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Looking back toward the future of Agriculture

I sit in my parents’ house tonight like I have countless nights before. Dad and I shared plenty of wine. He got a phone call from an old farmer, Phil, that left this part of the country quite a while ago. Dad talks to Phil about the good ol’ days. My generation would be much wiser if we only accepted that there’s much to be learned about those days.

Phil, who left for Oregon probably 20 years ago, planted pistachios long, long before pistachios were part of a marketing campaign that included the Kardashians, Million Dollar Superbowl Spots and Gangnam Style. Matter of fact, Phil’s motivation to plant came even before disturbance in the Middle East durning the Carter administration drove prices of pistachios through the roof. A few forward thinking farmers like Phil realized that there was plenty of climate just like that of the Mediterranean right here in San Luis Obispo County – maybe we could even echo some of their agriculture. And echo we did .. Pistachios went in and Phil was able to take advantage of political volatility that had a profound affect on food prices. Now his grain farm serves as residence for some grapes and his grain tanks are part of the farm’s agritourism attraction.

Think of the crops that are prevalent and abundant in California that we find, literally, half way around the world. Now think outside of Ag. They have oil, we have oil. They need water, we need water. They are politically volatile, so are we. Change often comes in funny looking packages. I suppose it’s our choice to embrace it, or fight it. Phil chose to embrace it. I’m not sure how he wanted his story to end. I do know that he’s happy on his ranch in his new corner of the world.

Time with my family is always precious. I measure it in moments, hang on to it like it’s sliding off a cliff and remember ever detail possible. Generations before us and generations long gone hold the keys to the future. If we don’t listen, the keys are never passed and we are left pounding on the Future’s Door.

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Things aren’t always what they seem.

If there’s anything I should have learned in my 35+ years, it’s to not judge a book by its cover ..

Did you know that it takes over 400 gallons of water to produce one pound of boneless beef? Chew on that burger for a minute.

Last weekend, I spent a lifetime in Napa – or what should have been a lifetime! 20 women who certainly weren’t rookies, a highly celebrated bachelorette and a long overdue weekend with perfect weather. What happened? Not much. But what did happen was something I never expected. Coming from a wine country I loved, Napa didn’t stand much of a chance in my mind. I expected snobby service, overpriced wine, and crowds that would suffocate the Pope. What did I get? Impeccable service, open, airy tasting areas and overpriced wines. But I get it now – their wines are as good as my precious Paso Robles AVA vintages, but their properties are $300,000 an acre v. $50,000 an acre at home. I get it!! I’ll pay the $100 for a $35 Cabernet. (I’ll expand in a blog at a later date.) Sandy in a Vineyard

Last week, I posted some pretty stirring comments in a blog I never thought I’d have to write. Animal welfare is a topic I choose not to touch with a 10 foot pole. Too many opinions, too many feelings. And yet, there I was, filling the silence by shaming a media outlet, reminding my friends and the general public that things aren’t always what they seem. The girl who didn’t make it past her second semester in college. Same girl who is immensely intimidated by anyone who completed any Agriculture Leadership program. What happened? Well, I guess you could say I got some attention. I was invited to write an Opinion Editorial for the very media outlet I shamed. My biggest and most vocal advocate? A person I had held a grudge against since High School. And the local liberal newspaper that our entire Ag Industry had turned against, contacted me, stating that Agriculture had categorically decided to respond by saying, “No comment.” Apparently, the silence was deafening because in their note to me, they admitted they had bad reputation and stopped short of begging for a voice for Agriculture.

And just today, I reached out to my Ag Peers for an info-graphic that Agriculture put out to reflect the amount of water that California commodities require to be produced. What happened was something I never could have predicted. A farmer and rancher whom I (and the rest of California Agriculture) have an immense amount of respect for, responded. He offered a statistic that I just can’t shake.

Today, I went for a 4 mile run on the East Bay of San Francisco. The same Bay he reminded me that 70,000,000 acre feet of water, is allowed to flow out into the Pacific Ocean, every year. Back to the burger. If it takes (conservatively) 400 gallons of water to produce one pound of boneless beef, then that water that we let flow out the Bay could be used to produce 58,875,000,000 pounds of beef 227.5 BILLION quarter pound hamburgers!
Bay

How many times have you heard that food insecurity is the biggest problem facing Americans? How many times have you heard commercials on the TV or Radio asking for donations to help feed the hungry? So was that a sea shore I was running along today? Or was it wasted opportunity to end hunger?

I’m not proposing that we dam up every gallon of water that flows down through the Sierras. And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a cheap proposition. But maybe we choose water storage. Maybe we vote for a bond that builds a new dam. Maybe we find a way to keep some of that water that runs out into the Pacific, every day.

Water is serious business. So is food insecurity. But things aren’t always what they seem.

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When they ask for comment, you answer.

I publicly shamed a local media outlet using this blog and received a ton of attention. So much so that the media outlet invited me to write an Op Ed. I had no choice but to oblige.

The following was published at 5:00 pm today.

Animal Agriculture is a tough row to hoe.

Farming is tough. It’s even tougher considering a farmer relies on Mother Nature to cooperate and provide rain for feed, and the area he farms in has seen less than 10% of normal rainfall for the last 3 years. And to make it even tougher, now that farmer is being forced to deal with the public jumping to conclusions, based on several seconds of gut wrenching video spread all over the local news and social media, compared to his over 53 years of experience. Without speaking to this farmer, I know that those several seconds were some of the worst of his life.

Animal Agriculture is a difficult row to hoe. Not only are you dealing with living breathing animals who often have a mind of their own, but you’re dealing with the dynamics of nature, confinement, the health and wellbeing of the animal, public pressure to produce a product desirable to consumers, all this coupled with the hopes that at year’s end, your operation might make a dollar or two.

Removing all emotion from this difficult subject, consider that a farmer or rancher’s commodity (the animal and their byproducts) can only be sold for a profit if they’re a viable, healthy, consumable product. This means keeping the animals in the best shape possible for as long as the animal is under the farmer’s control.

Sheep in our area lamb in the fall which means they’re weaned from their mothers in late winter to early spring. Good mothers can convert most of their existing flesh, and any nutrients fed to them, into milk for their lambs, causing the ewes to appear remarkably thin. Healthy lambs, healthy operation. Like any good and evolving industry, agriculture has seen some specialization, including the area of shearing of sheep. The shearing crews cover large areas and come in once a year during a week that has been scheduled several months or often a year in advance. Rescheduling often causes delays that push shearing into the heat of the summer, exacerbating problems the wool presents – flies that spread disease, comfort of the animal, cleanliness, etc.

Another thing to consider as you’re mulling over this topic, sheep have one of the highest mortality rates amongst animals raised for human consumption. 8% or higher losses are not uncommon. Sheep are highly susceptible to disease, greatly affected by weather and stress and often die for unknown reasons.

While I bring up some points that seem crass or inappropriate, my hope is that the reader becomes a more educated consumer. We now live in a society where chicken dinner no longer means going out to the chicken pen, and picking out dinner. We don’t have to own chickens or know the butcher to have chicken dinner. It means a fried chicken prepared from the bag of frozen boneless-skinless chicken breasts in the freezer, or a quick meal after soccer practice at popular chain restaurant, or even the drive through.

Life on the Central Coast is amazing and we are so very lucky to live here. I’m blessed to be from a family who started our ranching operations in 1874. Agriculture generated $861M in San Luis Obispo County 2012 alone. We get to see cattle, goats, horses and sheep dotting our hills. We get to see wine grapes growing and the wine industry enhancing our local economy. We are so fortunate to have 112 agriculture commodities produced in our County making us one of the most diverse Counties in a State that has lead Agriculture production for countless decades. I do not exaggerate when I say that our County and California feed the World.

I encourage you to take a moment to understand what you’re having for dinner and its journey to your plate. I ask that you let the proper authorities do their job and investigate the incident at Heritage Ranch. And please, next time you see something in the news or on social media, take a moment to consider that there may be two sides to the story.

My thanks to the Paso Robles Daily News for the opportunity to write on this topic. My blog titled “A picture may speak a thousand words, but it only tells half the story,” has been viewed over 10,000 times in over 20 countries. The PRDN contacted me to write this Op Ed and in doing so, they also pointed out that, in fact, they had tried to contact the owner of the sheep but were unable to reach him for comment. I thank them for this information.

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A picture may speak a thousand words, but it only tells half the story.

Paso Robles Daily News should be ashamed of them selves. As a mater of fact, I’m pretty sure they are ashamed of their reporting because they won’t even assign a by line to the article that just may ruin a man who has had an impeccable reputation in the agriculture industry for 53 years. I can’t even personally call out the reporter who so poorly wrote an article that has broken a man’s heart. They have made unfounded accusations of animal cruelty based on half the story. They didn’t even try to contact the man who stays up nights and works long hours to make sure his sheep are okay. Instead they relied upon the opinion of a couple who happened upon some sheep that were in distress. They did little to help the shepherd who was with the sheep. Instead, they were quick to grab a cell phone video – correction about TEN cell phone videos of sheep in distress.

There are a thousand things this couple could have done: Called the Sheriff’s Department to contact the owner of the animals. Contact the Community Services District where the sheep were leased. ASKED THE SHEPHERD WHAT THEY CAN DO TO HELP! Please explain to me how shooting a video is going to immediately help these animals that they claim to be so concerned about!!??

Cal Coast News at least contacted the rancher who owns the sheep. Reading their article, I was at first a bit shocked to hear the rancher close the article with this quote, “Those people you are talking to are nuts and do not know what they are talking about. It was the storm that hurt them.” He’s right about one thing: Those people who shot the video have no idea what they’re talking about. You see, it’s estimated that only 1% of working Americans are actually involved in production agriculture. So an even smaller percentage of Americans actually know about sheep production!

The couple with the cell phone taking videos were part of the 99% of our population which, most, blissfully believe that their food comes from a grocery store. Truth be told, this couple probably caused more distress for the sheep. These sheep are used to being moved by only their shepherd and his highly skilled team dogs. By minimal human pressure. So the sight of this hysterical couple probably frightened the sheep even more.

I’ll tell you a few things that I personally know. I know that when I do a BING or GOOGLE search of the term “sheep”, you’ll see tons of images of baby lambs, fluffy herds of ewes dotting green hillsides probably somewhere in Ireland, and even a few rams with horns. Not a single photo in the top 100 images on either site of a freshly shorn ewe that has a lamb on her side. I know that when my sister and I were 4H leaders, we brought home several lambs for our kids and were heart broken one day when we received a phone call that one of our kid’s lamb died. No reason, just died. I know that when I was in Shandon FFA, we had a flock that belonged to the school and every year (spring time as a matter of fact) when we sheared the ewes, they looked thin with big bellies and protruding spines. Apply this same logic to humans. What’s the best way for a woman to lose weight after a baby? Breast feed. What does a woman look like a few months after she gives birth? Certainly not the same as she did prior to getting pregnant! These ewes are processing their feed straight into milk for their lambs at an incredibly high rate – just like a nursing human mother does. Things in pictures and videos aren’t always what they seem.

And I know this rancher, personally. He’s a kind and caring man. He’s Basque and from the old country. I did not contact his family for content nor do I have their permission to write about them. I don’t need to. I know him from the Catholic Church I grew up in seeing him often on Sundays. I know him because I grew up with his two sons and daughter. I know him because he’s been a highly respected cattleman and shepherd for over 50 years in our community. It’s a treat to get stuck in a rural traffic jam just to see that it’s one of his bands of sheep moving to their next pasture. Slow and steady, we all patiently wait and watch in awe to see the sheep mindfully cruise down our County roads. A man, a few dogs and a thousand sheep moving miles with no problems.

This rancher has experienced a tragedy based on nature alone. Shortly after shearing his sheep, they were moved into a new location where rain and winds far exceeded what was forecasted. In a drought stricken year, this was the perfect storm. Now he is being forced to deal with a manufactured tragedy from poor reporting and an ill-informed woman with a cell phone video. Coming from a ranching family who is personal friends with this rancher, my heart is breaking for his loss.

I beg you to listen to both sides of the story, to understand that ranchers are among the most compassionate people you will meet and that our animals are part of our family. My thoughts and prayers go out to you and your family, JB. Best wishes for a full recovery for your family and your herd.

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