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Showing posts from August, 2014

More Thoughts on Scale and Small Farm Profitability

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog post entitled "Does Small = Sustainable" in response to an article in the New York Times Sunday Review ("Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers").  The author of the original article, Bren Smith, a farmer from East Coast, offers a number of ideas to address what he characterizes as a profitability crisis in small-scale, direct-market farming and ranching.  Other farmers and ranchers (including a number of my friends and colleagues) have disagreed with Mr. Smith's title - many of us (myself included) hope that our children will grow up to take over the family farm or ranch.  While my own experiences in trying to make a living as a small-scale sheep rancher are very similar to the challenges described by Mr. Smith, I can't help but thinking that the solutions for our corner of California might be very different.  And address these challenges we must - if we want to have a local food system that farmers' sons a…

Heading for Reno

After I finish my chores tomorrow morning, I'm headed for Reno for the California Wool Growers Association annual meeting.  I always enjoy the CWGA convention - I like catching up with other sheep producers and getting a brief break from a busy summer schedule.  I also like going to Reno - not for the gambling or bright lights, but for the cultural experience of "old" Reno - which is closely tied to sheep and cattle ranching.  One of the highlights of this trip (and indeed, most of my trips) to Reno will be dinner tomorrow evening at Louis' Basque Corner.  If you've never eaten at a family style Basque restaurant, you haven't really visited the West!  Or as Claire Vaye Watkins says in her book Battle Born, "If you come here [to Louis'] and don’t order the Picon Punch, you didn’t really come here.... One Picon Punch will make you buy another. Two is too many."  Since I'll be in the company of other sheep ranchers, including my brother-in-law …


Yesterday, Flying Mule Farm, along with a bunch of our farming and ranching friends, tried a social media experiment.  We wanted to show folks what a day in the life of a farmer or rancher looked like - by posting photos at the top of every hour, along with the hashtag #agdayaugust2104.  Since I'm in my extremely mid-forties, I'm not entirely certain what a hashtag is (I assumed it was something made with corned beef), but we all thought this would be a fun project to try.  Turns out, many of our customers and friends liked the project!  I think we'll do it again - maybe once every season.

Here are a few of the photos I posted - enjoy!  For more photos from other farms, search Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for #agdayaugust2014!  And let us know - would you like to see more of this type of thing?

Does Small = Sustainable?

Several weeks ago, a friend and farmers’ market customer brought someone to the ranch who is interested in starting his own sheep operation in Mexico.  As we were talking about production practices and animal husbandry, I asked him about how big his ranch was and about how many animals he expected to raise – he has 5 acres and wanted to start with 20 sheep.  While I’m not familiar with the economics of sheep production in Mexico, this question turned the conversation towards the concept of scale.  I mentioned to my friend that I would need to have 600-800 ewes in order to produce enough net revenue to pay myself $40,000 per year.  She was astounded that a California foothills sheep operation would need to be so large, just to pay its owner the median annual income for Placer County.
This week, I came across an article from the New York Times Sunday Review entitled "Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers."  The author, Bren Smith, a farmer from the East Coast, has…

El Nino - or La Nada - Preparing for a Fourth Year of Drought

Disclosure: I borrowed the term "La Nada" from a friend who heard a weather forecaster say that we have three winter weather patterns in California - El Nino, La Nina and De Nada.  To me, La Nada (the nothing) makes more sense than De Nada (literally, of nothing), but I like the concept!

According to the National Weather Service, the likelihood of a strong El Nino event this winter (which was predicted last spring) is diminishing - and with it, so has the likelihood of an above-average precipitation year.  In other words, we're looking at a fourth year of drought.  Even normal precipitation during the winter months won't re-charge our groundwater supplies or re-fill our reservoirs.  Consequently, I'm preparing to cope another dry year in our ranching business.

The combination of our Mediterranean climate and our annual grasslands means that most of our grass growth occurs by mid-May.  My job as a grazer, then, is to ration the feed that grows in the spring to my…

Ernie's Progress - August 3, 2014

Another installment in the ongoing saga of Ernie the sheep dog!

Ernie put in a full day's work today.  We started by hauling lambs back to leased pasture (we'd sheared them yesterday).  Ernie brought them from the trailer to the paddock with no problem at all.  After a brief diversion (getting our first cord of firewood), we got to the real work.  Ernie gathered the main flock and brought them into the corrals.  He still tries to get to their heads when it's not necessary, but at least he's under control!  We then put all of the ewes through the working chute (to sort off culls and take inventory).  Ernie was amazing in the corrals!  He was thoughtful about his work and showed outstanding courage - ewes that faced him and stomped at him were given a chance to reform and then nipped on the nose.  A brave dog will take on a ewe head-to-head - a less courageous dog will slip around and nip a flank.  Ernie went head-to-head today!  And even in the heat, he showed amazing s…


I think it's impossible to work outdoors and not interact with bugs - insects, spiders, etc.  This week has been a reminder!

Towards the end of summer, we start seeing praying manti - riding the sheep, climing the fences, perching on the tall grass.  I love these bugs!  When they're living on irrigated pasture or other green vegetation, they're green.  When they're living on dry grass, they're brown!  I suppose they use color to camoflage their hunting.  They're amazing!

We also see lots of dragonflies and damsel flies where we're irrigating.  The dragonflies eat other bugs - including mosquitoes!  I think dragonflies look like fire planes - S-2 planes were based at Columbia airport when I was a kid, and they look just like these critters!

Honey bees are also quite noticable where we live and ranch.  At this time of year, the bees are working blackberries and yellow starthistle - invasive plants that I'd like to eradicate except for the fact that they p…