Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Farmer Looks at 50

In 31 days, I'll celebrate my 50th birthday - half a century on the planet. Like Jimmy Buffet's pirate persona, this seems like an appropriate time to think about the path that led me here - and the path that's still before me.

Like the protagonist in "A Pirate Looks at 40," I often wonder if I was born too late. When our youngest daughter, Emma, was in third grade, her class took a trip to the Bernhard Museum here in Auburn. The museum depicts life in the foothills in the late 1800's. Parents serve as volunteer docents for the field trip, and museum staff meets with parents the week prior to go over activities and talk about the importance of dressing in period clothing (to make the kids' experience more authentic). I'd come to the meeting straight from a day of sheepherding - and the woman leading the session looked at me and said, "Mr. Macon - you'll be fine dressed just like that."

I suppose my wardrobe reflects my personality and my perspective. Wherever I've lived - and wherever I've visited - I seem to seek out people who have a connection to their place and to the land. I think I learned this from my parents. Consequently, I've become convinced that being an "old timer" is more a matter of attitude than of longevity. After nearly a half century of living in northern California - most of it in the Sierra foothills - I've realized that I deeply value the wisdom and land ethic of the farmers and ranchers I've been privileged to know.

My great grandfather was an auctioneer in Iowa. My dad and my uncle both went to auction school when they were in college - and when I was about 10, they formed Macon Brothers Auctioneers. I went to the Missouri Auction School with my dad when I was 15 - this summer, I will have been an auctioneer for 35 years. From that point in 1982, I was often the youngest person to do something - the youngest auctioneer, the youngest staffer at the California Cattlemen's Association, the youngest executive director of a statewide land trust. But after I turned 35 (I think), this began to change. I wasn't the youngest anymore, nor was I the eldest (the implication being, I wasn't the wisest, either! - at least in my mind).

I told my brother-in-law Adrian, who turned 50 several years ago, that I thought I'd know more by the time I was this old. He replied, "I didn't realize how much I'd forget by now." I think he nailed it - my memory certainly isn't what it used to be, anyway! Some days, I feel like the kid in the Far Side cartoon who asks his teacher if he can be excused because his brain is full!

In terms of my farming career, however, I feel like I have perhaps gained some measure of wisdom. I've invested time and effort (not to mention money) into learning to be a shepherd. I've made plenty of mistakes, and I'm always learning more - but I've raised sheep long enough now that I can handle most things the sheep throw at me.

In the last decade, I've transitioned from part-time farmer, to full-time farmer (at a part-time wage), back to part-time farmer. For several years, I was resentful - and ashamed - that I couldn't make a full-time living from farming. Perhaps part of the wisdom I've attained as I approach the half-century mark is the fact that very few of my farming predecessors (and fewer of my farming contemporaries) have been able to make a full time living from farming. Producing food - despite its importance - has seldom been hugely profitable to the people who coax crops from the soil - or to the people that tend to livestock. While this fact still makes me grumpy on occasion, I think I'm starting to make peace with it.

I started my professional life working for the California Cattlemen's Association. Graduating from UC Davis with a degree in agricultural and managerial economics, I was fairly conventional in my attitudes towards farming and ranching. In my late twenties, I had the privilege of participating in the California Agricultural Leadership Program. I began to question my assumptions about conventional agriculture, and I began to turn my attention towards local issues and local food systems. In 2002, when I was 35, we began selling pumpkins and popcorn at the Auburn Farmer's Market.

For the last 15 years, in many ways, local food production has been my focus. In addition to pumpkins and popcorn, we marketed chard, summer squash, eggs, blackberries, bok choi, radishes, winter squash, grassfed beef, grassfed goat, pastured chicken - and lamb. Mostly lamb. We were one of the first two meat vendors in the Auburn farmer's market.

The farmer's market, for me, was a tremendous experience - the connections with my community will remain with me for the rest of my life. In my mid forties, however, I began to realize what I was giving up to sell food to my community. I was missing most of my daughters' Saturday soccer games. I was working 60-70 hours a week and making less than minimum wage. When I decided I couldn't afford to continue marketing directly to consumers (and was vocal about my decision), the farmer's market forgot about me. I suppose this realization is the most difficult part of the last decade for me.

But soon I'll be 50! This spring, as we've concluded another lambing season, I've realized that I have (at most) 25-30 more lambing seasons left in my lifetime. I've become comfortable with being a part-time shepherd. I've realized that my experiences - positive and negative - can be instructive to a generation of farmers and ranchers (and aspiring farmers and ranchers) who are coming behind me. I've realized, at last, that I love raising livestock and I love teaching others to do the same. These things are my life's work.

I know I have plenty of faults - I'm opinionated, stubborn, sarcastic and impatient, just to name a few. I'm also becoming comfortable in my own skin. Perhaps that's one of the benefits of growing older - we fix the faults we can fix, and accept those we cannot. Jimmy Buffet sings, "After all the years, I've found - my occupational hazard being my occupation's just not around." Having been around now for 49 years and 11 months, I'm happy to realize that the occupations I love - raising sheep and teaching others about it - are still possible to pursue.


  1. Beautiful essay, Dan. I'll share with my soil fertility students.

  2. There are parallels between your observations and Chef Ben Shewry's episode that I watched on Netflix' Chef's Table. Check it our.

  3. Awesome blog, once again Dan! It will be nice to have you in the fab fifty club!!!

  4. I'm looking forward to joining!

  5. I have been having the same issues with life, realizing that 50 is around the corner, I am fighting it (I never want to be old) but realize that I have earned my experience and hope to help others not to have to do it the hard way.