Thursday, June 20, 2013

Marketing our Wool

As a commodity, wool is produced, traded and shipped around the world.  Our first step in this process begins at shearing.  I've said this before, but I find it fascinating to think that every pair of wool socks I own started with a sheep shearer removing the wool from a sheep - the start of this process is unlikely to get much more automated than the drop-tube shearing machine that our shearer, Derrick Adamache, uses.

Once the fleece is removed from a sheep, we throw it onto a skirting table.  This allows us to remove "tags" (wool that is caked with manure), excessive vegetable matter contamination (like stickers), and second cuts (short pieces of wool).  We also evaluate the quality of each fleece at this point - sorting off any fleeces that are less than 4 inches long or that may be "tender" (a weakness in part of the fiber).  After skirting and sorting, we pack our wool into burlap "sausage packs" - long bags that hold 35-40 fleeces (and weigh as much as 150 pounds) when fully loaded.

We keep a small number of our highest quality fleeces out for hand-spinners - folks that like to spin their own yarn.  The rest of our wool is marketed on our behalf by Roswell Wool, a wool broker based in New Mexico.  Roswell's field representative, Ian McKenzie, further "classes" our wool (which involves grading it by quality and by fiber diameter) and puts it into hydraulically-compressed packs that can weigh as much as 450 pounds.  With small producers like us, Roswell will combine like-quality fleeces into larger lots that are more attractive to buyers.  With any luck, our wool will sell this fall and we'll receive a check for this year's "clip" sometime before Christmas.  Our wool probably goes to an overseas buyer - the finer wool likely is made into socks (Ian says that SmartWool socks are made with wool of similar quality to ours), while our coarser wool probably becomes carpet.

But enough about the technical and economic side of wool marketing!  Shearing and packing wool is a social activity - in some ways it's the shepherd's version of a calf branding.  Neighbors come together to help each other.  The social aspects of wool production, to me at least, are immensely satisfying.

Last Saturday, I hauled our wool - 5 sausage packs full - to the Joses Ranch in Calaveras County.  I've known Doug and Loree Joses for nearly 20 years.  Their family has ranched in Calaveras and Amador Counties for many generations, with Doug and Loree's operation being headquartered in the little town of Mountain Ranch.  The Joses raise cattle, sheep and angora goats - and keep an amazing garden.

Ian McKenzie, our Roswell rep, was on hand with a baling machine.  A number of other producers from the Sierra Foothills had already delivered their wool for baling - and some came on Saturday to help out as well.  Tom Fraser, a sheep rancher from Sonora, delivered his wool about an hour after I arrived.  I've known Tom for most of my 46 years - he and my Dad became friends when my Dad taught his kids at Jamestown Elementary School in the 1970s - and I went to high school with Tom's youngest daughter, Susan.  One of Doug's high school classmates and lifelong neighbor, Leroy Rader, delivered wool with his daughter.  Doug and Leroy built the wool sack stand that they both still use while they were in high school in the 1950s.

The work itself was interesting.  I always learn something about wool when I pay attention to Ian.  This year I learned that most of the wool that we'd sorted off as being too short was in fact long enough.  Ian suggested that we'd be better served by sorting off our coarser wools (28+ microns) from our more common mid-range wools (23-26 microns).  I also learned that northern California blackface sheep (mostly Suffolks and Hampshires) typically produce longer, coarser fleeces than the similar sheep from the southern San Joaquin Valley (much of our course wool is of similar quality, so Ian combined it with some blackface wool to make a larger lot).

The work was also enjoyable.  As with any group of producers, we compared notes on the vagaries of the lamb and wool markets, the lack of rainfall this spring, and the prospects for fall grazing.  We told stories about people we knew in common - and funny stories on ourselves.  We laughed - a lot!  At around noon, Loree showed up with lunch - roast beef sandwiches, homemade salami, homegrown wax peppers and onions, ice tea and lemonade.  Later, she sent me home with homemade wine, more salami and homemade braunschwieger.  Lucky me!

Shepherding can be a very solitary way of life - even at the relatively small scale at which we operate.  Shearing day, wool-shipping day and other activities that require more labor also provide us with an opportunity to share the company of other shepherds.  I've cited this quote from Fencing the Sky by James Galvin previously, but last weekend's work reminded me of it once again:
"Mike had tried to convince Oscar that a community of small ranch families was the perfect Marxist society, where everyone had enough but not too much.  Everyone worked together - loaning machinery, lending a hand - a Utopian idea, a way of life.

"Funny, thought Oscar, I thought that was freedom.  Marxism is for ants."
 Sometimes I get so focused on the economics of what I do that I forget to slow down and enjoy the less tangible benefits of my chosen way of life.  Last weekend's work was a timely reminder!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Unskilled Labor?! I don't think so!

One morning this month, I helped four Peruvian herders load 780 +/- goats into a semi-trailer and a gooseneck stock trailer.  We started at 5:30 a.m. and finished just before 7:30.  In addition to loading the goats, we packed up the herders’ camps, disassembled the corrals and loading chute, and took down electric fences - a busy and productive morning, to say the least!

As we were leaving, I heard an update on immigration reform on NPR.  The legislation under consideration in the U.S. Senate would allow more guest workers - both highly skilled and unskilled, according to the reporter.  A follow-up story made the point that sheepherders were among the unskilled workers addressed by the legislation.

I've worked with guest-worker herders from Peru for three seasons now.  Much of my own work on a day-to-day basis closely resembles the work that my Peruvian friends DiDi, Jhonal, Jhonny and Edwin do.  I wouldn't call it unskilled by any stretch - while I couldn't do computer programming, I have no doubt that most software engineers (foreign or otherwise) could not do the work that I do!

As the day progressed, I tried to break down my work into jobs or tasks that non-shepherds would understand.  Here's what I do - perhaps not every day, but certainly during the course of a year:

·                     Animal behaviorist
·                     Dog trainer
·                     Veterinarian
·                     Ovine midwife
·                     Range ecologist
·                     Meteorologist
·                     Accountant
·                     Economist
·                     Marketing specialist
·                     Web designer
·                     Chief executive officer (of Flying Mule Farm Worldwide Enterprises)
·                     Electrician
·                     Irrigator
·                     Fencing contractor
·                     Truck driver
·                     Mechanic
·                     Dispatcher
·                     Chef (at least in terms of recipe development)

While this list is not all-inclusive, it is representative of the variety of competencies that small-scale farmers and farmer workers must possess.  The work of farming and ranching – of producing food and fiber – requires people who are flexible and who can think on their feet.  It requires problem solvers.  My friend Roger Ingram, who is the livestock farm advisor for our county, relates a similar experience at the ranch he’s visited in Argentina.  The hired hands at that ranch, says Roger, “can barely read or write, but they have the ability to follow a grazing plan, treat sick cattle, manage calving, make minor repairs to a windmill, etc.”

Jim Muck, who farms vegetables in Wheatland, California, puts it this way: “Farmers and ranchers have to be generalists and have the ability to see patterns and make decisions based on what they see, hear, feel, and touch. We use skills that cannot be taught in a classroom, but must be learned by doing and experiencing.”

Someone with a college education might be highly skilled in an office environment, but totally lost on a 130,000 acre ranch in Argentina that is 2 hours from the closest town.  They might also be totally lost on a 500 acre ranch (like mine) that’s just 5 minutes from town.  To me, the term “unskilled labor” suggests that as a society, we don’t value the skills and knowledge necessary to provide our daily nourishment, our clothing or our shelter.

Watching the herders work these last few years, all I can say is - unskilled labor my foot!

Friday, June 7, 2013

My Friend Mel

A long-time family friend, Mel Reitz, passed away in Sonora last month.  According to the notice in Sonora's Union Democrat, Mel was born in 1916 - he was 96 years old when he died.  While I didn't see Mel much after I left for college in 1985, he remained an important friend of my family's - and a role model for me in many ways.

Mel and my Dad became friends when my Dad took a teaching job at Columbia Elementary School (where Mel was a custodian) in the late 1960s.  My folks moved to Tuolumne County in 1967 (when I was just 4 months old), but Mel never let me forget that I wasn't a native Tuolumne Countian - unlike my sister, who was born in Sonora in 1969.  Mel always jokingly referred to my folks and me as "lemon-squeezers" - reminding us of our Southern California roots!

Despite these jokes, I think Mel recognized that being an old timer was more a way of looking at the world and the community we lived in than a chronological condition.  Mel appreciated others who loved the High Sierra - he and my Dad often played hooky from school to fish the Stanislaus River below Beardsley Dam.  Mel's own father had worked in the woods near Beardsley Reservoir, so my Dad (and by extension, me and my sister) learned a great deal about what Tuolumne County was like in the early 20th century.

In my memory, Mel didn't suffer fools or disrespect.  One day, Mel was riding with my Dad through Sonora when they stopped to let a funeral procession pass.  The guy in the Cadillac convertible behind my Dad made the mistake of honking impatiently.  My Dad said that before he knew what was going on, Mel had jumped out of the truck and grabbed the guy out of his seat - and was lecturing him about respect for the dead.  The second story witnessed.  When we fished with Mel, we always spread out - we didn't want to get in each other's way.  One one particular trip, someone started fishing a few feet from my Dad (probably because he'd seen my Dad catching fish).  Mel hollered, "Hey, Macon - push the son-of-a-bitch in!"  The guy moved on!

Somebody once told my Dad, that you weren't really an old timer in a place like Sonora until you'd lived there for 40 years (my folks will have been in Sonora 46 years in August).  Auburn, where I live, is probably the same in many ways.  I think Mel might have disagreed - he helped me understand that part of being an old timer is keeping old stories and ways of doing things alive.  Mel taught my Dad and me how to fly fish - we always joked that Mel could catch fish in the middle of the road!

Having lived through the Great Depression, Mel didn't waste much, either - he generally kept and ate every fish he caught.  He told us stories that my sister and I have since told to our kids - stories about being in the mountains, mostly.  With Mel's passing, a new generation of old timers (is that an oxymoron?) is responsible for passing this along.  My sister and I are part of that generation, I think.

According to the obituary in the paper, Mel served in the US Army 96th Division, 321st Medical Battalion Deadeyes in World War II.  He received the Bronze Star for heroic action during the battle of Okinawa.  Until I read the obituary, I had no idea - like many World War II veterans, Mel didn't say much about his experiences.  I wish I'd had the chance - and the nerve - to ask him about it.

I'll miss Mel, but thanks to his stories, I'll always think of him when I'm driving up Sonora Pass.  There's a treeless ridge that he once pointed out to my Dad and me - "Shot a deer up there before the war - had to carry the goddamn thing clear back to the road."  It will always be Mel's ridge in my mind.  Wherever he is, I'm sure he's catching fish!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Continuing to Evolve

I suppose all farms (and all businesses, for that matter) evolve over time - economic and market conditions change, and so must our farms.  In my mind, a sustainable farm must be address it's ecological, social and economic viability - a business is not sustainable if it's not generating a profit.  If you've been reading Foothill Agrarian over the last year, you'll know that Flying Mule Farm has been in the midst of some significant changes to our business, and some important questions about our economic sustainability.

Since the first part of 2013, I've been trying to balance our sheep operation - which consists of approximately 200 ewes - with a part-time job.  I took the job after realizing that 200 ewes would not generate enough income to meet my family's financial needs (which include minor details like a mortgage, health insurance, college savings and groceries - minor details!).  I made a conscious decision to try to balance working 20 hours a week while caring for our flock.

Through the winter and spring months, this seemed to work - I made it through lambing season (with its intense labor demands) without too much stress.  As we've progressed into summer (and irrigation season), however, the stresses have mounted.  I've realized that I just don't have enough time or energy to spend 2-3 hours moving irrigation pipe on top of my regular 12 hour days.  As a consequence, we don't have as much irrigated pasture as we need to keep all of this year's lambs until they are ready for processing in October or November.

In response to these conditions, we've decided to keep just those lambs that we have green grass to feed - we'll be keeping about 75 lambs this year, 30-40 of which we'll market as grass-fed lamb (the balance are ewe lambs that will replace older ewes in our flock).  These 75 lambs will graze on pastures that would be irrigated whether we have sheep on them or not.

We're marketing the rest of our lamb crop as we speak.  While our business has largely relied on local markets for our meat, this year we're selling most of our lambs live.  For the next three weekends, I'll be hauling lambs to our buyer.  While we'll have to accept a lower price this year, we also won't incur the significant expense involved in processing lambs and storing meat.  Interestingly, we might actually be better off from an economic standpoint - we'll see.

When I started raising sheep, I was motivated in part by a desire to provide my community with locally grown, grass-fed meat.  While this still motivates me today, I've realized that I'm more motivated by my love for working outside on the land - and with sheep, day-in and day-out.  In other words, I love the actual work of raising sheep.  To continue doing the work I enjoy doing, my business has to evolve to a more profitable (and therefore, sustainable) model.  I'm not sure we've found any answers this year, but we'll keep trying!