Skip to main content

Farming and Art

Last week, my colleagues and I were discussing the future of our farming and ranching endeavors.  I work at the Placer-Nevada office of UC Cooperative Extension.  Like me, my colleagues are both farmers and “community education specialists” (according to our official UC job titles).  While each of us finds our extension work enjoyable and fulfilling, we’re all farmers (or ranchers) at heart.  Our off-farm jobs, in other words, allow us to continue to farm.  Even with our off-farm income, however, each of us continues to struggle with the economics of our agricultural enterprises.  We’re in love with farming, but we’re not sure we can continue.

While listening to our local community radio station over the weekend, I heard a song by Rita Hoskings, a regional folk/Americana musician whose work I enjoy.  I started thinking about the economics of art.  I don’t pretend to know what Rita Hoskings’ financial or employment situation is, but I can’t imagine that an artist who is played on a regional public radio station can make a living solely from her art (at least initially).  And I imagine other local artists face similar challenges – challenges not unlike the ones I face as a small-scale rancher.  At the same time, I imagine that when Ms. Hoskings started making music professionally, she introduced herself as a musician (rather than as whatever her other job might have been).  In other words, I suspect that an artist’s passion for her craft defines her as a person – and that she works other jobs to allow her to continue to pursue that passion.

Similarly, when I introduce myself to someone, I say that I’m a sheep rancher or a shepherd – I rarely (if ever) introduce myself as a community education specialist.  My ranching work is far more important to me than simple economics – it defines who I am and how I view the world.  It’s my passion – it’s integral to my physical, emotional and mental being.

Given the similarities between artists and farmers, then, I wonder whether the economic considerations are also similar between farming and art.  How does someone like Rita Hoskings keep making and performing music?  When does art move from hobby to livelihood (even if it’s only a partial livelihood?  In my own case, can I find the balance between the time I spend being a shepherd and the income I receive from my work?

I’m relatively new to Twitter, but I follow a shepherd from the Lake District in England who raises Herdwick sheep.  Just today, he tweeted, "Love to listen to best shepherds talking about their flocks - its like listening to Camus talk about writing, or Van Gogh about painting." Part of what I love about raising sheep is the long-term commitment that is required – I won’t see the benefit (economic or otherwise) of the decisions I make this fall until next spring at the earliest.  We have dedicate years to developing the genetic base of our flock.  And there is an art to managing our pastureland.  Perhaps what my Twitter “friend” is saying is that shepherding, when it’s done well, is more avocation than vocation – and as much art as science.  Given the thin margins involved in raising livestock (and making art, I’m sure), it’s this sense of avocation that keeps me going.

To learn more about Rita Hosking and her music, go to!  Click here to learn more about Herdwick sheep!


Popular posts from this blog

Trade Offs

As we were building fence for the soon-to-be-lambing ewes this morning, someone drove by and asked my partner Roger how long it took to set up the electro-net fencing we use for the sheep. Roger replied, "It's not too bad," to which the driver said, "Seems like a lot of work." Roger's answer - which both of us use with some frequency, was, "Yeah - but this way we don't have to feed any hay!" The driver, who obviously wasn't a rancher, didn't understand - and I suspect even some of my rancher friends don't understand the trade off we're making. Building electric fence is a lot of work - wouldn't it be easier just to feed hay?

The paddock that Roger and I built this morning encloses about 5.75 acres of high quality forage. Since the ewes are on the verge of lambing, their forage demand is peaking. They're eating nearly twice as much grass now as they need in the late summer - after all, many of them eating for three (and p…

No Easy Answers Part 2

In mid October, some friends who graze their cattle in the mountains of western Lassen County (less than 200 miles from our home), became the first ranchers to have cattle “officially” killed by wolves in California in nearly a century. Wildlife officials confirmed that the Lassen pack killed a 600-pound heifer; four more heifers died (and were partially eaten by wolves), but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) couldn’t confirm the cause of death. While I learned about the depredations shortly after they happened through the rancher grapevine, news of my friends’ losses weren’t made public until the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation issued a joint press release this week. The October 28 edition of the Sacramento Bee ran the story.
If you’ve read my previous blogs about wolves, you’ll probably know that I’ve frequently been frustrated with the Bee’s coverage. The paper has run guest opinions disguised as news articles, and appar…

Humbled and Excited

More than 20 years ago, I went to work for the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA). After two internships, I'd been hired by my friend and mentor John Braly as the membership director in 1992. By 1996, I'd been promoted to assistant vice president - pretty heady stuff for a young guy who hadn't grown up in the industry. I started looking for new challenges. Dr. Jim Oltjen, who was (and is) the beef extension specialist at UC Davis (my undergraduate alma mater) suggested that I think about going to graduate school to prepare for a career in extension. I considered it, but the timing wasn't right.

Fast forward to 2013 (or so) - I'd been working as a part-time community education specialist in our local University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) office for several years. The farm advisors in the office - Roger Ingram and Cindy Fake - suggested that I consider getting a master's degree and applying for a future farm advisor job. This time the id…