As we approach this year's autumnal equinox (next Monday), the weather is finally starting to turn a bit. The shorter days, and the location of the sun when it clears the horizon, give the mornings a different feel. I always look forward to fall, but it feels different to me this year. I moved the breeding ewes onto another property this morning (with the help of a border collie, of course). This morning I realized that the anxiety of facing another possible dry winter, and the pall cast by smoke from the nearby King Fire, has weighed heavily on my mind.
A summer dry spell is typical for our part of California. We usually enjoy our last rainfall in May or early June - and then irrigate our way through the summer months. Summers are often dry and dusty - at least where we're not irrigating. Our summer water turns off on October 15 (and we're thankful in a dry year like this one to make it clear to the end of the season) - and we hope for significant rain before the end of October. For our sheep pastures, we need about an inch of rainfall before new grass will germinate. If we can get that precipitation before the days are too short and the soil is too cold, we can grow enough grass to get us through the winter.
I enjoy the onset of fall because the work I do starts to change. We turn the rams in with the ewes on October 1, an event I always look forward to - it feels like the start of a new year (and an act of optimism). I also look forward to the end of irrigation season - I enjoy having one less thing to do each day, 7 days a week. Finally, I look forward to the first morning when my family asks me to start a fire in the wood stove - then I know the seasons have truly changed.
Part of what makes this fall seem different is my memory of last fall and winter. While it's probably no dustier than normal, I find myself anxious about when we'll get enough rain to wash the dust off of everything. I look at the weather forecast and find myself more skeptical about the chance of rain that sometimes appears on the horizon. The realization that we're entering the most dangerous stretch of our fire season - and the smoky skies we're experiencing - adds to my anxiety. The crunch of dry grass under my feet this morning as I moved sheep made the land feel crispy and desiccated. The black oaks on the margins of our irrigated pastures, and the blue oaks on our winter rangeland, look stressed - they've started dropping leaves earlier than normal. I've yet to hear the sandhill cranes overhead - their migration is another milestone that marks the transition from summer to fall.
Uncertainty is part of farming and ranching - part of the risk that we accept when we take on Mother Nature as a partner. Sometimes we need a not-so-gentle reminder that we're not in total control - last year's winter was just such a reminder for me. My job is to plan - plan to take advantage of the good times and to survive the bad times. I like the idiom, "Make hay while the sun is shining." I just hope it doesn't shine all winter again.
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