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Farming in the Foothills

“Letters from a Young Farmer”: Beginning Farming -Part 1

In my recent interview with Paul Glowaski of Dinner Bell Farm, co-owner of a pig and flower farm in Chicago Park that has been in business for 9 years, he gave insight into some of the values and challenges associated with becoming a farmer in the foothills. He highly recommended the book of short accounts written by seasoned farmers called Letters to a Young Farmer, for anybody who is considering or who is a farmer. You may have recognized the similarity in the title of this blog, Glowaski coined the phrase, “Letters from a Young Farmer.”

Glowaski recognizes the wealth of information, mistakes to learn from, as well as solid production advances that the younger generation has to offer and wishes they would be shared more readily with other new farmers. “We all make mistakes…having a shared understanding is valuable.” That being said, Glowaski also highly recommends tapping into the knowledge of “old-timers” because although many of us have agriculture in our history somewhere, it may have skipped a generation and we cannot afford to make the same mistakes.

In addition to farmers, your neighbors may be part of your team. Many “in the prime of their life” Glowaski said, who want to help young people who desire to do something great, like start a new farm. Take a moment to think of all the mechanics, gardeners, truck drivers, cooks, teachers, neighbors, and even wealthy retired folks who can be valuable resources to a young farmer, especially in the area of community and moral support. Community is essential, especially on those days when things seem to go wrong all at once. “Sometimes you have to dig deep” especially when it comes to an operation that you financially will need to depend on.              

The challenges of starting a farm in the foothills must not be underestimated. Planning is extremely important, “We met for three years before starting the farm - we called it the dream farm,” Glowaski said of Dinner Bell. He credited that crucial time of planning as a large part of why they still exist as a viable farm today. Farming is extremely dynamic, the farmer  must remain adaptable and humble in the process that forges out a farm. “We aren't doing anything we started with,” Glowaski stated as he reflected on the changing markets and the succession of products Dinner Bell Farm has produced over the years. He identifies with Dan Macon's “Small Farm Evolution in Five Easy Steps.” More candidly, farming is humbling. Glowaski expressed three values held by Dinner Bell, which are important to consider for all new farmers; ecological sustainability, economic viability, and social sustainability. Can a farm buying at retail prices, selling at wholesale prices expect to make a profit? If a farm is socially accepted and ecologically responsible but not economically viable, it will not survive.

              Look for more posts about beginning farming coming soon!


Posted on Monday, April 23, 2018 at 11:19 AM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture


Upon reading Dan Macon's blog, Preparing for the Unexpected, I was reminded of my own lack of preparedness. Recent losses in the agricultural community, of mentors, friends, and colleagues, have struck close to home. I have worked with some of the families in trying to secure the continuity of what had become, in a moment, their responsibility. A responsibility that they were unprepared for. In every case, those that were lost had the plans for running the operation in their heads. They knew what to do to keep the operation running, but no one else did.

I realized that every aspect of my operation is contained in my head. For me this provides flexibility and allows me to react in the moment. I do keep written business records, sales and such, but I do not keep written operational procedures. Recent events in my own life are causing me to take steps to remedy this. My wife and I have switched roles. She is transitioning into the primary role of managing our operation as I work outside the home. I am constantly reminded that she does not know what I do.

Our operation is multi-faceted. Not only are we fruit growers, but we produce and market a line of value-added products. Our products are sold wholesale and directly to consumers via numerous outlets. Procedural documentation for running the business seems a monumental task. Based upon my experiences over the past year, I have decided to start documenting what is necessary to get the crop to harvest and sale. A successful harvest is the basis for everything that we do. So I asked myself what was most important to help ensure a successful harvest.

I started with a map of the irrigation system clearly indicating pipes, timers, valves, filters, and the location of the water box at the canal. In this file, I included documents such as controller manuals and irrigation schedules, valve maintenance documentation, water agency contacts, and a list of irrigation parts suppliers. From this, I moved on to an actual map of the orchard. We grow many varieties of citrus; all planted randomly. Our orchard map now points out specific varieties and the approximate pruning and harvest schedule for those varieties.

In a second file, I began to assemble information and documents that were pertinent to the sales aspect of our operation. I included information, by variety, on current pricing and packaging. Because we sell at the farmers' markets, I made sure that my wife is listed on our Certified Producer's Certificate and that a copy is present in the file. I included copies of our California Sellers Permit, Placer County Environmental Health permit, certified scale certificate, pesticide permit, and a current copy of our business insurance policy. I included information on supplies: bags, boxes, clippers, harvest totes, etc.

In a secure location, I have copies of banking information and notes on logins and passwords for anything relevant to the operation. I have been granting my wife electronic and written permission to these accounts to ensure that she has access. In the event of the unexpected, I do not want her to be hamstrung by red tape.

Like my operation, all of these documents are living. I will add and subtract to the overall total.

Recent events, both local and national, have reminded me that the unexpected comes in various ways. I had farming friends who were forced to evacuate at a moment's notice during the recent wildfires. I plan on including some form of evacuation plan in my procedures. Part of my plan is to make sure that all of my procedures and records are contained on electronic media that I can store somewhere secure or grab at a moment's notice. Maybe I will send a copy to my sister who resides out of state for safekeeping.

As I progress thru this exercise, I am constantly reminded that planning for operational continuity is done for many reasons, not just the unexpected. Many of us are transitioning our operations to partners or the next generation. Others may be preparing an operation for sale. Whatever the reason, the task is not insurmountable.

If you're interested in learning more about planning for the continuity of your farm or ranch - and in sharing your experiences - join us for our next Farmer-to-Farmer Dinner at the Auburn Veterans Hall on Wednesday, November 1, from 6 to 9 p.m. Please register for this event on this web page! This free event is supported by grants from the USDA Risk Management and Farm Service Agencies.

Posted on Thursday, October 26, 2017 at 2:25 PM
  • Author: Robert Bonk

Preparing for the Unexpected

The Placer County 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 and largely unanticipated transitions. And with each loss, I've realized that I need to do a better job at preparing my own ranching operation for the unexpected.

Farm and ranch succession is a critical topic. The average age of a farmer in Placer County is around 59 years. More than two-thirds of the farmers and ranchers in the 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 my ranching enterprise, this means caring for sheep and guard dogs. I've realized over the last several months that the day-to-day work of running the ranch is largely (and inappropriately) in my head.

Recently, 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 paddocks must be checked. From April 15 to October 15, the irrigation water must be moved. On a seasonal basis, the sheep must be moved 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 considering 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. We graze on land owned by more than 15 different landowners - I need to put their contact information in one place. 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 has been 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 a fellow rancher - I'm certain she'll see things I've missed, 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.

If you're interested in learning more about planning for the continuity of your farm or ranch - and in sharing your experiences - join us for our next Farmer-to-Farmer Dinner at the Auburn Veterans Hall on Wednesday, November 1, from 6 to 9 p.m. Please register for this event at on this web page! This free event is supported by grants from the USDA Risk Management and Farm Service Agencies.

Posted on Tuesday, October 10, 2017 at 6:12 PM

Workshop Follow-Up: Resources for a Food Safety Plan

We had a great "On-Farm Food Safety" workshop at the end of last month at Mandarin Hill Orchard in Penryn. Fourteen of our local fruit and vegetable growers were in attendance. The workshop included a discussion of strategies for improving food safety, a review of the new federal legislation, and several instructive activities. At the end of the workshop each grower was tasked with identifying three ways they were going to apply what they learned to their operations. We noticed that the majority of the growers identified needing a written food safety plan as a top action item.

Getting a food safety plan in writing for the first time can seem daunting, but there are great resources available that can help break down a food safety plan into very ‘doable' tasks. The Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) has a list of several templates and other resources available from university extensions or other proven sources. Check it out here: https://producesafetyalliance.cornell.edu/resources/farm-food-safety-plan-writing-resources

If you couldn't make it to our August workshop—stay posted! We will be holding another Food Safety workshop early next year.

Posted on Tuesday, September 19, 2017 at 11:58 AM

Controlling Internal Parasites in Sheep and Goats

If you've raised sheep or goats, you've doubtless seen symptoms of internal parasites. In our own sheep, these symptoms include diarrhea, general lethargy, anemia, and bottle jaw. If you've been in the business of raising sheep and goats for any length of time, you'll also know that dewormer resistance (that is, parasites that develop resistance to specific dewormers) is an increasingly difficult challenge. Thanks to a great webinar put on by the American Sheep Industry's Let's Grow Committee, I recently discovered a new resource for managing internal parasites in small ruminants. The American Consortium for Small Ruminant Parasite Control has an outstanding website - check it out at www.wormx.info!

We've long used the FAMACHA(c) system to identify anemic animals in our flock - anemia is a symptom of infection with Haemonchus contortus (barber pole worm). By using the FAMACHA(c) system, we can target infected animals only with our deworming treatments. According to Dr. Ray Kaplan of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, proper use of the FAMACHA(c) system "will significantly slow the development of resistance to dewormers which is becomign an extremely important concern in small ruminant production." Click here for more information on the FAMACHA(c) system.

The FAMACAH(c) system, however, doesn't tell the whole story about parasitic infection. Fecal egg counts can be used to more closely monitor the level of parasitism in your herd or flock. We've not done this systematically with our sheep, but I think we'll start! Here's more information.

At one time, our veterinarian recommended rotating deworming products to reduce the likelihood of developing resistance. Today, rotation will not prevent resistance from worsening. Instead, experts now recommend that dewormers be used together at the same time in combination. Another article by Dr. Kaplan indicates that using combinations of dewormers gives each drug an additive effect, which means fewer resitant worms survive the treatment. Click here to read the full article. Be sure to read the "Precautions and issues to consider" section!

Finally, someone told me when we first started raising sheep that chicory contained a compound that was helpful in controlling internal parasites. It turns out that there may be something to this! An experiment conducted in Ohio in 2009-2010 investigated non-traditional forages (including chicory) as a strategy for reducing parasite burden in lambs. The researchers found that lambs grazed chicory showed statistically lower fecal egg counts. They acknowledge that "grazing forage chicory is not an effective parasite control strategy in and of itself," but that it might have potential as one tool within a multi-tool approach. Click here for more information on chicory. It may be worth seeking funding for conducting a similar trial in California - contact me if you're interested in researching this topic!

Finally, here a few more helpful links:

Sheep Agriculture (with links to ASI webinars)

US Lamb Resource Center: great information on managing lambs

Posted on Monday, September 11, 2017 at 4:33 PM

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