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!

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