Mel and Mary Thompson raise an average of 650 head of pasture-fed White Dorper ewes and lambs on 700 acres of oak savannah south of Chico, California. They started the business in 1998, and direct market all of their products primarily to Bay Area customers.
During the 14 years Mel and Mary have been managing their land, they have greatly improved its productivity. This is evidenced by the fact that they are the only California sheep producers grazing sheep year-round on non-irrigated native grasslands and selling lambs 9-10 months of the year. Their forage quality is improving each year and even during the dry late summer months the forage requires only moderate supplementation. They accomplish this by prioritizing grazing and land management practices that assure water quality, water retention, forage diversity and soil health.
Core to their strategy is the use of rotational grazing. Early on, and with the help of a cost share grant from the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), they installed 12 miles of fencing and gravity-fed water system to create 35 pastures. This allows them to intensively manage the rotations in a single herd that is moved daily after foraging but before overgrazing happens. This practice increases grazing flexibility and has improved their forage quality and productivity. They’ve also seen better water infiltration, increased populations of native annual grasses, less erosion, cleaner water and extended grass growing seasons because the healthy grass roots follow moisture deeper into the soil.
Since the original EQIP support, they have applied frequently and had funding for an additional 20 practices, including adding three miles of water lines and 50 more troughs, a well and solar pump, road improvement and oak tree replanting. Mel looks at this public support not as a subsidy — where growers get a payment based on crop production — but as an investment shared by Sierra Farms that dedicates half of the labor and expense, with the other half put up by the farm bill program.
Mel and Mary were recently successful in getting a competitive award from another USDA program, a Farmer/Rancher Grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (note: Applications are being accepted now for 2013 awards). They are working with four other Butte County ranchers to study the effects on soil quality and composition of applying wood fly ash to rangelands. The ash is a byproduct from a cogeneration plant in nearby Oroville that would otherwise be destined for landfill. Over the two years of the study, the ranchers are apply in amounts of 10 and 20 tons of ash per acre to plots on the five properties and are monitoring soil nutrients and minerals such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, sodium, iron, and more that encourage grass and legume production. They are also measuring organic matter, moisture content, carbon, salinity, pH and bulk density.
Mel sums up their perspective on environmental enhancement efforts by saying, “We juggle our cash flow so we can do these projects, because they benefit our operation as well as add value for the environment.”
Mel and Mary are leaders in their community and in the community of ranchers. Mary is the Chair of the Butte County Resource Conservation District. Mel sits on the Steering Committee of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition and the Board of the California Woolgrowers Association. He also serves as Chairman of the Range Management Advisory Committee to the Forest Service. We are pleased to include Mel as the newest member of CalCAN’s Farmer Advisory Committee, bringing a commitment to rangeland conservation, sustainable livestock production and climate protection.