Old-style rotation of grains and sheep prevails at McCormack Ranch in Rio Vista
Story and photos by Cheryl Angelina Koehler
It’s hard to ignore the slim, white giants that stand waving their three long arms over the Montezuma Hills of Solano County. “Their red lights flash like devils’ eyes,” Jeannie McCormack says of the ubiquitous wind turbines as we bump along the dirt roads that run through her family’s historic farmland. In fact, the behemoths have no passport to set foot anywhere on the 3,700 acres of the McCormack Ranch, located on the Sacramento River an hour’s drive northeast of Oakland in Rio Vista. The terms Jeannie and her husband Al Medvitz signed into the Solano County Land Trust easement protect the property for agricultural use in perpetuity.
Other than power lines and a bit of recent-model equipment, not a lot has changed at McCormack Ranch since Jeannie’s grandfather Dan McCormack and two of his brothers took up farming grains and sheep in a rotational sequence on these hills after emigrating here from New Brunswick, Canada, at the end of the 19th century.
“If my father or grandfather were resurrected, they would recognize what we are doing,” Jeannie says.
A Synergistic Dance
The rolling hills cast deep shadows in the slanting late-November light as we drive past a field recently planted in grain: The sprouts appear as small points of green in the ridged brown earth. The McCormack Ranch vineyard, its vines aglow in their leafy red-orange autumn regalia, appears on our right, and a moment later, we’re gazing across the Sacramento River into the Delta, a land of sunken islands defined by twisting levees and sloughs. Jeannie points out the spot where the San Joaquin River joins the Sacramento. Mount Diablo and the Antioch Bridge loom in the distance.
The ewes seem to be everywhere: Approximately 1,500 of them, by recent count, graze on the rich salad of grasses an early onset of California’s rainy season has produced. Lambs, many born just weeks or days ago, might outnumber the ewes. They romp through the fields like kindergartners just set loose on a playground. A couple of smart border collies, working in tandem with two expert shepherdesses, coax a large herd of ewes in a near silent ballet, moving the sheep gently from a far, high hilltop down to a corral by the main barn. Jeannie says this synergistic dance of humans, dogs, and sheep still enchants her after more than 30 years of watching it enacted daily on her farm. Later in the day, Ellen Skillings, the McCormack Ranch livestock manager for the past five years, describes it exactly the same way.
Over lunch at the Hwy 12 Diner in town, Al draws pie charts on napkins to show how they rotate their fields in three sets of three-year cycles. As Al narrates, I’m like a dazed spectator watching three jugglers juggling pies in three different rings, so this is my dumbed-down version: Within its three-year cycle, one field will serve as pasture for a whole year. Come March, it will be disked and then fallowed until November when it’s planted in grain. Harvest happens the following June or July, at which point the sheep are let in to glean leftover grains and nibble volunteer sprouts while leaving behind their fertile droppings. Jeannie adds in a wry tone that the cycles continue “on and on to the end of time.”
She likes to imagine that even her ancestors several generations back in Scotland would recognize the pattern. As crofters (tenant farmers) they grazed their sheep on the high rocky commons of the Scottish township, but like so many others fell victim to the aristocratic landowners’ Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, a series of evictions that effectively devastated the cultural landscape of Gaelic Scotland as families like Jeannie’s great-grandparents’ left searching for a better life in the New World. Jeannie says that her vision is a bit of conjecture, but a year ago when she and Al visited the McCormacks’ homeland on the Isle of Arran she came away with a clearer picture:
“The interesting thing is that on Arran they had a system of crop rotation called ‘run-rig.’ They adapted the system on their farms in Canada and certainly here in the Montezuma Hills. They raised small grains and sheep in rotation just as they had done in Scotland and presumably in Canada.”
Jeannie and Al came back to Jeannie’s home in 1987 to see if they might like working for Jeannie’s father Wallace McCormack. As many farm kids do, Jeannie had left home after graduation with the expectation of pursuing a college education and a “city” career. She did Peace Corps work in Malawi for two years, but it was when she was studying at Harvard that she met Al, who had also been a Peace Corps volunteer. They married, finished graduate school, and then spent 10 years working in several different African countries for a variety of governmental and nonprofit agencies.
Doing Good on the Farm
“We were doing well by doing good,” Jeannie says, in the way that jaded overseas development workers often describe those assignments, “but it wasn’t making a difference.” Perhaps growing food would make a difference. But they were starting from scratch. “We knew nothing about farming except what I had observed growing up as a child. My father had a stroke in late 1989 and became increasingly frail. By the mid-90s we were handling all the day-to-day issues, and in 1999 we formed McCormack Sheep & Grain.”
They maintained production of lamb in the rotational relationship with production of dry-land red winter wheat and barley (sold into the local commodity market), oats (for hay), and alfalfa (for feed and soil enrichment). One disappointment was that wool, once a human necessity, was giving up its value to synthetic fibers. Early on, Jeannie thought she might be able to develop added value for the ranch by making cheese from the sheep milk. She studied up on dairying, sheep milk, and cheese production, but found their white-faced Dorset ewes didn’t cooperate. “They produced more sheep, but not more milk,” she says.
In 1992, McCormack Ranch became the first supplier of lamb to Niman Ranch, and to this day at certain times of year, California shoppers who select Niman lamb will be putting McCormack’s on their tables. Jeannie explains that as a small and nimble operation, they are able to custom-breed and custom-finish animals for the best size and flavor, selling whole carcasses for use in nearby restaurants and meat markets like Café Rouge (recently closed), Fatted Calf, the Fifth Quarter (Scott Brennan’s weekly pop-up at the Kensington Farmers’ Market), and Olivier’s Butchery. The last, a French-style boucherie located in San Francisco’s Dogpatch district, is run by Burgundian Olivier Cordier, whose shop caters to discerning French expats and others looking for superior cuts to enjoy at their home tables.
Jeannie and Al keep waiting for the local market for lamb to flourish, but Americans don’t seem to have a big appetite for this flavorful meat, which is so revered in the cuisines of the Middle East. The two suspect there’s a lingering ennui passed down from the World War II era, when veterans ate too much mutton while stationed overseas. But lately, the dampening of interest in lamb might be a result of the poor experience diners may encounter when served the meat of over-fattened animals that some of the larger California lamb producers dump onto the market to get more money per animal. Jeannie explains that it really does make a difference how the animals are raised.
Asking about the McCormack Ranch vineyard, I learn that it’s managed by Marcus Bokisch, who has his own (eponymous) winery in nearby Lodi Wine Country. But these premium pinot noir and gewürztraminer grapes go to E&J Gallo, the well-known jug-wine producer, which Jeannie fondly refers to as “the people’s winery.” That contract is locked in until 2021. “When it ends we would be courted by upscale winemakers for the harvests,” Jeannie says, using the subjunctive “would” because she and Al are both in their 70s.
The future is always an unknown for small farmers, but for now, the cycle of ripening grains and grapes and the synergistic dance of humans, dogs, and sheep continues at McCormack Ranch “on and on to the end of time,” at least as Jeannie sees it. On March 31 and April 1 and 2, the public can come to the ranch to watch it all, but don’t expect to be entertained by grains growing. All the excitement will be in the rolling green pastures where over 80 dogs and their handlers compete in the 4th Annual McCormack Ranch Sheepdog Trials.
More information on the McCormack Ranch Sheepdog Trials: here
My Life with Dogs and Sheep
By Ellen Skillings, livestock manager at McCormack Ranch
My first encounter with sheep was in Ireland when one jumped straight over my head. The sheep was a stray from a neighboring farm, and several of us were attempting to catch it. I finally trapped it in the corner of a small field, where it stood with its haunches pressed against a stone wall staring me down. It was a small creature, a mountain sheep, not much larger than a large dog. Since I had always been successful with dogs, I made a move to grab it. But in a decidedly un-dog-like fashion, it charged straight at me and effortlessly leapt over my head, clipping my brow with its back hooves and knocking me flat. It then sprang away across the peat like a deer. I imagine it laughing at my incompetent first efforts at shepherding.
The first border collie I saw was in Ireland, too, on a farm in Wicklow. She wasn’t working, just trotting across the barnyard. She had a wild, independent way of moving, completely unlike any dog I had ever seen. I was smitten. It wasn’t until I returned to the States and was invited to work a stint as a lambing apprentice on Lopez Island in the San Juan Archipelago of Washington State that I saw a border collie work sheep.
Sheep and sheepdogs had no place in my interior landscape during childhood. It was about dogs and horses, and I had a studied fascination with animals of all sorts. I also had a longing to live anywhere but in the Walnut Creek suburb where I was confined. On graduating from high school, I made a stab at college with little sense of purpose, and when I couldn’t find a way through that gave meaning to my life, I dropped out. I travelled to Ireland and worked for a time on a small farm. There, I began to taste work that would suit me, and my time on Lopez confirmed it. Soon after coming to the island I acquired my first working border collie as well as my first little flock of sheep.
The first five years with dogs and sheep provided a practical foundation in working and training, which is rare these days in the competitive sheepdog world. Most people competing in trials now come at it from a pet-sport orientation rather than as working stockmen and women. Even in those early years, I knew the real shepherding experience granted an invaluable advantage. Still, I wasn’t satisfied with the limited vocabulary and skill set the dogs and I had acquired together on the farm through everyday work: I wanted to learn how to train and use the dogs with a more complete grammar between us.
Somehow, in the days before the internet, I found out about the Oregon Sheepdog Society (OSDS), a regional organization that sanctioned sheepdog trials that were of an internationally accepted style. I attended some training clinics as an observer, and got some help from people just starting in the sport themselves. My first dog, Caleb, was very strong and rough, and though I attempted to trial him one time in the novice class, it was such a disaster that I vowed not to step onto a trial field again until I had a more tractable partner with whom to go to the post.
Several years later Gen (the Wonder Dog) came to me as a birthday gift. If Caleb was the epitome of difficulty and strong-mindedness, Gen was just the opposite. I was now blessed with a dog that seemed to read my mind, while at the same time showing me how sheep ought to be handled with elegance and finesse. I tentatively entered our first competition. Over the next year or so her successes piled up one upon the next, and we rapidly moved into the Open Class, where any dog and handler team that dared could step onto the field to compete at a big trial with some of the best in the world.
Gen is a memory now, but her blood flows through many dogs that work with me to this day. Jill, who will run at the McCormack Ranch Sheepdog Trials, is Gen’s great-granddaughter. Kelsey Nichols, the assistant shepherd here, will be running a dog of yet the next generation, Jill’s son Zac.
While working sheep on the hilltops above the river, I often pause and glance across the Delta toward Mount Diablo, still bemused by the serendipity that has brought me so close, as the crow flies, to my suburban childhood home.
The dogs and sheep have brought me close in miles, but this space is so far away on that mental map from where I grew up; from the dream to the solid reality that I so happily now call home.