Water Series: Pt 5 ~ Drought Adjustment Strategies from Mendocino Organics


The pastures of Mendocino Organics

Mendocino Organics, located at Heart Arrow Ranch in Redwood Valley, is owned and operated by Adam and Paula Gaska. This husband and wife team leases land from Golden Vineyards and raise grass-fed sheep, cows and a wide variety of vegetables. Since their start in 2008, they’ve grown their operation with an emphasis on ecological stewardship and feeding their local community. With 120 ewes, 25 cows and 1 bull, they have access to nearly 1,200 acres of rangeland for winter grazing in Redwood Valley, and another 60 acres of irrigated pasture in Potter Valley during the summer months.

During this drought, most farmers and ranchers are forced to adjust their operations and figure out how to make ends meet.  Mendocino Organics is no exception.

Finding alternative feed

During an average year, Redwood Valley experiences about 40 inches of rain. Since September, the area has only had about 5-6 inches, falling far short of the expectation of at least 20 inches by now. This lack of precipitation has greatly affected grass germination throughout Mendocino County, and has had large effects on the Gaska’s business.

Adam & Paula Gaska, Mendocino Organics

Paula & Adam Gaska

Mendocino Organics’ animals are all grass-fed, which means they aren’t supplemented with any grain at any time throughout the year. This year, to avoid overgrazing their pastures, the Gaska’s will harvest only one cutting of hay from their own land and be forced to buy the rest.

In this less than ideal situation, however, they have been lucky to find a surrounding neighbor with over three acres of irrigated land who has offered their grass in exchange for some free labor. Not a bad compromise considering their preference to avoid paying any extra costs for supplemental hay.

Reducing the flock & alternative income

To keep their business going, the Gaskas will cull 70 of their 120 ewes for auction, and keep 25 wethers and 25 ewe lambs. They’ll continue to sell the wethers to their markers for meat (a good strategy to keep their marketing channels open and happy), but depending on the rainfall next year, they’ll face the decision of whether or not to keep their ewe lambs for breeding or sell them for meat as well. In general, sheep are an easier flock to repopulate, as they can be bred in the first year of life.

Cows on the other hand, are a bigger investment, due to reproductive time, overall care, and costs, and therefore the Gaska’s are trying to retain as many as they can. Depending on the duration of the drought and its long term effects, they may have to sell weaned calves instead of raising them to full maturity.

The Gaskas will make money on the ewes they send to auction, which will help them pay down some debt and stay afloat, but reducing their herds is a short-term solution since it will take time and money to rebuild after the drought.

For a business that relies on livestock, Adam and Paula will have to find other ways to use their time and earn an income. Adam has already lined up some contract tractor work for other local farmers and for one of his landlords who grows grapes and olives.

New cultivation as a long-term investment

Overall, Mendocino Organics isn’t suffering dire consequences from the drought, but none of their adjustments are ideal, especially for a growing business that’s trying to move away from crop production and more into livestock. Depending on how long the drought lasts, it will stall their building markets by a year, maybe more, if there’s another drought year ahead.


Grazing sheep flock

On the bright side, some progress has been made this year despite the conditions, as the Gaskas have planted an acre and a half of mixed orchard, a quarter acre of table grapes, and a quarter acre of blueberries. Luckily, Heart Arrow Ranch has a secure water source in the form of ponds built by the landlord, which has made some new cultivation possible. The orchard is more of a long term investment, as it will take time to establish itself and most likely take a few years to financially pay off.

A new government assistance program?

There are a lot of farms like Mendocino Organics (and larger) across the state that are being forced to sell huge portions of their stock. Although there is a lot of money to be made in liquidating your animals, there is also a large amount of income tax liability that goes with it.

To address this issue, Adam suggests that the government account for the forced sale of livestock in times of drought and give farmers and ranchers a tax break on animals they have been forced to sell. This tax-deferred account could work similarly to a retirement or a health savings account where the money made on livestock sales becomes pre-taxable income.

Understanding that these types of droughts will continue into the future means the government will have to think of creative ways to help the farming community survive. A tax-deferred account could be a beneficial solution.

With no signs that the drought will end this year, the government and the agricultural community will need to devise long-term strategies to help farmers and ranchers remain financially resilient.


Irrigating the greens

Adam shares 5 tips for dealing with the drought:

1. Keep your biggest investment animals. Cows are a long-term investment compared to other livestock and are worth trying to keep. Sheep can be bred in the first year and are an easier flock to repopulate.

2. Be open to other income. As a rancher, you may need to find other ways to earn income during times of hardship. Be flexible and take on opportunities if and when they present themselves.

3. Stay connected locally and politically. Staying tied to the community presents opportunities for engagement and assistance. We found new land to rent by being connected to our local government and our neighbors.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Turn to your neighbors, even ones you might consider competitors. Many are being creative in finding ways to help each other through these hard times.

5. Keep moving forward. Every business hits a roadblock from time to time. Indecision or lack of action can hurt you in the long run.

Thank you, Adam for sharing your story and advice! If you have questions for the Gaskas, visit their website and get in touch.

To find more resources on water quality, efficiency, conservation and more, see our Water & Irrigation Toolkit.  

If you happened to miss them, check out the other articles in our Water & Drought Management Series:

If you have questions, words of wisdom or other great tips for the many farmers dealing with the drought, visit FarmsReach Conversations and post a question or comment!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch with me: evaa@farmsreach.com. We’d love to hear from you!

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