Chronicles of a Dirt Farmer: The Year of No Sheep


There’s a first time for most everything. This will be the year not only of record-breaking drought, but also the year the sheep never came.

It has finally, finally started to rain in earnest – we’ve had a series of storms over the last few weeks, kicked off with a gully washer that dumped upwards of 17” in some places in a little over 72 hours. According to our rain gauges, the RSV vineyards saw 6” in that storm. Our reservoirs are less empty, but still not quite full enough. But at least that accursed gopher living at the bottom of my bone-dry pond has most likely drowned. Good riddance.

After that first big storm, the hills greened up in two days – an amazing feat, as if the grass had been holding its breath and, with that little bit of moisture, exhaled in exuberant green relief. Wasn’t too long before the mustard caught up, rising proud yellow heads above the brilliant orange of the field calendula. Now, the fruit trees are blooming, covered in snowy tresses humming with bees. The world has sloughed the dead, dry brown of the winter’s drought to cloth itself green and yellow and orange, the colors of life.

Normally, we have sheep dotting the green hills of our vineyards, arriving in late December or early January when the grass has grown tall enough to support our rotationally-grazing herd. One dry year, they came at the end of January. But this year, the rains came too late into February; the grass is finally green – just in time for bud break when we take them out of the vineyards. Between a nibble or a rub here and there, sheep are hard on the delicate, young buds. Which means I won’t be renting sheep this year. At all. Never has my shepherd missed a grazing season entirely.

Not only will my shepherd lose the income he counts on from grazing our vineyards, he has to purchase feed as his pastures are also bare. The cost of hay and grain has skyrocketed with the drought – livestock producers all over the state are liquidating their herds and/or contemplating going out of business. In the drought-affected spring pastures, the grass is hurrying to catch up from its late start. It will go to seed quickly, before it attains much height, in a rush to finish up before the dry season. Which means summer and fall pastures will be no better than the spring ones. There will be nothing to sustain the herds until the next rainy season.

We can only hope that next winter it rains when it’s supposed to and I’ll be able to post pictures of sheep frolicking among the RSV vines!


Debby Zygielbaum is the Vineyard Manager (or, as she’s fond of saying, ‘Dirt Farmer’), at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa and a frequent contributor on Nopalize. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram.