Thursday, February 27, 2014

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

I have a generally optimistic and positive view of my fellow human beings.  I tend to think that most people are out to do the right thing, and this perspective (for the most part) has translated to a fairly understanding viewpoint on government regulation.  I think that most regulators are well-meaning people, and that most regulations are created to address an important set of issues.  For example, I complain about meat inspection regulations sometimes, but I also know that the inspection system does an outstanding job of ensuring my family (and my customers) that our meat is safe and wholesome.  Last night, however, I attended a meeting that shook my confidence in the sensibility and good will of regulators and regulations.

I'm not entirely clear on the history of this issue, but here's what I think has happened.  Early in the previous decade, farmers and ranchers who irrigated their crops within the boundaries of California's Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board were granted a waiver from the requirement to obtain an individual water discharge permit (which would have also required individual "waste" water monitoring).  Environmental organizations forced the Regional Board to rescind this waiver, and in the ensuing chaos, the Regional Board decided to ask farmers and ranchers to form watershed coalitions which could monitor water quality on a watershed basis and provide some assurance that the farms within the watershed were implementing appropriate management practices.

Last night, I attended the annual meeting of the Placer Nevada South Sutter North Sacramento Subwatershed Group here in Auburn.  Again, I'm not entirely clear on the history, but our subwatershed group has been monitoring water quality in our watershed for about 7 years.  In this time, monitoring has demonstrated a very low threat of water quality problems from irrigated agriculture.  Based on presentations made last night, however, the Regional Board has decided that these results don't demonstrate our collective success as farmers and ranchers in protecting water quality; rather, the Board believes that they aren't asking the right questions yet.  In other words, we're obviously polluting, but the monitoring program simply isn't asking the right questions.  Farmers and ranchers are guilty of polluting until they can prove otherwise.  Part of the dues paid to each subwatershed group are passed on to the Regional Board (as I understand it) to fund their enforcement activities.

Water quality is important to me - I like to fish, I like to swim in our local rivers, and I like to know that my family's drinking water is safe.  I have to say, however, that the presumption of innocence is also important to me.  I can't help but thinking that there might be a better approach than assuming all irrigators are polluters as well.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Expectation and Uncertainty

Sometime in the next 10 days, our lambing season will begin.  In years past, I've described lambing season as six weeks of Christmas - I love the advent of new life that occurs daily during lambing. This year, however, my excitement about lambing is somewhat tempered by the uncertainty caused by our drought.

Because we were moving our ewes to Rio Vista last fall, we turned the rams in with them a week or so later than normal - which means our lambing season will begin in early March rather than the third week of February.  We usually prefer the earlier onset of lambing because it gives us an extra 10 days or so of highly nutritious grass for the ewes to convert to milk for their lambs.  Because our drought has delayed the onset of rapid grass growth (no soil moisture equals no grass growth), this year's delay is probably helpful.  We're finally starting to see some green grass - just in time for lambs to arrive.

We've built our flock with the idea of selling grass-fed lamb to our community.  Over the last several years, our access to summer irrigated pasture has been somewhat limited, but we've still been able to finish at least 40 lambs for local markets.  This year, the potential lack of summer irrigation water (we're expecting cuts in our supply this year) and the necessity of taking off-farm work have combined to make finishing lambs and marketing meat impossible for us.  We'll keep a few lambs for our own use, but we plan to sell most of this year's lambs shortly after we wean them.  And, because of the weather, we plan to wean them earlier than normal (early May rather than early June) - which will reduce our forage demand and allow the ewes to recover more quickly from the strain of lactation.  Our dry winter and unusual precipitation pattern probably means that our annual grasslands (that is, those pastures that are not irrigated) will probably mature more quickly than normal this year.  As annual grasses mature and die, they become less nutritions and less palatable for our sheep - another reason to wean our lambs earlier than usual.

Finally, because of the dry conditions, we've reduced the size of our flock substantially.  Three years ago, we lambed out more than 300 ewes.  Since this year is the driest in a series of dry years, we've cut back on our numbers substantially.  This year, we'll lamb out about half that number.  Perhaps my attitide is somewhat smug, but I feel like I could lamb 150 ewes with my eyes closed and one arm tied behind my back.  We'll see if my confidence is justified!  Stay tuned....

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Video Blogs - about the drought (what else?!)

Wanted to share a couple of short videos about the drought...

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Plan for the Worst - Hope for the Best

Spaulding Reservoir  (in the Yuba River Watershed) on January 30, 2014 (photo by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy)
These eight words sum up our drought plan.  We're hoping it rains, but we're assuming it won't.  We've had enough rain since the first of February to start grass growth - which is quite a relief in the short term.  Looking longer term, every day without rain means we're one day closer to the end of the rainy season (which usually occurs in late March or April) - one less day in which to make up our precipitation deficit.  And even with the rain we had several weeks ago, the water we have stored for summer irrigation (in the form of snow and reservoir storage) remains woefully inadequate.  The Nevada Irrigation District (NID), which supplies our summer irrigation water, reports on its website that the snow pack in its watersheds is just 7 percent of normal for this time of year.  While I assume the picture was improved with the early February storms, I'm still planning on dealing with a reduction (perhaps significant) in our summer water.  NID, it seems, along with the Placer County Water Agency, wants to delay the bad news as long as possible - they've recently announced that they won't make any decision regarding summer water allocations until at least March.  I find the delay troubling for a number of reasons.

While hoping for the best, we've assumed that this year will be much dryer than normal.  Consequently, we've selected ewes that we can sell if necessary.  I think we've now had enough moisture to allow us to keep these ewes until we wean their lambs; however, we probably can't justify keeping them through the summer without some assurance of access to irrigated pasture.  Furthermore, we're assuming we won't have enough high quality irrigated pasture to finish lambs this year - which means we'll market most (if not all) of our lambs at weaning (and we'll also wean about a month earlier than normal).  To implement these decisions effectively and profitably, I need to take steps now (like contacting potential buyers, reducing costs to match our expected revenue reductions, etc.) - even though NID is not willing to make a decision yet.  While we're in a solid position to implement our drought plan now, I've talked to other producers who are willing to gamble on NID's decision - they are waiting to take action until March at the earliest.  Waiting may have severe economic consequences - the market for ewes and lambs could drop, for example.

For farmers who raise vegetable crops, waiting is even less tenable.  Most small-scale vegetable growers have already ordered seeds - and many will start planting crops in March (and some are planting greenhouse starts as I write this).  What happens if they plant under the assumption that they'll get full a full water allocation, only to learn that the water districts are reducing their deliveries?

I would prefer that the water districts take the same approach I've taken - plan for the worst, but hope for the best.  I would prefer that they announce tentative cuts NOW - which would allow commercial growers to adjust their summer production plans.  If we get a "miracle March" - like the districts seem to be hoping - they could adjust the reductions and deliver more water.  Increasing planted acreage - or deciding to retain more sheep or cows - is easier than deciding which crops to let whither or selling lambs or calves without a solid market.  Planning for the worst allows us to take advantage of an improved situation.  Hoping for the best is not a sound basis for business planning.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Dealing with Drought in Rio Vista

Today, we weaned the fall-born lambs here in Rio Vista.  This involves separating the lambs from their mothers.  Because of the drought, we're doing this about a month earlier than normal - which has several benefits from a management perspective (as well as some challenges).

First the benefits.  Ewes that are nursing lambs have a higher demand for high quality forage than "dry" ewes (ewes that are not lactating).  By weaning early, we're able to reduce the feed demanded by the ewes.  In addition, we'll be able to sort through the ewes in the coming week and sort off animals that have developed health issues during their lactation - uneven or hard udders, bad feet, or other problems.  These ewes can be sold, further reducing our feed demand.  Finally, weaning the ewes now gives us a bit longer to get them in shape for breeding this spring (in anticipation of next fall's lambs).

On the flip side of this coin, the lambs are younger than usual at weaning (and a bit smaller).  This means that we'll need to make sure they are grazing on the best grass on the ranch in the coming months (and we'll probably need to supplement their forage intake).  Because we're weaning the lambs while the ewes are still lactating heavily, we'll have to manage the "drying off" period carefully as well.  The ewes will be on fairly low quality forage for the next two weeks so that they won't develop mastitis.

As I've written previously, drought conditions require management flexibility.  While we hate to reduce our flock size, de-stocking and early weaning give us more flexibility to deal with continued dry conditions.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Drought Update - February 12, 2013

Last weekend brought the first real rain storm in more than 18 months to Northern California.  From Thursday morning through Sunday evening, we measured more than 7.5 inches of rain in Auburn.  In Rio Vista, where our sheep are currently grazing, we received 4.4 inches over that same timeframe.  Based on seasonal averages, we're approaching 50% of our normal precipitation for this time of year! Perhaps more importantly, we've finally received enough moisture - combined with warming soil temperatures and lengthening days - to grow some grass.  While it will still be at least 30 days before we have enough green forage to meet the full nutritional demands of our ewes, things do look better for the spring grazing season.

Looking longer term, I'm still very concerned about the availability of water this summer for irrigating our pastures.  We'll know more when the Nevada Irrigation District meets at the end of this month, but this warm series of storms didn't store much water in the form of snow - crucial to our summer irrigation season.  We'll see....

For now, we've sold about 20 ewes to reduce the demand we're putting on our feed resources.  We've identified 35 or so more that we would sell if it turns dry again.  And we're planning to wean our lambs early and sell them in early May (5-6 months earlier than normal).  This Friday, I'll move our ewes onto un-grazed pastures near Hidden Falls Regional Park near Auburn.  We grazed these pastures two years ago, but they haven't been grazed since.  This will allow us to reduce or eliminate the hay that we've been feeding for the last four months.  Lambing will get underway in early March.

Keep the rain coming!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

No Easy Answers

I'm helping to teach a small farm business planning short course at the moment - part of my work as a program representative with UC Cooperative Extension.  This year, four local farms are participating - we held our "farm economics boot camp" yesterday.   As we worked through the economic analysis for each farm, I was reminded again about the challenges we've faced with our own farm.  Questions of scale, market efficiency, and capitalization continue to be challenging for us - and, I think, for many small farms.  The local food movement, which emphasizes small scale production, is threatened, in my opinion, by the economic realities of farming at a micro-scale.  As a "practicing" professional farmer, I have grown more and more skeptical of those authors and others who offer recipes for successful small-scale agriculture.

I've listened to, read and been inspired by farmers like Joel Salatin, Gene Logsdon and others who offer step-by-step instructions to those of us who are trying to feed our neighbors (rather than the world).  As I struggle with the economic realities of trying to make a living from my small farm, however, I begin to question whether this advice is entirely useful.  There are times, I'll admit, when I wonder what I'm missing when I read books like "You Can Farm" or "All Flesh is Grass."  These authors are necessarily optimistic about the value of small scale farming, yet my own experience indicates that it's not quite so easy.  Sometimes I think that I simply need to work harder and smarter - that my own laziness is the reason that I can't make Salatin's model work.  Why can't I pay myself a full-time salary by raising 200 ewes?

Part of the answer, I suspect, lies in our regional perceptions of scale.  A large farm in my part of the Sierra Nevada foothills is 40 acres of vegetables and/or orchards.  A small farm in our community might consist of one to two acres of row crops.  While it's possible for someone to farm an acre of vegetables profitably (that is, for income to exceed expenses), it's probably not possible for a farm of this size to generate a full-time income for the farmer.  A small farm in Yolo County, by contrast, might be 80 acres - large enough to be viable as a full-time occupation for the farmer.

I'm also curious about how much income these farmer-authors derive from speaking fees and writing.  Part of this is probably envy on my part - I'd love to get paid for writing!  That said, I think there is probably something to my perception that the small farm movement has helped make these folks financially successful.  I don't begrude their success, but I sometimes wish they'd be up front about how much their farming operations benefit from this outside income.  In essence, it seems that their farms also depend on off-farm income to thrive.

Ultimately, the work of farming - and the business of farming - has never been easy.  We work long days, we depend upon the benevolence of Mother Nature, and we're subject to the constraints of biological processes.  Even those of us who market our products directly to consumers must face the realities of economics - we don't have total control over our prices or our expenses.  While I'll continue to read - and take inspiration from - other farmers who have apparently figured out the recipe for success, I'll read their works with a more skeptical eye.  Now that I'm 13 years into my "professional" farming career, I'm realizing that reality doesn't always sell books!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Images from the Drought

As you might imagine, the dry winter (and it's ramifications, both short- and long-term) have been the dominant topic of conversation among farmers and ranchers this winter.  I wanted to share a few images that represent the drought and it's impacts on agriculture in the last month or two.  I think these images speak for themselves - even with the rain we're receiving this weekend, we have a lot more catching up to do.

Spaulding Lake (at 5000' elevation in the Yuba River watershed) - January 30, 2013 (credit: Sierra Nevada Conservancy)

Feeding cows in the south Bay Area - January 26 (credit: Sheila Barry)

New garlic at Buckeye Ranch in Nevada County - January 25 (credit: Matthew Shapero)

Capay Valley in Yolo County - February 6.  "Usually these pastures are knee-deep
in grass this time of year." (credit: Lisa Leonard)

Loading up for a trip to the auction - Butte County - late January. (credit: Carol Chaffin Albrecht)

Enough grass to hide a calf - Butte County - February 5.  (credit: Ned Coe)

Buying hay at Echo Valley Ranch in Auburn - January 25. (credit: Dan Macon)

Perennial grass pasture on the North Coast - should be 4-6" high - February 5.  (credit: Kirin Harp)

Winter feeding in the Klamath Basin - February 1. (credit: Elizabeth Hubbard)

Ground-level view of new grass in Wheatland - February 5. (credit: Mark Leffler)

Vacaville pasture - early February 2013. (credit: Robin Lynde)

Same pasture - early February 2014.  (credit: Robin Lynde)

Farm pond in Auburn - January 23. (credit: Dan Macon)

Sheep pasture in Auburn - January 24. (credit: Dan Macon)

Oats and vetch planted for hay near Orland - had to be irrigated to germinate!
January 30. (credit: Greg Massa)

Annual rangeland near Oakdale - January 22. (credit: Holly George)

"Lake" Oroville - January 27. (credit: DWR)

Greenhorn Creek near Quincy - February 4. (credit: Holly George)

Horses on winter pasture near Quincy - February 5. (credit: Holly George)

Hillside pasture after 21 days rest - near Rio Vista - February 4. (credit: Dan Macon)

Moving sheep pairs (Rio Vista) - February 5. (credit: Dan Macon)

Riverhill Farm cover crop - January 26. (credit: Alan Haight)

Sheep headed for the auction - January 31. (credit: Dan Macon)

Sierra Valley pasture - February 5. (credit: Solomon Sweeting)

Sierra Valley stock "pond" - January 23. (credit: Solomon Sweeting)

Sierra Valley rye pasture - February 5. (credit: Solomon Sweeting)

Trip to the Fallon sales yard - February 4. (credit: Solomon Sweeting)
Un-irrigated native perennial grasses on the Central Coast - January 2014. (credit: Joe and Julie Morris)

Central coast rangeland - January 2014. (credit: Joe and Julie Morris)

Still a Drought...

It's finally raining here!  It's been so long, I almost forgot where I'd stashed my rain gear!  While this rain has done wonders for my attitude, the drought is still a long way from being over - here's why:

First, our normal rainfall in Auburn (according to from July 1 through January 31 is just over 20 inches.  As of this morning, we're still under 6 inches since July 1.  The forecast for this weekend suggests we may get as much as 4 more inches by Monday morning, but we're still playing catch up.

Second, even with this rain, it will take at least 30 days for the grass to grow to a point where our sheep will be able to get most of their nutrition from it.  That means at least 30 more days of feeding hay (unless we can find new pastures that haven't been grazed this fall and winter).  From an economic standpoint, 30 days of feeding hay will cost us approximately $27 per animal.  Leased pasture (assuming there is grass), by contrast, costs $3-4 per animal per month.  In other words, one month of feeding hay costs the same as 9 months of grazing on leased pasture.

Finally, we depend on stored water to get us through the summer months.  This time of year, much of our summer water should be stored as snow (which will run-off into mountain reservoirs to be used for irrigation.  While this latest storm has helped the snow pack situation as well, the January 31 snow survey indicated that the Northern Sierra snow pack was just 6 percent of normal for this time of year.  Here's a photograph of Spaulding Lake in the Yuba River watershed - it's indicative of other northern Sierra reservoirs where our irrigation water comes from.  The Nevada Irrigation District and the Placer County Water Agency are still anticipating steep reductions in the amount of irrigation water they'll be able to deliver this summer.

At just over 5000 elevation, Spaulding Lake should be surrounded by snow-capped peaks
at this time of year.  This photo was taken on January 30, 2014 (credit: Sierra Nevada Conservancy)
So while I'm grateful to have a weather-related reason to spend time indoors this weekend, I'm still worried about the drought.  We're still anticipating the need to reduce the size of our sheep flock, and we're still thinking that we won't be able to finish any grass-fed lambs this summer.  Nonetheless, a drop in the bucket is still a drop of water - I just hope the drops keep coming!