California Apprenticeship Building Future Producers

California Apprenticeship Building Future Producers

By  Amy Trinidad
Sheep Industry News Editor

(February 1, 2012) Over the next year, the American Sheep Industry Association is teaming up with the state sheep associations to expand the Let’s Grow initiative to include mentor programs for beginning sheep producers. Providing the hands-on experience and the one-on-one contact with experienced sheep producers will be key to making these state programs work. One producer in California has been embracing this concept for four years now and has evolved it into an apprenticeship for those curious about the sheep industry.

“It all started in 2007 when a high school student came to me and wanted to learn about sheep production and it has evolved since then,” explains Dan Macon of Flying Mule Farm in Auburn, Calif. “In addition to hands-on work, we have developed a curriculum for our apprentice program now where reading and project assignments are given.”

The concept of the apprenticeship program is based on those in the organic fruit and vegetable industry in California. By speaking with those interested in the industry, Macon has determined there is a real need for people to gain the hands-on experience.

“So much of the work with animals requires you to do it again and again and again to get good at it and there is not that opportunity in an animal science program unless you grew up on a ranch,” says Macon, explaining that the apprentices he has worked with have not come from livestock or animal science backgrounds.

Instead, the people who are coming to Macon looking for experience in the sheep industry are those with some form of higher education, looking for a different career path than originally desired and see agriculture as an attractive option.

“There is a real movement as far as people wanting to get back to the land. In some ways, it’s like the 1960s and 70s, only with a whole bunch of bigger challenges,” says Roger Ingram, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor, explaining that today’s shepherds need a large set of skills to succeed and make a profit. “Today’s shepherd needs the skills of being able to run on a multitude of environments, be able to identify common and uncommon pasture and range plants, know range nutrition, identify potential poisonous plants, be able to quickly asses the health of the flock and be able to take the appropriate steps in field conditions to fix problems.”

These are the types of skills that are taught, working one to two days a week on the farm, in Macon’s year-long apprenticeship. The apprentices start shortly after the first of the year when Macon is preparing the ewes for lambing and finish up at the end of the year when they learn about Macon’s breeding program and how to prepare ewes and manage rams for breeding.

While waiting for the ewes to lamb in the spring the apprentices go through an orientation phase in which they learn about the economics of the operation and the management calendar and philosophy that Macon has incorporated into his operation. 

“We do share a lot of economical information about our business with the apprentices so they understand the business part of a sheep operation,” says Macon, who also encourages the apprentices to complete a business planning course offered by the local cooperative extension office and taught by Ingram and his colleagues. There they develop a vision and mission statement, conduct economic and financial projections, start operational planning and market research projects and develop an action plan.

“This course is designed so that people can come out of taking the class with concrete steps of what they want to do next,” says Ingram.

By the time the course is complete, lambing is in full swing for Macon and he spends a few weeks working with the apprentice to get them comfortable with lambing in a pasture setting. “Once the intern has a greater level of comfort of what we are doing and once I have seen they have some competency, they are responsible for taking care of a day’s worth of lambing – with some back up,” Macon says.

Shearing comes next in Macon’s management calendar and that is when the apprentice helps move the sheep home. They are taught about proper wool handling techniques and how to skirt fleeces and pack bales. As summer passes, the apprentices learn about pasture rotation, how to set electric fences, about irrigation systems and how to maintain and finish lambs on grass as Flying Mule Farms is entirely a grass-based operation.

“In summer they are also doing targeted grazing work with us. When we have the opportunity to give them a project where they go through it from start to finish – from preparing a bid to scheduling the work and taking care of the sheep while there – we do,” Macon says.

Due to the fact that Macon sells the majority of his product – lamb, pelts and wool – through local farmers markets, the apprentices also gain experience in direct marketing if they so choose. “Once they are comfortable talking to the customers about our products, they will handle a market for us for a couple of weeks too.”

How it All Came About
In 2007, a group of more than 40 forward-thinking agricultural producers from Placer County got together for an Ag Futures Forum to talk about what agriculture would look like, and make sure it still exists, in Placer County 30 years from now. A big part of continuing agriculture production that was identified was providing hands-on experience for people that wanted to farm but didn’t have the experience or didn’t grow up doing it. From this meeting, a pilot project was developed in which three interns rotated through a series of six farms during the summer, including Flying Mule Farm. 

“These interns got some broad exposure to agriculture but it wasn’t long enough for them to get good at one particular thing,” says Macon, explaining that from there, with the help of Ingram, he set up topic-specific workshops that provided more of the hands-on aspects of the sheep industry.

For example, the two of them have put on a one-day lambing school last spring in which attendees learned about caring for lambs, their nutritional needs, how to deal with problem lambs and the other issues to be dealt with while lambing, including tagging and docking.

“These workshops provide a good venue for people to learn about specific management practices within the industry, while the internship is a tool for some more advanced training which is really trying to deal with the larger issue of we just need more people coming into agriculture in order to feed ourselves,” says Ingram.

Opportunity for the Industry
“A big challenge in the sheep business is that we have skipped a couple generations. People may have experience showing lambs at fairs but to take it to a commercial scale, in which they want to make a living doing it and have to think about the efficiencies of moving the animals and taking care of their health and nutritional needs, is very different than raising a lamb for a fair,” states Macon.

These types of programs provide experience for those looking to make a living in sheep production and help make the learning curve a bit less steep.

“To me, we are successful if we get people started in the sheep business but also successful if people discover the sheep business isn’t for them. I don’t want to see people get in the industry and then fail. It’s a risk-free way for somebody to learn if this type of work is for them or not,” Macon says.

And as for the four apprentices that have completed a full-year cycle with Flying Mule Farm, two are now sheep owners. One has purchased 15 ewes and runs them with Macon’s 250 head flock and the other, Courtney McDonald, has a small dairy flock with aspirations of running a Grade A sheep dairy and sell her dairy products locally. McDonald was able to purchase her first ewe with the assistance of Macon.

A trained chef by profession, McDonald was working at a restaurant in Auburn, which incidentally had Flying Mule Farm lamb on its menu.  Slowly losing her creativity at being a chef, she inquired about the apprenticeship program with Macon.

McDonald grew up with some livestock and still had the desire to raise them as an adult, plus with her interest in dairy products, she decided to work part time as a chef and spend the rest of her time learning about sheep production.

“It took courage to stop doing what I had been doing, but the time was right,” she explains. “I felt at the end of my internship I could have sheep at home and that is immediately what I got, some land and some sheep.”

Based on her hands-on experience from the apprenticeship, McDonald had the confidence to purchase and care for her own sheep. She is now applying the grass-based management system she learned from Macon to her dairy sheep. The sheep dairy industry is quickly growing along the coast of California and McDonald sees it as her niche within the industry.

Looking back on her internship, McDonald wishes she would have kept a journal of her activities. Another bit of advice she has to offer to those curious about an apprenticeship program is that it’s OK to start the program and not yet have an exact plan of action once it’s finished.

“For me, it was OK that I didn’t have a straight forward plan of what I wanted to do once I completed the year-long program, it fell into place once I started.”

Getting the next generation to consider sheep production as a career is invaluable to the industry and whether it’s through mentorships or apprenticeships, these are tools that can become building blocks for future producers.

“As people move through Dan’s apprenticeship, you see their skill level building. The industry is lucky to have people like Dan that are willing to relay their experiences to other inexperienced people so they don’t have to have as long as journey to find success,” relays Ingram.

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