Thursday, January 8, 2015

Selling Sheep

For some time now, I’ve realized that my current income level (between my current part-time job and our sheep business) doesn’t meet my family’s needs.  While I’ve been planning to return to college to obtain a masters degree, I’ve also decided to take a full-time job that will provide enough income and allow me to further my education. Next Wednesday, I will become the herdsman at the University of California’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center.  I’ll have day-to-day responsibility for managing the cattle and grazing on the Center’s 5700 acres of rangeland and pasture.  I’m tremendously excited!  That said, my decision (at least in part) is the consequence of the lack of profit in my sheep business, which in turn, is driven mostly by my lack of capitalization, lack of scale, and the impacts of 3 years of drought.  Despite these challenges, I’ve discovered that I enjoy teaching others about animal agriculture and farming - and a significant factor in my decision is my desire to do more hands-on teaching.  I’m excited - and a bit nervous - about this new chapter in my life!
But I’m also having a hard time letting go of my farming dream.  I’ve started thinking through the reality of trying to raise sheep while working on a masters thesis and working full-time.  I’ve been so fortunate to be working in a part time job that gives me the flexibility to deal with problems with the sheep when they occur.  Depending on where we’re grazing sheep, my office job is no more than 5 miles from our pastures.  I won’t be able to drop everything and put sheep back in their electric fence when I’m working 45 miles away - and so we’ve started selling ewes.

I began ranching commercially, albeit at a very small scale, nearly 20 years ago with the partnership purchase of a handful of cows. I took our first vegetable crop - swiss chard, pumpkins and popcorn - to the Auburn farmers market in the fall of 2002.  Over the next several years, we tried a little bit of everything - from bok choy to green beans, sweet corn to snow peas, and pastured eggs to pastured poultry.  I finally settled on grass-fed lamb.  When I look back at my writing from that time period, I’m struck by my own optimism and naivete - micro farms were going to save the world, or so I thought at the time!

The economic realities of small-scale farming tempered my optimism and cured my naivete over the years.  As our emphasis evolved towards sheep and I tried to expand to a scale that would provide a full-time salary for me, I began to realize that this farming gig was much more challenging that I’d originally thought.  Ultimately, I’ve realized that I don’t have the capital, the secure and affordable land base, the market volume and (if I’m honest, some of the business skills) necessary to grow to the 600-800 ewe operation necessary to pay me (the owner) $35,000 to $40,000 per year.  While my shepherding skills have improved tremendously in the last 20 years - to the point where I’m certain I could care for that many sheep with little or no additional help - I simply haven’t been able to grow my sheep business to a sustainable level.  And like many small scale farmers, I enjoy working outside much more than the mundane (but very necessary) tasks like bookkeeping and business management - so I’ve neglected these parts of the job.

In some ways, this realization has made me a better teacher when it comes to helping new farmers (or at least I hope it has) - my experience has taught me the importance of addressing the issues of scale and capitalization early on in creating a farming business.  On the other hand, I fear that I have become the stereotypical grumpy old farmer who is great at telling newbies why something won’t work (rather than offering suggestions that increase the likelihood of success).

I've also realized that while the drought has been difficult for our business, it's not the sole factor in the challenges we've faced.  The drought has intensified the problems that already existed in our ranching business; namely, our lack of scale, our undercapitalization, and my poor cash flow management.  I don't regret any of the decisions that I've made in coping with the drought.  To take care of our land, we needed to reduce our flock.  To be a father to my daughters, I needed to spend my Saturdays with them (at soccer games, horse shows, and simply at home) rather than at the farmers' market.

Moving forward, we will be keeping a small breeding flock (small enough to manage, but big enough to matter).  I plan to make some improvements to the fences and the irrigation system at our longest-running leased properties to ensure that sheep can’t escape the properties entirely, which will make it easier to be away during the day.  I guess what I’m saying is that I will keep a hand (or at least a finger) in the sheep business even while I’m going back to school and working another job.  Being a shepherd is part of my identity, and I can’t entirely give that up. Selling sheep isn't the end of the world for me, but I know it will leave a hole.

Several years ago, a friend loaned me her copy of Sweet Promised Land by Robert Laxalt.  Laxalt recounts the experiences of his father, who immigrated to Nevada from the Basque country - first to tend sheep for others; later, to tend his own sheep.  The memoir recounts that the elder Laxalt went out of the sheep business multiple times (because of drought, economics and other familiar factors) - and always returned to it.  As I think about the failings of my small farm business and about selling my own flock, the example of Dominique Laxalt’s persistence, hard work, and enthusiasm for raising sheep gives me some hope.  The realization that I need to make changes now is made easier by the hope that I’ll come back to the sheep business on a commercial scale - sometime in the future.

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