on the road

on the road

Saturday, April 25, 2015

From Anxiety to Resignation

Last night, we measured 1.15 inches of rain in Auburn.  The Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (where I take care of cattle and pastures) picked up 0.71" of rain.  While the precipitation is a welcome break in our warmer-than-normal springtime weather, it doesn't have much more significance than that.  Our annual grasses, for the most part, have already matured and won't grow any more even with this rain.  In our irrigated pastures, this weather will slow evapotranspiration (the demand for water from plants and evaporation) temporarily, but we still need to irrigate.  And so the year marches on - we're quickly approaching our "normal" summer dry period.  My winter-time anxiety about drought has turned into resignation that we are coping with a fourth dry year.

Despite the above-average rainfall we received last December, I remained worried about drought.  In some respects, I felt like the boy who cried wolf - I kept thinking (and saying), "This drought's not over."  In early January, our local water agencies told us that their private weather forecasts were indicating above average precipitation through the end of March.  But forecasting the weather is a chancy business - even for paid professionals!  January turned out to be the driest on record (we measured a whopping 0.01" of rain for the month).  By the end of March, our total rainfall was similar to last year's disappointing total - and the snowpack was the worst on record.  The April 1 snow survey for our watershed indicated that we had just 4 percent of normal for that date.  The Nevada Irrigation District reported that it's snowpack was the smallest - by far - in its 94-year history.  The boy who cried wolf turned out to have seen a whole pack of them!

For farmers and ranchers, drought induces constant worry.  I think about the drought's consequences every day.  Will we have enough grass for the sheep and cows this spring?  (We did, but barely). Will our summer irrigation water be cut? (Probably not). Will it be more expensive?  (Yes). Will we have enough dry grass to graze next fall before the rains come again?  (I'm not sure). Will our native oak trees survive a fourth year of drought?  (We're seeing drought stress in some blue oaks at SFREC). Will we have pest problems because of the warm winter?  (We did last year). Will the continued dry weather result in infestations of weeds like yellow starthistle and medusahead barley?  (Again, I'm not sure). Intellectually, I realize that worrying won't make it rain, but emotionally I find that I can't help but worry.

But as we head into our normal dry season, I find that my anxiety is turning into resignation.  We're not likely to get much more rain until next autumn (and even if we do, it won't help much).  My worry about the dry winter has transitioned to worry about hot weather and fire danger, but hot weather and wildfire are part of every summer in Northern California.  While my sharp daily anxiety about the immediate consequences of the drought is giving way to a dull worry in the back of my mind that we're at the front end of a long-term dry period, at least I know what I have to work with this summer.  We'll try to manage our sheep and cattle grazing to make it through until next fall's rain.      We'll stretch this summer's irrigation water as far as it will go by installing new, more efficient equipment.  In other words, we'll try to live with what we have - and I'll take a break from worrying about rain until next October!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Profit and the Nature of Farming

Since Governor Brown announced mandatory reductions in urban water uses earlier this month,  he has repeatedly emphasized that agriculture has already taken a significant reduction in water availability.  He's also made the point that using water to grow food is different than using it to grown lawns (for a similar perspective, check out this NPR story).  Despite the Governor's attempts to educate the public about agriculture, many of our urban neighbors (aka, customers) have railed about "big ag" using too much water.  I've read statements on line that even suggest that profit is not an appropriate motive for farming, especially if you're exporting some of the crop you grow - I guess we should farm and ranch simply for the satisfaction of feeding our neighbors.  Unfortunately, this satisfaction doesn't pay my mortgage.

For me, this begs the question, "What do we mean by 'big ag'?"  Is this about the type of ownership?  There are extremely large farming operations (in excess of 100,000 acres) that are privately held.  There are much smaller operations that are owned by family corporations to facilitate passing the ranch to the next generation.  Perhaps ownership isn't a good (or at least the only) criteria we should consider.  Is it the size of operation?  I worked for a 3,900-acre diversified farm last year that produced lamb, wool, several types of small grains, and winegrapes.  Sounds like a large operation, right?  It is managed by the husband-and-wife owners and 4 employees and operates on very thin margins - doesn't sound like "big ag" to me.

Ultimately, those of us who farm and ranch commercially are business people.  Without profit, businesses are not sustainable.  Dave Pratt, who teaches a Ranching for Profit school, puts it this way: "Profit is to business as breathing is to life."  In other words, profit isn't the reason that I ranch, but it's crucial if I hope to continue ranching.

In the context of water use, I think the discussion of big versus small gets further complicated.  I suspect that larger farms have more financial capacity for investing in water-conserving irrigation systems.  While there are cost-share programs available for improving water conservation, the capital outlay required is still significant.  I'm curious as to whether a 1,000-acre row crop or orchard is more water efficient than 100 10-acre operations.  I don't know the answer, but it's a question we should be asking.

Additionally, our society, through non-governmental organizations, government agencies, and the market place, has told farmers that we'd rather they grow high-value crops (like trees and grapevines) than low value crops (like pasture, alfalfa, field corn and row crops) because these high-value crops are more water efficient.  Is it legitimate, then, for us to squawk when we find out that these high-value crops have export value?  How do we account for the fact that these high value crops take huge investments in development - investments that may price smaller-scale operations out of the market?  How do we account for the fact that these products must be marketed at scale to be profitable?  What happens during drought?  An alfalfa or tomato grower - or a pasture-based sheep operator like me - can fallow land if water is not available.  What would you do if your $50,000/acre investment (just in trees and infrastructure - not including land) was at risk because of lack of water?  Would you let the trees die and start over?  If I had the wherewithal, I'd probably pump water.

These considerations are similar for ranchers.  I've written extensively about how hard it's been to sell sheep in this drought.  My friend Deneane Glazier Ashcraft, who operates North Valley Farms Chèvre (a goat dairy) in Cottonwood, recently said:

"I don't know if anyone who doesn't raise livestock can understand what it is like to have to sell off animals that took decades of careful breeding to assemble.  For many shepherds and herdsmen, the herd represents their "body of work". Much thought and monetary investment has gone into creating groups of animals that work in specific grazing and feeding management scenarios. Even non-animal ag folks don't understand the attachment an accomplished herdsman has to the animals.  And there is little understanding of the cost involved in caring properly for the herd.  Many think we should be happy in the "glow"  and "satisfaction" of being part of the land and producing food for our communities.  That is what drives many of us, but we of the working classes are also dependent on the streams of modest income that result from our endeavors.  I think unless people have had the experience of the morning the truck comes to load and take away "the body of work" they can't relate.  
All of this brings me back to the uproar about mandatory urban water cutbacks and the sense that farmers are getting an unfair "pass" from water restrictions.  Since this drought began, farmers and ranchers have been coping with water cutbacks.  We've had to make hard decisions - about selling animals, letting trees die, laying off employees.  As I told someone last week, I love the lilacs that I've planted around our home.  They probably won't get much water this summer, and some of them may not survive.  That said, for me at least, there is something more fundamental to human existence about using water to produce food and fiber.  I'll willingly stop watering my yard if it means I (and my farmer and rancher colleagues) can continue to produce food and fiber.  Again, Deneane Glazier Ashcraft says it more eloquently:
"And as hard as it is for some of us to understand the other end, their pain of not being able to shower for an hour, tolerating an ugly lawn and dirty car and feeling wounded relative to handing over the "dead presidents" to some farmer at the farmer's market who they perceive as a millionaire, is as acute and painful for that individual.  It is a different frame of reference.  Therein lie the stumbling blocks to solving our problems."
If we can get beyond the finger-pointing, perhaps this drought will force us as a society to come to terms with what we want our food system to look like. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Some Observations on my Dogs

They learn...
Not only are Mo and Ernie learning to work cattle (after a lifetime spent working sheep).  They are learning the terrain at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center.  They gave me a good demonstration of this last Thursday.  On Wednesday, we'd gathered a group of 230+ heifers out of a very brush pasture.  The dogs and I spent much of our time crashing through brush to get the heifers up through the gate into the next field.  By the end of the gather, we were all beat - and sick of the brush.  On Thursday, we found 43 more heifers in the old field.  They broke down off the road where the big group had, but the dogs anticipated them - and brought them back to the road on their own!

They can switch species (and approaches)
At SFREC, in addition to gathering and moving heifers last week, we also moved steers and cow-calf pairs.  The dogs changed their approaches to each - the cows wanted to fight, while the steers and heifers were more curious.  On Tuesday afternoon, I used Ernie to help move ewes and lambs.  Ernie is appropriately aggressive with cows that try to chase him off; he's far less aggressive (again, appropriately so) with sheep.  I enjoyed seeing him make this transition with little effort!

Mo is more confident working cattle if I'm horseback
Most of the time we're moving cattle at SFREC, I'm working from horseback.  On several occasions last week, however, I moved steers while on foot.  In both instances, Mo worked for a bit and then decided to wait for Ernie and me back at the jeep.  By contrast, he never quits when I'm horseback.  I realized that when I'm on a horse, I can more easily get into position to help him - and to discourage protective cows from fighting with the dogs.  Ernie, who is less sensitive but more confident, doesn't seem to care whether I'm horseback or on foot.

If I'm patient, they can handle most jobs
While cattle take more patience than sheep, I'm finding that if I trust the dogs to handle a job - and give them the time to do it, they usually reward my confidence.  Two weeks ago, we were gathering 5 stray pairs from an extremely steep and brushy field.  The cows led their calves around a cliff into some brush where my horse and I couldn't follow.  I sent both dogs ahead of the cows and waited - giving the dogs plenty of encouragement.  In a few minutes, the cows decided it would be in their best interest to come back the way they'd gone in - and the rest of the gather went smoothly.

We're working in some big country - it takes lots of energy
I'm paying much closer attention to my dogs' nutritional needs - they are working in much bigger country than they are used to!  We take lots of water breaks (which we've always done), but I'm also feeding them small meals between bouts of work.

Mo and Ernie are learning to work as a team
In the past, Mo has sulked when I've worked Ernie - part of it has had to do with Ernie's stubbornness (and my response to it), but part of it, I think, has had to do with Mo's desire to work on his own.  With cattle, both dogs are learning to work together.  On some occasions, Ernie will drive the herd from behind, while Mo works the flanks to keep it headed in the proper direction.  In other instances, they'll change positions.  If a particularly aggressive cow is trying to fight one of them, the other will come to help.  This has crossed over into their work on sheep; the last big move we did with ewes and lambs went well because they worked together.  I've enjoyed watching them figure this out!

Cows have taught Ernie to be more thoughtful
Ernie has never been a terribly thoughtful dog - speed and movement have been his primary tool for getting animals to move.  His outruns, rather than taking a route that gets him around the livestock before making contact with them, have usually taken the most direct route.  He's discovered that this approach with cows (which are bigger and faster than sheep) makes for more work - he's naturally started taking a wider approach on his outruns.  I was gratified to see him do this while gathering ewes and lambs last week.

I'm thoroughly enjoying learning along with my dogs!  I'm also realizing, with Mo being 7 years old and Ernie being 5, that I'll need to think about starting a new pup in the next year or so - I never want to be without at least two dogs!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Where are Agriculture's Sacrifices?!

Finally, after four years of drought, the State of California has mandated reductions in urban water use.  After Wednesday's April 1 snow survey confirmed that the Sierra snowpack is somewhere between five and eight percent of normal (does that three percent range in news reports really matter - it's flippin' dry!), Governor Jerry Brown announced an executive order requiring a 25 percent reduction in municipal water use.  As expected, much of the urban media in California and elsewhere has been asking why the Governor didn't mandate similar reductions in agricultural water use.  And so I guess that while those of us who farm and ranch have been grappling with drought since 2012, many of our urban neighbors (at least those in the media) haven't grasped the drought's profound impact on agriculture.

As a rancher, I depend largely on rangelands (that is, grass) to feed my livestock.  On the basis of total acreage, the vast majority of the land that I graze with sheep and cattle is watered by rainfall rather than by irrigation.  Less rain means less grass - we've received about two-thirds of normal rainfall over the last four years, and our grass growth has been reduced by a similar margin.  Simple math suggests, then, that we've cut back our water "use" on our unirrigated rangelands by 33 percent.  We can't replace this "lost" water with other sources - I can't drill a well to irrigate rangeland.  The only tools available to me as a rancher are to purchase hay (too expensive), find additional land (also too expensive, generally) or sell animals (which we've done - we've sold more than half of our sheep in the last three years).

Farmers have also dealt with reductions in water for irrigation.  This year, irrigation districts that receive water from the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) will receive a ZERO percent allocation.  Again, using simple math, farmers that rely on CVP water will reduce their use of this water by 100 percent!  More "fortunate" farmers who irrigate with water from the state water project will only be cut by 80 percent.  To cope with these reductions, some farmers who grow annual crops (vegetables, rice, grains, etc.) have fallowed land.  Other farmers with permanent crops (trees or vines) - which have been encouraged as a way to reduce water use because they can be irrigated with drip and other water-saving technology - have turned to groundwater.  Fallowing a crop that costs $50,000 per acre to plant doesn't make economic sense; farmers who can't tap into alternative water supplies have no choice but to let trees and vines die.

Ultimately, these reductions in water availability and the corresponding reductions in farm and ranch production have reduced incomes and increased expenses for California farmers and ranchers.  Fallowed land directly leads to layoffs - 17,000 by one estimate in today's Sacramento Bee.  These impacts extend beyond the farm gate, too - suppliers, processors and other businesses that serve agriculture or rely on agricultural production have also cut jobs.

I've written about this experience previously, but I think it sums up the urban-rural split with respect to the drought.  Late last spring, after we had reduced our flock of sheep by 40 percent, I was talking with a neighbor about the drought.  She is a smart, well-meaning woman who works in town - and who doesn't have much knowledge of farming or ranching.  I mentioned that the drought had impacted our grazing operation significantly, and in a friendly attempt to commiserate, she said, "I know - I tried to take my kids to the water park in Rocklin last week, and it was closed!"

And so as all of us in California - urban and rural - face a fourth year of unprecedented dryness, we're all making sacrifices.  We're all being reminded that we directly rely on the natural world - on sunshine, water, soil and carbon - for our sustenance.  And I'll bet all of us are looking forward to a return rainy and snowy weather!