Monday, November 27, 2017

Never Far Away

I suppose that for anyone who has weathered an historically severe storm (or lack of storms, as the case may be), the memory of that climatological disaster is never far back in the recesses of memory. The farmers and ranchers who survived the Dust Bowl years were haunted by its memory. The farmers and ranchers who survived this year’s hurricanes will remember these events for the rest of their lives. These kinds of calamities are turning points and mileposts - life after will never be the same as life before. And so it is with my own memories of the 2012-2015 drought. It’s the event that has come to define my mid-life. 

When people ask me how many sheep we have, I invariably compare the size of our operation today with its size before the drought. Before the drought, I thought of myself as a rancher who worked part-time in town. After the drought, I’ve become a full-time cooperative extension farm advisor with a part-time sheep operation. My experiences - selling sheep, scrambling to find grass, working more and more hours away from the ranch - make me conservative in my current approach to raising livestock. We run far fewer sheep than our rangelands will support in the best years (in other words, we stock our ranch for the dry years). We take much more time to estimate forage supplies and plan our grazing. We have a good idea about the sheep we’d keep and those we’d sell if we got into another drought. We are always on the lookout for new grazing opportunities.

All of this is a backdrop to explain to myself (and to others, perhaps) my reaction when I saw a Twitter post today from Daniel Swain, a weather researcher who writes the Weather West blog, suggesting that a building ridge of high pressure off the West Coast will bring dry conditions to California for the first half of December. Even though we’ve had close to normal precipitation in our part of the Sierra foothills, this news makes me worry. Other parts of California have not been so fortunate. Even as a part-time rancher, I rely on rain to grow grass in the fall, winter and early spring - and snow to supply irrigation water for summer grass. Intellectually, I’m reasonably confident that we’ll get enough rain and snow to maintain our current level of production. Emotionally, however, the prospect of an extended dry period in the midst of our rainy season is difficult. This news makes me realize that drought is never very far away in our Mediterranean climate - or in my memory.

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