Sunday, May 25, 2014

Back Where I Started

Yesterday, we moved our sheep back to Oak Hill Ranch (for those of you who are long-time Auburn-ites, it's part of the old Parnell Ranch).  Physically, this was a relatively easy move - the border collies and I walked the flock about two-thirds of a mile to a new pasture.  Mentally, the move was a bit more interesting.  Last October, when I took a job with McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista, we shipped the ewes from Oak Hill Ranch down to the Delta.  While our sheep have been back in Placer County since February, returning to Oak Hill Ranch feels like the end of one chapter in my pursuit of a pastoral livelihood - and the opening of another.  And it felt like coming home, in some ways.

Like so much of my life this year, these recent and ongoing "chapters" are related to the drought.  In late January, when we'd been 50+ days without rain, we decided (along with Jeannie and Al at McCormack Sheep and Grain) that we needed to move our sheep to conserve forage for the McCormack Ranch flock.  On February 14, we hauled our 150 ewes to Blue Oak Ranch, a community near Hidden Falls Regional Park outside of Auburn.  The flock stayed there through lambing - we moved them home for shearing earlier this month.  After shearing we took them to another property nearby - and from there back to Oak Hill Ranch.  Since I needed to be on hand during lambing season (which started on March 1), my time in Rio Vista was significantly curtailed - I helped out with shearing and with a sheep dog trial, and did some marketing-related work from home, but my weekly schedule changed dramatically.

While we did finally get rain and forage growth (both in Auburn and in Rio Vista), the drought has had a huge impact on McCormack Sheep and Grain.  Low flows in the Sacramento River have increased the salinity in the river at Rio Vista.  This means little or no irrigation of the alfalfa at McCormack Ranch - alfalfa that is critical to feeding the sheep in autumn prior to and during the fall lambing season.  In addition, the river water is too salty for irrigating the grapes.  Unlike alfalfa, which can be fallowed, the grapes need irrigation - permanent crops often use less water, but these crops MUST be irrigated every year (because of the high capital costs involved in planting them).  To keep the grapes alive, the ranch has had to make a substantial investment in bringing groundwater to the vineyard.  This combination of factors has meant that ranch labor is necessarily focused on production tasks - caring for the sheep, irrigating the grapes and managing the pastures.  Market development, community outreach and educational programs - my responsibilities - are a much lower priority for now.

The new chapter for Flying Mule Farm is still being written.  We're very fortunate to be working with landowners close to our home who like having our sheep graze their properties.  We currently have access to enough un-irrigated rangeland to sustain our flock - and at no cost to us.  We also have access to some irrigated pasture.  In the past, we've used this irrigated pasture to finish lambs.  This year, we'll use the irrigated pasture to prepare our ewes for breeding.  Instead of finishing grass-fed lambs, we'll be selling most of our lambs as "feeders" in the next 3 weeks (this means that other producers will purchase them to feed them to finished weight).  Our decision to sell our lambs early is based on several factors.  First, while our local farmers' markets have been a successful marketing channel for us, they have kept me from participating in my family's activities (like youth soccer, horse shows and other weekend priorities).  Since I won't be selling direct this year, I need to take on additional off-farm work to make up for the reduction in income.  Beginning in June, I'll be working 4 days a week for our local University of California Cooperative Extension office.  This means that I'll need to concentrate my ranch work into the one weekday and two weekend days I'll have off - and the 6-7 hours spent marketing at the farmers' market each week is not an efficient use of my time.  In addition to helping us meet our income needs, the off-farm job also provides benefits - something the ranch income has never truly supported.

Looking even further into the future at the additional chapters in my pursuit of a pastoral livelihood, I'm planning to go back to school for a master's degree.  One of the aspects of our sheep operation that I've most enjoyed is the opportunity to teach others about sheep husbandry and range management.  An advanced degree would give me the academic qualifications to work as a farm advisor - work that I think I would enjoy immensely (and work that would allow me to continue to raise sheep).  I'm hoping to start back to school at UC Davis in 2015.  I hope returning to school as a 47-year-old shepherd is not a crazy idea!

All of these thoughts occurred to me as I was walking the sheep back to Oak Hill Ranch yesterday.  I learned a great deal from my short time working with McCormack Sheep and Grain - I don't regret my decision to try to make the arrangement work.  The experience confirmed that I love working outdoors with livestock - and that I'll keep trying to find ways to make at least part of my living from rangeland livestock production.  As I walked up the hill towards the new paddock at Oak Hill, I felt like I was coming home.  I think the sheep felt the same way!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

My Friend

My friend and fellow farmer JR Smith passed away last Saturday.  JR and his wife Claudia own Blossom Hill Farm here in Auburn - before JR's illness, they grew the most amazing melons, along with organic eggs, vegetable starts, ginger, and a variety of other crops.  In many ways, it's fitting that JR passed on a Saturday - he was an institution at the Saturday farmers' market in Auburn.  I'm humbled that Claudia has asked me to speak at his memorial service this Friday.

I think JR's smile and sense of humor are what I'll remember most.  JR smiled like he truly meant it - and like he might know something that you didn't (which I found was always true!).  Mostly, I'll remember that JR was a good farmer and a good friend.

I'd known JR for several years before we took our first crop to the Auburn Farmers' Market, where JR and Claudia were the site managers.  I showed up with popcorn and pumpkins - and the most amazing display, which included dry cornstalks, straw bales, and a pumpkin-headed scarecrow driving a pedal John Deere tractor.  JR came over as I was setting up and complimented me on our display - and made sure I knew I'd need to clean up every scrap of straw and cornstalk left in the parking lot.  "Geez," I thought, "this guy's quite a stickler."

As my first farmers' market day wrapped up, JR came back to my stall and proceeded to spend at least 45 minutes helping me clean up.  For me, that sums up JR - he always made sure that everyone played by the rules - and he always helped us do just that.  JR helped us all understand what it meant to be part of a farming community - fair play and pitching in.

Claudia and I played a harmless (and ultimately, fun) joke on JR several years ago.  We raise grass-fed lamb, and JR (like many folks I know) knew that he didn't care for lamb.  Claudia and I traded a melon for some lamb stew meat - and she made stew for dinner.  JR told her that it was the best beef stew he'd ever tasted!  We finally told him that it was lamb - and several weeks ago, Claudia texted me to say that JR had asked for lamb stew.  That evening, she sent me a photo of JR enjoying his dinner.  What an honor for a sheepherder!

One of the benefits - and obligations - of being a rancher is the fact that I only have to wear a tie at weddings and memorial services.  I will proudly wear a tie next Friday - and I know that JR will be chuckling as he watches me struggle to remember how to tie it!  Adrienne Young sings a wonderful song entitled, "Plow to the End of the Row" - it's about perserverence and the hard work involved in bringing in a crop.  I picture JR at the end of a bed of melons, twisted around in the tractor seat, looking back at us.  He's smiling that knowing smile of his....

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Climate Change and Farming: This Shepherd's Evolving Perspective

Every time I read the paper or turn on National Public Radio, I seem to find another story describing the the accelerating pace of global climate change.  This week, I've read articles about the rapid shrinking of glaciers in Antartica (and the potential for fairly rapid sea level rise), and on the need for California agriculture to adapt growing practices to changing conditions.  At times I find this deluge of news discouraging and overwhelming.  I often worry about the climate my daughters (and their children) will live in. This blog entry is my attempt to make sense of what's happening - and to perhaps generate some discussion about what we might do (individually and collectively) about climate change.  And since my own thoughts on the topic are evolving, I apologize up front for the disjointed nature of this essay.

First, I firmly believe that human activity is at least a contributing factor to climate change.  The additional carbon dioxide we've pumped into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution has to have had an impact on our planet. I realize there is debate about this cause-and-effect relationship, but this personal recognition drives many of my personal responses (below).

Second - and this is purely anecdotal and over a short period of time - I have noticed climatic changes in my own little corner of the Sierra Nevada foothills (where I've lived for most of my 47 years).  I have no data to back any of this up, but it seems to me that we got a great deal more snow at the 2700 foot elevation where I grew up than my parents get today (at the same house).  I also recall camping in the High Sierra as a child and getting summer thunderstorms every year - summer rain just doesn't seem as common as it did when I was a kid.  We seem to have more extreme weather than we had when I was younger - more storms that drop 3+ inches of rain, more intense heat waves, etc.  I can't document any of this, and my memory could very well be faulty - but things seem to be changing.

To recap - I believe that our climate is changing, and that human activity is at least partially responsible for this change.  So what can a solitary shepherd in the Sierra foothills do about it?  Anything?

I think most of us (at least in North America) are waiting for some enormous technological advance that will reverse the effects of burning fossil fuels.  In other words, we're waiting for someone or some organization to make THE difference with respect to climate change.  This is certainly much easier in the short term than taking any personal responsibility.  And while our cultural experience in North America suggests that someone or something will eventually come up with a revolutionary solution, we all have a personal responsibility to make A difference when it comes to these issues.  What does this mean for me?

First, resilience and flexibility are critical, especially when it comes to food production.  Our current drought has highlighted these for me - we've tried to remain flexible enough to stay in business in the third and driest year since 2012.  We've sold sheep, we've changed our marketing strategies, and we've developed new opportunities to graze rangelands that had not been managed with livestock for many years.  We'll see if this flexibility allows us to be more resilient - I anticipate that we'll still be in the sheep business when this drought is over (whenever that may be).

Second, livestock production is often cited as a significant contributor to global warming.  From the science I've seen on the topic, I think this is debatable - it seems to be used as justification for a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.  Stop eating meat, the thinking goes, and save the planet.  Granted, I'm a shepherd, so my perspective may be skewed, but here it is:
The "sheepherder" definition of rangeland is any land that is too hot, too cold, too steep, too dry - too "something" - to support cultivation.  While ruminant animals do produce methane, they also convert forage (grass, weeds, brush, etc.) into food and fiber - milk, meat and wool, in the case of sheep.  With a growing global world population, I guess I feel like responsible and sustainable rangeland livestock production is critical to feeding and clothing ourselves.
Third, my own habits contribute to the problem - driving, especially.  Trying to eat, work and recreate as locally as possible will help reduce my own contribution.  Walking my sheep between pastures whenever possible (rather than hauling them) will help, too.  I realize that these are not even a microscopic drop in the bucket given the magnitude of the problem, but they are steps I can take - today!

Finally, I can talk about these issues with my daughters.  I can help them gain the skills necessary to survive in a changing climate - skills like critical thinking, resilience, and the ability to grow at least some of their own food.  Who knows, maybe their generation will come up with THE solution - in the meantime, these little steps will probably be important, too.

I know I'll continue to ruminate on this topic....

Monday, May 12, 2014

Drought Update - Taking Stock

We sheared sheep last week.  Let me elaborate - my friend Derrick Adamache sheared our sheep; I made sure he had sheep to shear, made sure the wool was sorted and packed correctly, made sure the sheep (shorn and unshorn) had enough to eat.  It was a busy week!

For shepherds, shearing is the equivalent of branding for cowboys.  It's intensive work - for us, it involves hauling sheep to our home place, planning their grazing, sorting them into groups, setting up our portable corrals, purchasing supplies, scheduling additional help - all on top of our regular work.  Despite the long days, I always look forward to shearing.  I enjoy catching up with Derrick and hearing the news from other parts of Northern California where he's sheared - and from mutual friends.  I enjoy working with friends.  And I enjoy the opportunity to take a closer look at all of our sheep - I enjoy taking stock of our operation.

This year, I anticipated seeing the consequences of California's drought during our shearing.  We'd already seen the drought's impact in our lambing percentage - we had fewer lambs than we'd normally expect, partly because of the forage conditions during breeding.  Nutritional stress can also cause problems with wool quality - and I expected to see some wool break this spring.  Surprisingly, I only found one fleece that had weak fiber - and only a half dozen or so that were short.  The rest of our wool looked remarkably good, considering the year we're experiencing.  I've written previously that the dry weather has meant less but stronger grass (in a nutritional sense).  I think our wool quality reflected this phenomenon.

The real shock, however, came when Derrick reviewed his notes.  He keeps a notebook with a separate page for each shearing customer.  When he made our entry for this year, he told me that we sheared 90 fewer sheep this year.  In other words, the size of our flock decreased by more than 37 percent in the last 12 months.  Some of this decrease is a direct result of the drought - we sold 20 ewes in January when conditions were so dry.  Some of it is an indirect result of three consecutive dry years - we've sold sheep that just weren't performing well.

This contraction has a number of consequences for us.  Because I wish to keep my Saturdays free for family activities (like soccer), I've decided that we won't participate in the Auburn farmers' market for the next several years (at least).  Because we have less irrigated pasture than we once grazed, we've also decided that we can't keep lambs during the summer - we'll save our limited irrigated pasture for preparing the ewes for breeding.  This year, we're selling nearly all of our feeder lambs at weaning (in the next 3 weeks).  While the feeder lamb market is reasonably strong,  fewer sheep and less direct marketing means I need to work more hours off the farm - beginning next month, I'll be working 32 hours a week for the University of California Cooperative Extension (on top of my daily shepherding responsibilities).  My work with McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista is also evolving because of the drought - dry conditions mean fewer sheep there, as well.

As we continue to adapt our business and our grazing management to the drought, I'm giving a great deal of thought to our relative advantages as sheep producers.  While we're still far too small to make this a full time business (even if we were able to finish and direct-market all of our lambs), we are able to take advantage of free grazing opportunities.  Because of our portable fencing and livestock water systems, our stockmanship skills and our border collies, and our contacts within the community, we've been able to access more than 150 acres of grazing land this spring at no cost to us.  For the most part, this is land that could not be grazed any other way - it has no fences and no stockwater.  We get forage - and our landowner-partners get their fuel load managed.

I've recently seen long-range weather forecasts that suggest we're heading into an "El NiƱo" year - which typically means wetter-than-normal conditions for Northern California.  I'm hopeful, but I'm not yet willing to bet the farm on a wet year.  I'm confident that we have enough forage for our current flock for the summer and fall - and we'll see what next winter brings!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Working Hands

Have you noticed when you shake hands with someone that you can tell whether they work with their hands? Working hands are calloused, obviously, but there's also a certain strength and hardness to working hands. My own hands, I think, have this quality.  The backs of my hands are weather-beaten - they're starting to look old, in my opinion.  Nicks and scars show where I've injured them in the past; cuts and scratches reveal more recent injuries.  My palms have the normal callouses of someone who works with wood-handled tools - along with more unusual callouses that come from building miles of portable electric fencing over the last 10+ years.  While my hands are smaller than my Dad's, I seem to have inherited his sausage-shaped fingers - something my wife and daughters take great delight in teasing me about!  My youngest daughter, Emma, loves for me to rub her back with my rough hands - they're "scratchy," she says.

Much of my work as a shepherd is hand work.  I've mentioned the callouses I've developed from building fence.  In the winter and late spring - if the weather is wet - my hands are chapped and cracked from handling newborn lambs.  I don't wear gloves for this work - I find that I need the dexterity of un-gloved hands to tag ears and dock tails.  On occasion, I'll need to help a ewe deliver a lamb - sometimes even reaching inside of her to untangle legs or re-position a head.  While my small hands can make certain jobs more difficult, I'm sure the ewes are glad that I have small hands!  As spring progresses, we move to handling sheep and shearing.  If the sheep have been grazing in stickers (like filaree or yellow starthistle) I often get small stickers in my hands.  My palms are generally hard enough to withstand these little injuries, but the sides of my fingers are more susceptible to slivers.  In the summer, my hands are often wet from moving irrigation pipe.  Empty aluminum pipe that has been in the afternoon sun can be extremely hot to the touch - hard on the hands!  In August, I rely on my hands to help determine the body condition - the amount of external fat - on the sheep as we prepare them for breeding.  Wool is deceptive, so I have feel every ewe over her loin, ribs and shoulders to determine whether she needs to put on weight prior to breeding.  After breeding season is over, we trim the sheep's feet.  Since I only use the hoof trimmers once or twice a year for an extended time period, my hands often develop new blisters (and ultimately, new callouses) during this procedure.

The website ranks jobs in terms of their desirability.  Based on what I can tell from the ranking system, a job with a relatively high income, a positive work environment, low stress and a positive outlook for future hiring ranks highly.  In 2014, only one of the top 10 jobs on the CareerCast website involves using one's hands - dental hygienist.  Surprisingly, I couldn't find "shepherd" on the list at all!  In all seriousness, though, the list says a great deal about the value our society places on work that must be done by hand.  Without people willing to work with their hands, we wouldn't be fed, clothed or housed.  I can't think of work that's any more valuable.