Friday, May 19, 2017

Preparing for the Unexpected

Our local agricultural community has lost a number of key members in the last several years. Several, like my friends J.R. Smith and Jim Bachman, passed away after lengthy illnesses. Others, like Eric Hansen and Tony Aguilar, were taken from us unexpectedly. In each case, our community lost a leader and a good farmer. In each case, their farms and ranches have undergone significant transitions. With each loss, I've realized that I need to do a better job at preparing our ranching operation for the unexpected.

Farm and ranch succession is a critical topic. The average age of a farmer here in Placer County is around 59 years. More than two-thirds of the farmers and ranchers in our county are 65 years or older. The farms and ranches that many of us are working today will (hopefully) be worked by others within the next quarter century. All of us who work the land need to have conversations with our families (and others) about who will take over our operations upon our retirement or passing. In this post, however, I want to discuss what happens in the short term after an unexpected injury or loss of life.

Farms and ranches are, in many ways, living organisms. Even when the farmer or rancher is incapacitated or gone, the lives of our operations continue. For some, this means caring for trees or vines. For Flying Mule Farm, this means caring for sheep and guard dogs. I've realized over the last several weeks that the day-to-day work of running our ranch is largely (and inappropriately) in my head.

This week, I've started taking steps to remedy this situation. The starting point, at least for me, has been to think about the questions that my family might have if I were no longer around. I've organized this into daily and monthly (or seasonal) tasks. Every day, the livestock guardian dogs and border collies must be fed. The condition of the sheep and the quantity of forage in their paddock must be checked. From April 15 to October 15, the irrigation water must be moved. On a seasonal basis, we move sheep to different properties. We flush the ewes in September, turn the rams in October through mid-November, vaccinate the ewes in January, and shear the ewes in May. I've started by writing all of this information in one place.

After thinking about my daily, monthly and yearly activities, I started thinking about the people my family would need to contact. I have all of the contact information for our pasture leases in my phone; it needs to be in my written plan as well. I purchase supplemental feed and minerals for the sheep; these suppliers' information and the types of feed I purchase should be in the plan. I handle the marketing of our wool and most of our lambs - contacts for our sheep shearer and wool buyer and lamb buyers should be in the plan. I also think about the unexpected things I've had to deal with on the ranch. If a water line breaks, I need to turn off the irrigation water - where's that valve? What's the password to the computer where I keep my financial records?

After writing this basic information down in one place, my next step will be to share it with my family and with my partner to see what I've omitted - I expect that they'll have questions I haven't considered. I'll also show my plan to one of our local farm advisors - I'm certain she'll see things I've forgotten, as well. Finally, I'll print out a hard copy for my family and for my partner.

For most of us (myself included), thinking about our own mortality is usually unpleasant (or at least uncomfortable). Personally, I've found it helpful to think of this exercise as a process of ensuring the life (and lives) of my ranch will continue after I'm gone. I've found it helpful to think about making things easier for those who might have to care for our livestock and our land when I'm gone. And in some ways, working on this project feels like I'm honoring the legacy of those good farmers who've left our community. I suppose I'm still learning from them.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Shearing Day Details

Last week, I wrote about the preparation that goes into shearing our sheep. This week, I thought it might be helpful to provide some details about the day itself. Like our preparations, a great deal of consideration goes into the work we do on the day we shear! Just a note: between our flock and the flocks of two friends who joined us this year, we sheared 120 sheep on Saturday.

6:30 a.m. - I head out to the shearing barn and make sure the ewes I'd locked in the night before are still there - they are! I set up electro-net fencing for a paddock where the sheep will graze after they're shorn. Then I hang the first wool sack from the stand and wait for everyone else to show up.

7:30 a.m. (or so) - Derrick arrives and we start setting up the shearing stall. Derrick sets up his equipment; I help by leveling his shearing board. During this time, the first of our friends arrives with her first load of sheep - we unload and bring them into a second holding pen.

8:00 a.m. - Our "students" arrive - we typically have a shearing and wool handling workshop in conjunction with shearing day. Mostly we have the students learn how to skirt fleeces and evaluate the wool, but we also describe the various jobs involved in shearing day. They help me spread canvas tarps under the skirting table (tarps help reduce additional wool contamination - natural fiber tarps are much preferred to poly tarps).

8:15 a.m. - Derrick starts shearing the first pen of sheep. As I described earlier, we use a bullpen set up, which means we bring 8 (+/-) ewes into the shearing stall. Derrick catches each sheep, shears it, and lets it go. When he catches the last sheep in the pen, we let the sheared sheep out. He finishes the last sheep; we run it out to the paddock and bring 8 more into the shearing pen (from an adjacent pen that will hold 16-20 ewes).

One person is always in the stall with Derrick. This person keeps the other sheep out of the way while Derrick is shearing. He calls out the ear tag number of each sheep as it's being shorn (shearing day is one of the times we take inventory). He (or she) also picks up the sheared fleeces and hands them through the pen gate. Finally - and most importantly, this person sweeps up constantly - which keeps manure and wool scraps out of the good wool. If a ewe happens to urinate, this person also mops up the urine - a wet shearing floor is dangerous to the shearer; wet wool can foul the wool sack. We make sure the broom in the shearing stall is a straw broom - synthetic fibers can also contaminate the wool.

Once the wool is handed out of the pen, another person takes the fleece and spreads it on the skirting table. An accomplished wool grader can throw it onto the table - I'm still learning. At our shearing, a committee skirts the fleeces - removing manure tags, vegetable matter, and other contaminants. We also test the wool for strength and fiber length. Short or "tender" fleeces are sorted off and marketed separately from our good wool. This year, we also sorted our "mule" and white-face fleeces from our Shropshire and black-face fleeces - differentiation by type and quality will hopefully add value to our better wool. Once each fleece is skirted, it's handed off to the person who puts it into the wool sack (this year, we had several kids who were great sackers!). As the sack fills up, someone (usually me) climbs in and stomps the wool into the sack. The best stompers walk in a circular pattern around the edge of the sack - this way the wool catches on the burlap and remains compressed.

With our type of wool (and our size of sheep), we can get 25-30 fleeces in sack. Once the sack is full, I sew the top with cotton twin (using a very sloppy blanket stitch. Each end of the seam is dog-eared (to provide a handle), and the full sack is carried out to a waiting pallet. A new sack is hung, and we start again!

During all of this work, the holding pen will empty. With a couple of helpers (and a dog), I bring another group of sheep into the sorting alley. Lambs are sorted off; ewes go into the holding pen. This year, since we sheared on a weekend, both of our daughters helped with the sorting. I suppose it's sheepherder pride, but there's nothing like seeing your daughters work their own dogs and handle sheep like a pro!

12:30 p.m. - Derrick, as the shearer, sets the lunch hour. We typically order pizza; more traditional operations have a home cooked meal (someday....). We all wash up and gather in the shade outside - lunch is usually a full hour, which allows for some rest in addition to refueling.

1:30 p.m. - We resume shearing. In the afternoon, we also shear the sheep that belong to several friends. This requires some juggling - we want to keep each flock separate if possible. Our set-up isn't perfect, but we are able to keep 3 different flocks separate (which makes loading at the end of the day much easier).

4:30 p.m. - Derrick likes to shear the bucks (rams) last - this avoids problems with unintended breeding! Rams are bigger, stronger, and potentially more aggressive - they can be dangerous to handle. While all of our rams are reasonably docile, we handle them with a great deal of respect. This year, our oldest daughter (Lara) and our good friend Joe Fischer (an accomplished stockman) took care of bringing the rams into the holding pen. Roger and I helped Derrick in the shearing pen.

5:30 p.m. - When we catch the last ram, I almost always say, "That's the one we've been looking for." We then sack the last of the wool, clean up the skirting area, put the rams back in their holding pens, and breakdown the shearing equipment. The adults on the crew usually enjoy a beer while we're cleaning up; the kids have a soda. Derrick gives us our bill (we pay for set up plus a per-head charge). We settle up, shake hands, and Derrick leaves. Then we load up the other flocks and move our sheep onto a fresh paddock for the night.

Shearing is intense work - for the shearer, certainly, but also for the shepherd. The organization that goes into shearing day is incredibly important. Success, at least for me, is a day in which no sheep or people are injured or stressed. Success means the shearer never has to wait on us to get sheep to him (or her). Success means the wool is sorted and packed and stored - and prepared for marketing.

But shearing is also something else. As we were cleaning up this year, our friend Roger said, "You know what I really liked about today? The sense of community." And he was right! For the first half the day, we had students helping us (along with our friends and fellow shepherds). After lunch, it was just our friends - and our collective children. Working together, we made a long day seem fun. We watched our friends' kids learn about sheep and handling wool; I watched my own children teach the younger kids and handle sheep on their own. Finally, as I've written before, shearing is one of the mileposts in our year - it's a chance to see how we've done managing our sheep over the last 12 months.

Humbled and Excited

More than 20 years ago, I went to work for the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA). After two internships, I'd been hired by my friend and mentor John Braly as the membership director in 1992. By 1996, I'd been promoted to assistant vice president - pretty heady stuff for a young guy who hadn't grown up in the industry. I started looking for new challenges. Dr. Jim Oltjen, who was (and is) the beef extension specialist at UC Davis (my undergraduate alma mater) suggested that I think about going to graduate school to prepare for a career in extension. I considered it, but the timing wasn't right.

Fast forward to 2013 (or so) - I'd been working as a part-time community education specialist in our local University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) office for several years. The farm advisors in the office - Roger Ingram and Cindy Fake - suggested that I consider getting a master's degree and applying for a future farm advisor job. This time the idea stuck - and I eventually enrolled in an online graduate  program offered through Colorado State University (CSU).

Halfway through my studies, I was offered a job in the rangeland science and management program at UC Davis with Drs. Ken Tate and Leslie Roche. Through the Rustici Rangeland and Cattle Endowment, which Ken leads, I was able to get my tuition covered. While the CSU program is not a research-based master's degree, I also had the opportunity to participate (and in a few cases, lead) a variety of rangeland and grazing-focused research projects.

Last week, I finished the last of the requirements for my master's degree. While I'm still awaiting my diploma, I am surprised at my own sense of relief in being done. I'm also exhausted! To some extent, I think I've been running on adrenaline (and caffeine!) for the last two years. Between working full time, operating a small-scale sheep enterprise, and going to school, I guess I didn't fully appreciate how busy I'd been until I was done with school. In some ways it's like hitting your head with a hammer - it feels really good when you stop!

As my final semester of graduate school was progressing, I also started the process of applying for the position of UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor for Placer-Nevada-Sutter-Yuba Counties. This process involves a detailed application, a writing assignment, a public presentation, and an intensive interview. Partly because the job was the entire reason for going back to school - and partly, I suspect, because I've realized (at long last) that extension work (with its combination of teaching and applied research) is what I really want to do - I found myself to be nervous about both the process and the outcome. Two weeks before the end of the semester, I interviewed for the position. Last week, I accepted UCCE's offer of employment - I will become the livestock and natural resources advisor in my four-county region on July 1.

Unlike many new farm advisors, I come to this position mid-career. Looking back at the jobs I've held since graduating from UC Davis 27 years ago, I've realized that only one - that of raising sheep - ever felt like something I could do for the rest of my life. Until now. I have finally recognized that the parts of my earlier jobs that I most enjoyed involved the things I'll be doing on a daily basis as a farm advisor - teaching and doing research. Along with raising sheep, I feel as though I've finally figured out what I'm supposed to do in life!

I have enormous shoes to fill - Roger Ingram and Glenn Nader, who have proceeded me in these four counties, were incredibly productive and successful advisors. As I embark on this new chapter, I'm humbled by the people who have gone out of their way to help me get here - friends, colleagues, mentors, and (most importantly) family. I'm looking forward to that small piece of paper that proves I've completed my graduate studies. And I'm tremendously excited to get to do work I love in a community I love. I can't wait to start!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Preparing for Shearing

Headed for the corrals - and the trailer ride home!
For the last 5 or 6 years, we've hosted workshops during our shearing day (as part of our Shepherd Skills Workshops). Unlike our larger-scale friends, we don't have enough sheep to justify hiring a shearing crew; unlike many of the small flocks in our community, our operation is big enough to require some careful preparation. Since most of our students show up the day that we shear, I thought it might be helpful to walk through the preparations that lead up to shearing the sheep, as well as the steps we take to prepare our wool for market.

While wool is not the most valuable product we sell from our sheep, we do take a few steps to ensure a quality wool clip. First, we've declared war on baling twine - as baling twine breaks down, it can shed small pieces that contaminate wool. We also try to avoid grazing the sheep in cocklebur in the late summer and fall - these burs can ruin wool (and our shearer's hands). Since we lamb in the springtime, we wait until the youngest lambs are 5-6 weeks old before shearing (ewes in early lactation are more difficult to shear) - which means we try to avoid maturing filaree (the corkscrew seeds can also contaminate the wool.

While we think about wool quality all year, our shearing preparations generally begin with a call to our shearer in late March. Our friend Derrick Adamache has sheared our sheep since we got started with wool sheep 12 years ago. When we reached our peak flock size prior to the drought, our shearing lasted two days; now, with a smaller flock, Derrick can generally finish in a day. While I do a bit of shearing myself, I've found that shearing day is much smoother when we hire a professional - and when I can pay attention to managing the rest of the day's work (which I've outlined below).

I should probably include a brief discussion of what I look for in a shearer - and what shearers expect from their customers. I want someone who will handle my sheep like I handle them - I've never worked with a shearer who is rough on the sheep and wouldn't tolerate someone who was. By the same token, I try to take care of Derrick. I make sure all he needs to do is shear the next sheep. Since he charges by the head (rather than by the hour), I want to make sure he's never waiting on us. I make sure he's got a level place that's out of the sun to shear. I provide lunch (and breakfast if he stays the night). And while I don't know if this is customary, I always give him half a lamb in the fall. Shearing is incredibly hard work; it's important to keep the shearer happy!

Once Derrick confirms a shearing date (which is typically around Mother's Day weekend), I call our feed store to order wool sacks. The crews that shear for large-scale operations often bring their own wool grader and hydraulic press - they sort fleeces and bale them in square wool packs. As a smaller operation, we still use the old burlap "sausage" packs - six-foot burlap bags that we suspend from a homemade stand. With our sheep, we can typically get 25-30 fleeces in a sack, so I order accordingly.
Gathered into the portable corrals.

For the last several years, we've sheared the sheep at our home place - which requires us to haul all of the sheep home the week before we shear. I dream of walking the sheep the 2.5 miles from our leased ranch, but I'm fearful of impatient drivers on our decreasingly rural county road. This morning, we set up our portable corrals and hauled the entire flock home.

The next task will be to haul the rams home and keep them isolated from the rest of the flock. This always takes a bit of juggling - complicated this year by the fact that several other producers will be hauling their sheep here to be shorn as well. The rams will probably live in the gooseneck trailer while they're home.

On Friday evening, I'll set up a sorting system in one of our horse paddocks. The horses will go out to pasture; the sheep will come in to the dry lot overnight. We sort the lambs from the ewes while we're shearing; lambs will be shorn later in the summer. We hold the sheep off feed and water for at least 12 hours - empty rumens and bladders make for more comfortable sheep in the 75 seconds Derrick has them in the shearing board. We'll bring 16-24 ewes into the holding stall in the horse barn - this gives us a two or three pens worth of sheep that will be dry first thing in the morning (in case we have a heavy dew).

Derrick shears for us in a bullpen set up. That means we bring 8 ewes into a 12x12 foot stall. Derrick catches each ewe in turn; when he's caught the last ewe, we let the first 7 go out to rejoin their lambs. We repeat this cycle until the entire flock is shorn.

Depending on where we're sending our wool, we may skirt the fleeces (remove manure tags and vegetative contamination). This year, we're hoping to sell our wool locally, so we'll set up our skirting table. We also put canvas tarps down in our shearing yard to the wool from getting additional vegetable matter in it. I'll set up our wool sack stand - an ancient homemade stand that was given to us by our friend Ann Vassar. I'll dog-ear the bottom of the first sack (for handles) and hang it on the stand. Then we're ready to start!
We save our grass at home for this week!

My next entry will describe shearing day itself - stay tuned!

By Friday, they'll have this grazed down.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

In Living Memory

Several days ago, I wrote about the Five Feet of Rain that we'd received in Auburn this winter - the most rain we've measured since moving to Auburn 16 years ago. Recent media reports confirm that the winter of 2016-17 has been record setting - the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reported this week that "Northern California just surpassed the wettest year on record." Last night, somewhere on the internet, I read the term "in living memory." Perhaps it's a function of turning 50 next week, but "in living memory" seems to have particular significance for me in the context of my age and this winter. As a rancher, my memories of weather (and other natural phenomena) seem especially important at this stage of my life.

In some respects, living memories of weather are like living memories of other significant events. They are important for succeeding generations to know and learn about - often to the chagrin of those succeeding generations, I'm sure. I imagine the grandchildren and great grandchildren of ranchers who lived through the California floods of 1864 or the northern Rocky Mountain blizzard of 1887 got tired of hearing granddad talk about those events. I suppose some baby boomers got tired of their parents recalling the Dust Bowl. I imagine my own grandchildren (should I have any) will get tired of me talking about the Big Dry of 2012-2015 and the monster winter of 2016-2017. But maybe they won't - maybe they'll be like me. As our 500-year drought worsened, I sought out firsthand accounts of the Dust Bowl (most notably in Timothy Egan's fantastic book The Worst Hard Time). I read with interest the account of California's epic flood of 1864 in The West without Water by B. Elaine Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam.

As a rancher, I find that my daily life (and my livelihood) are so closely connected with weather and climate that I pay close attention - perhaps more attention than a normal person! An Australian researcher noted that during that country's prolonged drought, many farmers and ranchers were checking the weather apps on their smart phones 20-30 times a day. During the depths of our recent drought, I found myself looking at multiple forecasts each day for some glimmer of hope. My memories of that time inform the current management of our sheep. We're cautious about making sure we go into the fall months with enough forage to hold the sheep until spring. We spend more time planning our grazing months in advance. We're even more convinced that resting some pastures during the growing season is an important insurance policy against extended dry periods.

Other weather events have been equally memorable. In 2006, the first year we tried pasture lambing (in Grass Valley), it snowed once a week for 6 weeks during lambing. In December 2009, we had to take hay to our sheep and to some cows we were grazing for a friend - because we had eight inches of snow in Auburn! In the summer of 2008, we had about 6 weeks of hot weather and wildfires burning to the east of us - the skies were so smoky that it seemed like we had fog. We lost handful of lambs to pneumonia and I had heat exhaustion on a couple of occasions. Each of these events have stayed with me - and they inform my preparations for extreme weather today.

Not surprisingly, researchers have found that farmers and ranchers who have gone through a drought (or other extreme weather events) are better equipped to deal with them the next time. They know what works (and just as importantly, what doesn't work). They are more confident in their decisions. Ranchers who are going through these extreme events for the first time describe feelings of anguish, uncertainty, and powerlessness. Ranchers also talk about the value of learning from their peers - from other farmers and ranchers. Living memory, then, is an important tool in adapting to our increasingly variable environment.

Just as I recall the significant weather and climate-related events of my childhood (the hard freeze in Sonora in 1972, when it got down to 4 degrees; the drought of 1976-77; the Stanislaus Complex fire of 1987; the lingering drought during my college years of 1985-1990), my daughters will remember the Big Dry and the winter of 2016-2017. They'll remember the Rim Fire, the King Fire and the Butte Fire - each of which affected people and landscapes we know. At some point (in 60 or 70 years), they'll be among the few who will have living memories of these events. Hopefully their grandchildren will listen to (and learn from) their stories!

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Five Feet of Rain

Yearling ewes and lambs - enjoying a little sunshine this evening
When I got home this evening, we'd measured 0.79 inches of rain since 7 a.m. - it's since rained (and hailed even more). For the month of April, we've measured 5.57 inches so far - making April 2017 wetter than March. Most impressively, we've surpassed 60 inches of rain for the season (since October 1, 2016) - almost twice our average annual rainfall. We've had enough rain, finally, that California Governor Jerry Brown declared an end to our drought. But even in this record setting year, we seem to be seeing the lingering effects of the driest (and hottest) stretch in the last 500 years.

The National Centers for Environmental Information (part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) posted an article this week about the continuing impacts of California's drought. The post, which summarizes a longer paper from the Journal of Climate, suggests that it may take some parts of California decades to recover from this particular dry spell. For the full article, click here.

My observations haven't been scientifically rigorous, but they do suggest that there's something to the idea that a single wet year won't result in a full recovery. For example, we've had 15 inches more rain this season than we measured in the next wettest year since we've lived in Auburn. Even so, we haven't had standing water in our pastures for more than a day or two until this week. The seasonal creeks that flow through our winter grazing land seemed to flow for a week or so after particularly heavy rains - but then they'd quit. Much of the rain seems to have soaked in rather than run off - a good thing for groundwater supplies! Nonetheless, these phenomena suggest that we had a huge moisture deficit.

Part of what made this most recent drought unique were the unusually warm winter temperatures we experienced. During several dry winters, some of our deciduous oaks never lost their leaves. Many of our annual grass species matured earlier than normal. This winter, while the high Sierra received record amounts of snow, the mid elevations (4,000 to 5,500 feet above sea level) seemed to be mostly free of snow when I traveled through the mountains.

Climate scientists suggest that we'll likely experience more extreme weather events as the climate continues to change. Since October 1, 2016, we've had 24 instances in which we measured more than 1 inch of rain in a 24-hour period. I'd have to go back through my weather journal, but I suspect that this is unusual for Auburn. November 2016 was unusually warm; April 2017 seems unusually wet (so far, we've had nearly twice our normal April rainfall). The article I cited above indicates that "higher temperatures could combine with and amplify severe precipitation deficits." Extremes, I guess, might be the new normal.

Regardless of what the future climate brings us, we're awfully wet here in Auburn. I guess 60 inches of rain in a region that normally gets 30 inches will do that! As we sold two-thirds of our sheep during the drought, I swore I'd never complain about rain again - and I'm not complaining now! That said, I certainly enjoy the sunshine when it returns!

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.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Yep - I'm a Tolkien Geek

I imagine there are plenty of nearly-fifty-year-old guys who grew up reading books by J.R.R. Tolkien. I think my folks gave me a paperback copy of The Hobbit when I was in the 5th grade. I know I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time in 6th grade. I even had a Lord of the Rings party when I was 12 - we all dressed up as our favorite characters (even my parents and my 6th grade teacher humored). I've since re-read both books often - as well as The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales, The Father Christmas Letters, and all of Tolkien's other works. I'll admit it - I'm definitely a Tolkien geek!

Lately, I've come across a copy of The History of the Lord of the Rings Part I: The Return of the Shadow by Tolkien's son Christopher. This book, part of a series of 12 volumes, compares the many versions of Tolkien's manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings. As an aspiring writer (admittedly nowhere near the caliber of Tolkien, but aspiring nonetheless), I'm as fascinated by the writing process as I am by the world that Tolkien created.

As a kid, I assumed that Tolkien was simply describing another world - one that he could see. Middle Earth was created from whole cloth - it was all inside his head (the geography, the ethnography, the languages, the history) before he put pen to paper. As I read The Return of the Shadow, I realize how the process of writing - for Tolkien as for me - is iterative. Each draft of the first chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring evolved significantly in the writing process - and the entire work took years to complete. I've been writing a much more mundane professional paper - but every time I read it, I make changes. Reading Tolkien's drafts has helped me realize that this is a normal process.

As I think back to how I perceived Middle Earth as a child, I realize that the feeling of reality that came from reading Tolkien's books came from the quality of the writing. Long before Peter Jackson's movies came to theaters, I could picture the Shire, the Misty Mountains, and the plains of Rohan in my mind - largely because of Tolkien's descriptive powers. I understand now that these descriptions were understated enough to seem real, yet vivid enough to paint a picture. This combination makes Tolkien's writing tremendously powerful for me.

When I think about the authors whose work I treasure, they all seem to have this ability in common. Tolkien, Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig - each of these writers can transport me to their worlds, to their communities, to their minds. What an incredible gift!

More Lessons from the 2017 Lambing Season

Mostly for my own future reference, I wanted to jot down a few additional notes from this year's lambing season:

  • We had more breech deliveries that we've ever seen. Just a note for future reference - water will break, mucous plug will come out, but you won't see feet and nose emerge. When you reach inside, you'll probably feel hocks rather than rear feet. Push the lamb back in and try to manipulate at least one leg back through the birth canal. You'll have to flex the foot at the pastern (curl it back towards the outside world). Pull with one leg if necessary.
  • Taking the trailer out to the sheep was a revelation - we saved 5 lambs during the sleet/snow storm on March 6 by penning them in the trailer out of the wind and wet. It took about 48 hours for them to get their legs under them, but now they're catching up. Much easier to have the trailer next to the sheep than to bring them all the way home!
  • Moving ewes and young lambs went much better this year. We focused on the start of the move - we got all of the sheep up, let them get paired up, stretch, etc., and then asked them to move.
  • The Omega 3-6-9 lamb and kid supplement seemed to help turn around dummy lambs. Getting a little energy and some vitamins into them seemed to sustain them until they figured out how to nurse. The BoSe shots may have helped with this, too.
  • I remembered that catching a ewe is easier if you have her lambs! Caught several ewes that needed medical attention by simply catching their lambs and letting them come up to me.
  • Catching a lambing ewe that's afraid to be caught is a different manner. Using a dog (or another person) to distract the ewe helps.
  • Stripping out a ewe with a big bag or big teats is easier with two people! Feeding her lamb(s) her milk allows us to keep the lamb(s) with her.
  • Our lambing interval was just 23 days this year! Not sure why, but it might be related to the fact that we were able to graze the ewes next to the rams (who were in a hardwire fence) - we had the same ram effect as using a teaser. We'll have to keep this in mind!
I think that's it for now - I'll add to these as I recall more lessons!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Lambing 2017: Three Weeks In

The first lamb of 2017!
Three weeks ago today, lambing season 2017 got underway for us! On the morning of February 19, Mae and I moved the ewes to a 5.75 acre paddock with plenty of grass and tree cover (a paddock we'd be saving for lambing). When I went back to check the sheep that evening, ewe #261 (a Shropshire ewe) was in labor with a big ram lamb (who happened to have one of his legs back). I caught the ewe, pulled the lamb, and lambing season had begun.

In many ways, this first lamb was a harbinger of how lambing season would go this year. We've pulled more lambs than normal - mostly because our lambs were unusually big this year. We even had to do the first c-section in all our years of raising sheep - saved one of the lambs but couldn't save the ewe. We suspect the large lambs are due to warm weather in November and nearly double our normal grass growth this winter. Large lambs - and large litter sizes (we've had 2 sets of quadruplets and 4 sets of triplets so far) means we have more bottle lambs than normal. As I write this, Sami is mixing up yet another batch of milk replacer for the bummers. Despite these challenges, we'll take big lambs and extra labor over drought anytime!

Since lambing represents the most intense labor demand of the year, we try to concentrate it as much as possible. A concentrated lambing season also means that our lambs are more uniform in size when we wean them in June (which makes them more marketable). The rams are with the ewes for approximately 6 weeks, so this marks the outer bounds of our lambing season. Usually, 85-90 percent of the ewes are bred in their first two cycles (the estrus cycle of a ewe is 17 days). This year, 95 percent of the ewes have lambed in the first 3 weeks of lambing! No wonder the rams were tired when we separated them from the ewes last November!

Now we're waiting for the last 5 percent of the ewes to deliver their lambs. Judging by appearances, I expect this will happen in the next 10 days. We'll continue to check the sheep three times a day until the last ewe delivers her lambs.

Every year we learn something new. This year, we took our gooseneck trailer to the leased property where we lamb during last weekend's cold storm. We had a set of twins and a set of triplets that got hypothermic during Monday's cold rain/sleet. Normally, we'd have taken these lambs home to be bottle-raised. This year, we put them in the trailer with their mothers. After a couple of days of recuperating in the shelter of the trailer, they went back with the rest of the sheep. We'll keep this "tool" in our toolkit for future lambing seasons.

Once lambing wraps up, we'll move on to other chores. The sheep will get moved back to our summer pastures sometime in April. In mid-April, our irrigation season begins - I'll go back to moving water once a day, every day. In late April or early May, our friend Derrick Adamache will shear the ewes - he'll come back in July to shear the lambs we're keeping. And in June, we'll wean the lambs - the final "report card" for our efforts this year. In the meantime, the sheep and I will enjoy this spring weather!