Friday, December 30, 2016

Sheepherder Bread

My family traditionally gathers at my folks' place outside of Sonora on the day after Christmas. This year, we opted for a random potluck dinner - every person could bring whatever dish they wanted to bring (making it entirely possible that we'd only have dessert)! It worked out great - we  had barbecued turkey (the first one my niece Sara ever cooked), several potato dishes, barbecued flatiron steak, several types of salad, and my own contribution - sheepherder bread.

I've been a very infrequent baker in the past - I love homemade bread, but rarely take the time to make it myself! I found a very simple recipe on the NPR website (of all places) for bread that would have traditionally been made for Basque sheepherders - just flour, water, sugar, butter, salt and yeast. The fun thing about the recipe (at least for me) is that it recommends a 12-inch Dutch oven rather than traditional bread pans.

After finishing my sheep chores on Christmas Day, I mixed the dough and let it rise by the woodstove. After kneading it a second time and placing it in my Dutch oven (I oiled the inside and put a circle of aluminum foil in the bottom), I let it rise some more. As indicated by the recipe, I placed the covered Dutch oven inside our kitchen oven at 375. After about 12 minutes, the loaf had risen enough to push the lid up! I removed the lid and baked the bread for another 30 or 35 minutes (until the top was golden brown and the loaf sounded hollow when I thumped it). I removed it from the oven and turned the Dutch oven upside down (hoping it didn't stick). It slid right out!

On Monday evening, we sliced the 12-inch round loaf in half, revealing a beautiful white bread inside. I suspect the cast iron that surrounded the sides and bottom of the loaf helped it bake evenly. Even with 12 of us eating it, we had plenty left for sandwiches and toast the next several days. It was outstanding!

So now I'm motivated! I'm hoping to bake bread at least once a month. I'm going to experiment using 2 smaller Dutch ovens (10-inch instead of 12-inch). I'm also going to experiment with honey (instead of sugar) and with other types of flour. And someday, I want to bake this kind of bread in an outdoor oven - sounds like another project!

In the meantime, here's the recipe I used this time around: 

Prize-Winning Sheepherder Bread

During the winter months, herders would live in sheep wagons, which contained a stove and an oven. They baked their own bread in a Dutch oven, buried in the coals from sagebrush or aspen wood fires, with a tight-fitting lid and a bale handle.
Richard Lane/Courtesy Basque Library at the University of Nevada, Reno
3 cups very hot tap water
1/2 cup (1/4 lb.) butter or margarine
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 tsp. salt
2 packages active dry yeast
9 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Salad oil
In a large bowl, combine hot water, butter, sugar and salt. Stir until butter is melted; let cool to about 110 degrees. Stir in yeast; cover and set in a warm place until bubbly, about 15 minutes. Beat in about 5 cups flour to make a thick batter. Stir in about 3 1/2 cups more flour to make a stiff dough. Scrape dough onto a floured board. Knead until smooth and satiny, 10 to 20 minutes — adding as little flour as possible to prevent sticking. Place dough in a greased bowl; turn over to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled — about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch dough down and knead briefly on a floured board to release air. Shape into a smooth ball. With a circle of foil, cover the inside bottom of a 5-quart cast iron or cast aluminum Dutch oven. Grease foil, inside of Dutch oven, and lid with oil. Place dough in Dutch oven and cover with lid. Let rise in a warm place until dough pushes up lid by about 1/2 inch, about 1 hour. (Watch closely.) Bake, covered, with a lid in a 375-degree oven for 12 minutes. Remove lid and continue to bake until loaf is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.
Remove bread from oven and turn onto a rack to cool. You will need a helper. Peel off foil and turn loaf upright. Makes one very large loaf.
Source: From the Sheepcamp to the Kitchen, Volume II

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Day Before the Day Before Christmas

As I write this at the desk in our kitchen, a cold rain is falling outside. Both the calendar and the weather suggest that Christmas morning is just around the corner. I can hear the woodstove ticking in the other room - I just added a piece of Douglas fir to the fire. I was awakened this morning by a phone call from one of our landlords - the rams and the guard dog were grazing in her backyard (not where they were supposed to be). I threw on some warm clothes, put the dogs in the pickup, and headed out to do chores. Now I'm home - a belly full of breakfast and my second cup of coffee in my hand.

I am usually very healthy, but for the last week and a half, I've been fighting first a cold and then the flu. I'll admit that I have difficulty doing nothing - 10 days of feeling under the weather makes me extremely restless! That said, I wonder if being sick is a reminder that I need to slow down on occasion. The short days and long nights of early winter reinforce this reminder - and help me recharge my batteries. The only other task on my agenda for today is to haul water to the rams at some point - I think I'll spend the rest of the day indoors reading and enjoying my family!

Raising livestock often means that we're outdoors in all kinds of weather. The well-being of the animals always comes first. Sometimes, this means we're building electric fence and moving sheep in the midst of a driving rain. But sometimes, like today, we only need to feed the guard dogs and walk through the sheep. Sometimes, we get to stay inside by the fire! Merry Christmas, everyone!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Almost Done

I took a final exam today - just like my oldest daughter. Feels kinda strange to say - but we're both on winter break! And it feels pretty good!

I've been chipping away at a master's degree in integrated resource management via an online program from Colorado State University for almost two years. Lara, on the other hand, is completing her first semester at Montana State University in Bozeman. She's flying home tonight for the Christmas holidays; I drove home from my my office. For the next three-and-a-half weeks, I'll only have to work and take care of sheep; maybe I can get Lara to help me with the latter!

Earlier this week, I learned that my major professor will accept a research paper I did for one of my classes this term as satisfying the requirement for completing a professional paper. Upon completing this morning's final, I'm just two classes and 6 units away from having my master's degree. Wahoo!

As I reflect on going back to school in my extremely mid-forties, I've realized that in some ways, I'm still the same kind of student I was in my early twenties. In other ways, however, I've changed immensely. When I was first in school (at UC Davis in the late 1980s) I was driven to get good grades. Exams, for me, were like an athletic contest - I wanted to win (actually, I wanted to kick ass)! Today, my competitive drive is tempered by the knowledge that exam results do not necessarily equate to knowledge. In other words, I put slightly less pressure on myself.

I've also found that I have a much more sensitive bullshit meter than I had as a younger person. When I was 20, I figured that my professors probably knew more than I did. Now that I'm almost 50, I'm not so certain about this. Most of my classes at Colorado State have been outstanding; one or two have been dreadful. Perhaps the biggest change in my perspective, however, has been the fact that the dreadful classes don't bother me as much as they would have when I was 20!

Finally, tonight I'm celebrating the end of the semester much like I would have during my first round of college - I'm having a beer! Cheers!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Sheepherding at Christmastime

As a kid (and I suppose, as an adult), my favorite month was (and is) December. Many of my friends dread the shorter days and the early darkness; I've always appreciated the wintry days and long nights. Perhaps it's a bit of zen-like appreciation - I appreciate more the gradually longer days and growing light after the solstice because of the darkening days leading up to the first day of winter. Part of my enjoyment, I think, relates to the approach of Christmas - and as a kid, I always enjoyed the season of advent. And having grown up going to Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, the version of the Christmas story found in Luke was always the highlight and the culmination of the advent season for me. I especially liked (and still do) the King James version of the second chapter of Luke. As an adult - and as a shepherd (maybe it's professional curiosity) - I've read the verses describing the appearance of the angel to the shepherds even more closely. For me, this part of the story resonates more deeply because of my avocation.

In lots of ways, the nature of the work that I do with sheep has changed profoundly over the last two millennia. I drive my truck to the pastures where my sheep are grazing. I use electric fence to contain the sheep. I use ear tags to identify them. I use electricity to shear them. But in some ways, the work of a shepherd is the same. I use dogs to protect them from predators and move them from pasture to pasture. I worry about them in stormy weather. I spend a great deal of time outdoors, regardless of the weather. I get their wool off in the springtime. I make sure the lambs are mothered up with the ewes. I suspect I'd recognize the work that shepherds in the Middle East were doing two thousand years ago - and I suspect they'd recognize the work I do today. Shepherding isn't the oldest profession in the world, but it's probably among the top ten!

At this time of year, our work slows down. The ewes are bred - most are in the first trimester of their pregnancies. Their nutritional requirements are satisfied by the green grass that germinated in October (at least this year) and by the minerals we provide. Most of our effort involves putting up and taking down electric fence as we move the sheep. Since the ewes don't have lambs at their sides at the moment (and won't until late February), we don't worry too much about stormy weather. In the days leading up to Christmas, we'll move the sheep to a large, grassy paddock so that our chores on Christmas day are minimal.

Six months from now, I'll be leaving the house around sunrise and getting home around sunset - much like now. The difference is that this time of year, I'm leaving home around 7:30 in the morning - and generally getting home before 6 in the evening. I enjoy the long days and the work of summer - all the more because I get to enjoy the long nights and rest of winter. And so as the year winds down towards the winter solstice, I'm appreciating the chance to recharge and renew my energy. I hope you are, too.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Carnivores and Sheepherders

I've been reading, writing and thinking about the positive relationship between raising sheep and conserving carnivores a great deal lately. Admittedly, my sheep-ranching friends will likely think this heretical - how can sheep-raising be compatible with conserving predators? Similarly, I know that some of you who read this will question whether ranching as a land use can help preserve predator habitat. I hope you'll all hear me out!

By way of explanation, I've been doing research for several papers I'm working on as part my master's degree in integrated resource management (online at Colorado State University). One of my professors, Jacey Cerdy, pointed me toward a book entitled Monster of God by David Quammen (which I just finished). The book examines humans' cultural relationship with large predators. I've also been reading a variety of scholarly papers addressing the subject. Rangeland livestock (like cattle, sheep and goats), it seems, share habitats with apex predators all over the globe. While this often results in conflict, it can also result in opportunities for coexistence - and even mutual dependence.

Some research suggests that profitable ranching may be the best option for keeping critical ecosystems from being permanently fragmented or destroyed by development (Rashford, Grant and Strauch, 2008). Others take this a step further. David Quammen writes that the cultural relationship between shepherds (and by extension, cattle grazers) and large predators is crucial to the preservation of both:
“Shepherds, as I’ve learned, have a relationship with these animals [European brown bears] that’s more intimate, more mutual, than you can get through the scope of a Holland & Holland .375 as you stand on a high seat, sighting down. They share habitat with bears. They have reason to fear them. To detest them…. They have their own, old-fashioned means of coping. They measure bears in a dimension deeper than deutschemarks and CIC points. Maybe that relationship itself, not just Romania’s population of Ursus arctos, is something too valuable to lose.”
As I consider my own experience as a shepherd, as a ranching advocate, and as a student of these issues, I can't help but see them as related.

I'm under no illusion that our small sheep operation is a fundamental economic driver in western Placer County (where we live). The little bit of income that my landlords receive in the form of lease payments isn't enough to offset their costs of owning the land. That said, the fact that ranching exists as a land use AND a business means that grazing land (including the lands we graze) is kept intact - for my sheep and for the predators that live in our environment.

Coexistence is complicated. Coexistence doesn't mean I like losing sheep to coyotes or mountain lions. It doesn't mean that I wouldn't protect my flock with lethal force if I came upon a coyote or a mountain lion attacking my sheep. My relationship with these predators, though, is far more personal than someone who sends a check to predator protection group, I suspect. I have to live with the consequences of my decision to try and coexist - consequences which might (occasionally) include dead lambs or injured sheep. I've got skin in the game, so to speak. Like the hunters that Quammen references in the above quote, those who support predator-advocacy organizations don't have the same depth of relationship with these predators as those of us who directly coexist with them. Another article I've read recently puts it this way: “As people become more urbanized, they seem to become more positive toward wildlife; of course, they also become more insulated from the problems of living with wildlife.” (from "The Future of Coexistence" by Woodroffe, Thirgood and Rabinowitz in People and Wildlife: Conflict or Coexistence). The authors continue, "...the immediate costs of living with wildlife are (or are perceived to be) borne by the rural population."

 Even in a state like California, where publicly owned land accounts for more than half of our land base, privately owned land is critical for wildlife habitat. Many species of wildlife - including, probably, the largest carnivores - continue to exist (at least in part) because some of this private land is used for grazing livestock.

So while I worry about the safety of my sheep - especially since we may have gray wolves in our region in the next decade - I also know that my business relies on the same "wild" landscapes that provide homes for these predators. In some ways, I think, our mutual continued existence depends on one another.