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….