Central Sierra
University of California
Central Sierra

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

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