make a living doing it.  We’ll be moving our own flock to Rio Vista, too – our spring-lambing ewes will compliment the McCormack’s larger fall-lambing flock.  With the additional forage resources – and with the McCormack’s commitment to producing top-quality grass-fed lamb – we’ll be able to better serve our growing regional customer base - and expand our combined direct marketing opportunities.  I’m tremendously excited about this next step in our sheep-raising venture!
Those of us who are part of the local food movement, whether we’re farmers, chefs or “eaters,” sometimes have an unrealistic notion about the economics of food.  When my family started raising sheep, we thought (hoped!) that the lambs from 100 ewes would provide a living wage.  We soon realized that we’d need to own 500-600 ewes to pay ourselves the average Placer County wage of $35,000/year.  While I find it easy to rail against a food system that fails to pay those who do the work of production a reasonable salary, reality requires me to take steps to support my family – to be able to contribute to our mortgage, our health care expenses, our children’s education, and our retirement.  In a perfect world, I would have found a way to purchase another 500 ewes and acquire affordable access to 1000 acres of rangeland and 100 acres of irrigated pasture in Placer County.  Unfortunately, these resources simply may not exist in my part of the foothills.  I’m so lucky to get this opportunity with McCormack Ranch!
I know that “place” is at least as important as “people” to some of my customers – that is, some of you buy lamb, mutton and wool from us because of where we produce them (rather than because of who we are) – and that’s fine!  Some, I hope, will continue to support our evolving efforts to turn sunlight and rainfall into grass, and grass into meat and wool.  We’ll still offer 100% grass-fed lamb to restaurants and individuals – indeed, we’ll be working with McCormack Ranch to expand these local direct markets.  We appreciate the support of all of our customers over the years, and hope that you’ll continue to follow our evolution as ranchers and food producers.  Our family will continue to live in Auburn and to be active members of our community.  We will be at the Auburn Farmers’ Market periodically through the end of this year.  We’ll continue to offer whole and half lambs (from Flying Mule Farm and from McCormack Ranch) to our individual customers and to restaurants - and we hope to expand our partnership with other food purveyors like Smoky Ridge Charcuterie. And I’ll still be a shepherd!

Thanks for your support of Flying Mule Farm!  I hope you’ll stay tuned….