This post is one of a series of posts I’m sharing about Sacramento IFBC 2016. In exchange for a discounted ticket, I agreed to share my own personal experience about IFBC on my blog. This post, and the next one to follow, are about an excursion trip to a sheep farm just outside of Sacramento prior to the conference opening.
As many of us do in life, Ryan Mahoney plays a lot of roles. He’s a loving and attentive father, as evidenced by the concern he shows every time his seven year old daughter starts wandering around our moving tour bus as it bumps along the rocky, rural, Solano County, California farm roads. He’s a 5th generation lamb rancher, which is why he’s the guy leading a bunch of food bloggers around his family’s Brown Road Ranch in Rio Vista. Because his animals are grass fed, he’s a grass farmer, too. And, at least today, it would seem the roles he was born to play are those of advocate and story teller.
Each year, along with three days of tech, writing, and discovery sessions, the International Food Bloggers Conference provides its attendees the opportunity to attend additional excursions prior to the conference open. These trips could be anything from a visit to a flagship cooking equipment store, as in years past, to, as it was this year, a tour of one of the Sacramento area’s many farms and ranches that help make it America’s Farm to Fork Capital. Our tour, offered by the American Lamb Board, would take us through Solano and Yolo counties. First stop, Ryan’s family ranch.
Almost as soon as we get off the bus, after a few brief introductions, Mahoney dives right into some deep waters. Perhaps recognizing that right now he’s not just representing the California lamb industry but rather all California farmers and ranchers, he explains just one of the reasons why small farms across his state are operating at a perpetual disadvantage–Federal farming regulations aren’t scaled to the size of the farm. Big, industrial operations and smaller, family owned ones like the Mahoney’s are obligated to follow the same rules.
“Smaller farms get hurt the worst…because they’re not equipped to just go hire out some person to do all their compliance work and their paperwork, whereas, the bigger guys, they’re able to. And so, you actually have a weird scenario where the economic pressures and the social pressures are forcing the smaller farms to go out of business.”
It’s not just paperwork and regulations that make running sheep a tough business. Wildly fluctuating market prices, an ever-shrinking talent pool of help qualified to work with sheep, and the animals themselves make this the kind of work not everyone is cut out for, or even wants to do. Mahoney himself didn’t start out life planning to be a rancher.
“When I was 12 years old, my grandpa put me on a thousand acre ranch. He gave me a shovel and bottle of water and he told me to cut all the stickers. And, so, I started, and was excited when he showed up at noon. I was thinking I was gonna get a relief, and he gave me a hamburger from Food Farm and a soda pop and then he turned around and drove away. And so, it was me and a guy who didn’t speak any English named Pancho, and he taught me to ask ‘Que hora es,’ which is ‘What time is it?’ in Spanish. We cut almost all the stickers on the hill. After that, I decided I didn’t want to work in agriculture because why would you wanna work that hard?”
But, life has a funny way of pulling you right back to the place you started. After high school, he headed off to St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, where he pursued a degree in Religious Studies. Then, he was presented with a choice.
“Between my junior and senior year, my grandpa and my mom sat me down and basically gave me a job offer, and I looked at it, and I pretended like I had a big stack full of job offers, because, you know, Religious Studies majors, we get job offers all the time. And so, I said ‘I’ll take this back and think about it,’ and I went home and thought about it and realized, ‘Well, I’m gonna compare this to nothing, so I better try it.'”
Today, Ryan, along with other members of the Mahoney tribe, run about 1,500 head of cows, which are bred with Japanese Wagyu to create American Kobe stock that will be sold to Snake River Farms in Idaho, and of course, the sheep–5000 mother ewes, most of which will give birth to twins. The sheep are sold through a variety of market channels, but they all require the same amount of work, and for not a lot of return. And then… there’s the water issue.
According to the California Water Science Center, California is now in its fifth year of what they define as “severe drought.” The state is still under water savings measures, and with yearly snowpack run off estimates coming in below average, some have questioned the amount of water being used by the state’s agriculture industry. While he recognizes the pressure California farming puts on the water system, from the farmer’s perspective, some of the information being given to the general public is a bit misleading.
“The first one, the easiest one, is whenever you read a newspaper report that talks about water and measures it in gallons is a really disingenuous report because water, as a whole, is measured in acre feet. One acre feet is 350,000 gallons. It takes four acre feet to keep the grass green. It takes five acre feet to grow a field of alfalfa for a year. It takes two acre feet to grow a crop of tomatoes, per acre. When you’re talking about using water to grow food, it’s not water that gets wasted.”
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by the year 2050, world food production will need to increase by 70% to meet global food demand. With so much of California’s agricultural product leaving the state, farmers like Ryan definitely feel the weight of, literally, feeding the world.
“It’s really important that we don’t forget that food feeds the world and really California agriculture…there’s a large percentage that’s exported out, so California really does a lot to feed the world. To ignore that when you’re looking at a water budget, it really hurts a lot of people without intentionally hurting them.”
Our visit wasn’t all serious faces, though.
I know, I know. You’re wondering, “But what about the FOOD, Jordan?” Yes, of course we got some cooking tips from Ryan. Who better to ask than the guy who grows the sheep? We also visited a local brewery to hear about beer styles that pair well with lamb. We’ll dig into the “meat” (I’m so sorry, I couldn’t help that) of that particular matter in the next post.
Also, I mentioned the Mahoney family’s involvement in sheep and cattle ranching, but there used to be another animal in the mix–goats. I say “used to be” because Ryan refuses to run them anymore. Why? They are apparently troublemakers, or, in his words, “…just little boogers!” He shared the story of his brief brush with goat farming, which they tried because of a feeling they needed to diversify as much as possible. One year, he decided that if they were going to run goats, he was going to do everything possible to raise really great ones. He had an irrigated clover pasture set aside just for the goats, along with brand new fences, new gates, and good water. But unlike the cows and sheep, which pretty much stay exactly where you want them to, goats tend to have minds of their own. And, well, I’ll let Ryan tell you the rest…