Farming in the Foothills
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.
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.
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.
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
1. Understand that food safety on your farm is your responsibility. Good food safety practices can protect you and your customers. It is a cost of doing business. If you don't pay the cost upfront, it may cost you the farm if a customer gets sick.
2. Make a plan and keep good records. If it is not in writing, it does not exist as far as inspectors are concerned. Make a food safety plan and follow it. Monitor all areas on your farm on a regular basis, and keep records of what you do and when you do it.
3. Identify which produce is higher risk. Focus on reducing those risks first. Higher risk produce includes: produce eaten raw; produce that comes into direct contact with soil; and produce that is hard to wash such as salad mix, lettuce, strawberries, and cantaloupes. Don't assume that because your produce has a peel (e.g. cucumbers), it is lower risk. Additionally, do not pack damaged or dropped fruit. Foodborne illness pathogens can enter damaged fruit, as well as fruit that may have come into contact with animal feces on the ground.
4. Know the quality of your irrigation water. Irrigation water that touches the edible portion of your crop should be tested for foodborne illness pathogens such as E. coli. Compare your test results with the EPA's recreational water standards currently used by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
5. Minimize risks when using compost and manure. Some foodborne illness pathogens can remain in manure for 3 months or more, so it is important to compost manures properly. Plan for 120 days between applying compost and harvest of a crop that comes into direct contact with soil. The interval required for a crop that does not come into direct contact with soil is 90 days. Document the application dates and what was applied. Be aware of your neighbors' use of manures as well, since pathogens can be airborne, carried in runoff water, or transported on equipment.
6. Be aware of possible contamination by animals. You cannot prevent all wildlife intrusion onto your farm, and many farms have working animals, livestock, and pets. You can make a pre-harvest assessment of your fields. If there is evidence of feeding damage or fecal contamination, you should not harvest affected plants and those growing in close proximity.
7. Keep vehicles and equipment clean. Reduce the risk of contamination by cleaning harvesting tools, farm equipment, and other vehicles used in harvest and transport of your produce. If a vehicle is used to transport anything other than produce, it should be cleaned and sanitized before using.
8. Know the flow of your produce from field to consumer, and identify sources of contamination. Identify every surface your produce touches. This includes packing containers, sorting tables, cooler shelves, etc. This will help you understand where contamination could enter your system and help you develop an effective cleaning and sanitation program. Cleaning contact surfaces should be the first line of your sanitation program. Remove dirt and debris from food contact surfaces with an appropriate detergent. Follow that with a sanitizer, which will not work properly if there is too much soil and debris.
9. Keep postharvest water clean. Use only potable water. If you are using a sink or tub of water to wash a batch of produce, add a sanitizer. Monitor sanitizer levels to prevent cross-contamination from the water or from one piece of produce to another.
10. Train your employees. This is the easiest and most financially effective food safety practice. Train your workers to be aware of food safety risks and how to follow proper on-farm procedures. Worker training includes hand washing and other hygiene practices; illness and accident procedures; and other standard food safety procedures for your farm.
Adapted from Rosemary Gordon's interview with Betsy Bihn, “How to Manage Food Safety Risks”. http://www.growingproduce.com/vegetables/how-to-manage-food-safety-risks/
CDFA California Small Farm Food Safety Guidelines: https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/is/i_&_c/pdfs/SFFSGbooklet-English.pdf
FSMA final rule on food safety: https://www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/fsma/ucm334114.htm
Mandarins are considered the signature crop of the foothills. Foothill growers are challenged by poor soils, limited water, increasing pest pressure, and production costs. Many of us are employing non-traditional techniques to counter these challenges. Two of these practices, pruning and mulching, are currently being studied by UCCE Placer/Nevada in collaboration with five local growers.
In the past, citrus growers were warned not to prune. We were told that pruning would harm the trees, reduce yields, and be detrimental to our bottom lines. We attended UCCE workshops and learned differently. Many of us took the plunge and have been pruning our citrus for years. We have seen improvements in the orchard. Pruning citrus is believed to improve tree health, decrease pest populations, reduce pesticide use, and improve fruit yields and quality.
Mulching has not been a practice in most orchards. Fertilizer and herbicides were not very expensive, water was plentiful. Mulch increases soil water-holding capacity, reduces surface evaporation, and adds organic matter to soil while increasing microbial activity. This study will evaluate the impact that mulching has on the soil, trees, and herbicide use. Wood chips, horse manure, and other sources of organic materials are readily available and inexpensive. In our orchard, we started mulching when the drought began. Our water use didn't increase and more importantly our trees didn't suffer from stress. We think that the mulch provided us with some drought resilience. The study will evaluate this.
UCCE is at the beginning of this project. Research trials have been established in five commercial mandarin orchards. All five have mulching trials and three of the orchards have pruning trials. Horse manure and wood chips have been identified as a readily available, inexpensive source of mulching material. Mulching parameters, such as composition, depth, area, and application timing were discussed and determined by the participants. Samples of the mulch being used in each orchard are being analyzed. Pruning guidelines have also been set. Growers were trained to ensure that pruning is performed consistently across the study orchards. Baseline data on soil parameters, such as water holding capacity, texture, nutrients, organic matter and microbial activity, has been completed for the first year and will be performed each year. Soil analysis results were reviewed with the growers and fertilization plans discussed. Soils moisture is being monitored with soil tensiometers. Data loggers capable of tracking temperature and relative humidity are installed at each trial location. Data on physical tree parameters, such as canopy volume and density, tree trunk diameter, and other characteristics is also being gathered. In August each year, leaves from each orchard will be tested for nutrient composition. In October, we will harvest individual trees in the experiment and collect yield, fruit quality and color data.
As the trial progresses, results will be reported at grower meetings and UCCE-hosted workshops. UCCE will also hold workshops to teach producers the pruning and mulching techniques used in the trials. Completion of the research will result in a detailed analysis of the impact of pruning and mulching on commercial mandarin orchards. The desired result is the widespread adoption of pruning and/or mulching practices among citrus and other specialty crop producers.