Jesse Fouch’s family has been in the same place for 7 generations. “My family settled here in 1848 and has been farming and ranching since then (near Mariposa, right next to Yosemite National Park). My mother’s generation got out of ranching; they were logging. When I was growing up, my parents just had a few cattle for our own consumption; they leased out the family ranch. When I was young I didn’t plan to raise cattle. I wanted to log, like my parents. When I graduated from college, however, I moved back to the family ranch and I loved it,” he says.
Wanting to just eat healthy, Jesse and his wife Hannah, got a small herd of cattle and gardening for themselves. Being one of 20 grandchildren, Jesse started to feel some family friction as he was working on the ranch, so he made the decision to buy his own ranch.
In California the price of land is high; a young person wanting to ranch is faced with tremendous challenges. Jesse and Hannah worked regular jobs to earn money toward buying and growing their own ranch. They first leased some property in 2003 and finally bought their first place in 2008. In 2010, they sold that first ranch and bought another, and then in 2013, bought an even larger ranch in the San Joaquin Valley where they now reside.
Selling the first ranch made enough money to almost pay off the other two. “We own all our cattle and equipment. Our goal is to have this place paid off by next winter so we can get rid of our off-farm jobs and just spend all our time and energy farming,” explains Jesse.
Jesse and Hannah have been growing their operation slowly, working part-time on the farm, and now the farm brings in about $70,000 annually. “We want to expand it enough that we can just live off the farm and have a family farm that includes our children,” Jesse says. One of their holistic goals is to own 4 separate ranches – 1 for each of their 4 children to inherit and work their own land.
Jesse had also learned about Holistic Management, which helped him manage his grazing better during challenging times. “Hannah and I went to our first Holistic Management class in 2011 at the Paicines Ranch, and Ian Mitchell Innes taught that class. It was an awesome class and we loved it.”
“We’d already been doing Management Intensive Grazing (MIG) rotational grazing, but we hadn’t yet tried high density grazing before that class. We also didn’t plan, like we were taught in Holistic Management. I think that was the biggest gain from taking the class—sitting down and mapping out our whole year for a grazing plan, along with having our goals figured out. That way, whenever you do something, you first look at it in terms of what your goals are, and see if this actually fits into your big picture.” It’s important to see whether each decision moves you forward or not, or works with your goals or hinders them.
Fortunately they had started looking hard at their goals and planning, because 2011 was their last good rain year for the following 4 years, when the worst drought in the history of California happened. “Luckily we started planning before we got into that, and we were able to make it through fairly unscathed. Our livestock numbers are down, but we’ve been able to keep going.”
Holistic Management has helped immensely. “Through doing our grazing plan and rotations, we’ve been able to leave a lot of litter on the ground. Last year and this year (the third and fourth year of drought), all of the ranches around us had no water. All of our neighbors’ springs have gone dry, and they’ve been hauling water. I haven’t had to haul water, and I really think it is because we are leaving all this litter,” he says.
Jesse and Hannah also experimented with different breeds of cattle, and eventually sheep, chickens, pigs and goats, to develop the right mix for healthy, hearty animals that are relatively easy to manage.
Most of the Fouch Farm sales are direct market. “We started out very slowly and cautiously, like how we grew the farm,” says Jesse. “We built a website, and also put an ad on the Eat Wild website. When Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out and a lot of housewives with book clubs heard about it, all of a sudden everyone was looking for naturally raised products. We started getting customers, and from there it’s just been word of mouth, people passing information along to friends.
The Fouch Farm products are Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) and the beef cattle are Certified Grass Fed through AWA. “We stumbled upon AWA at one of Jim Gerrish’s grazing conferences in 2008 and have been certified with them since 2009. They are very helpful and this certification helps our products stand out,” says Jesse.
Another important resource for the Fouch Farm is hay, which they grow and bale themselves. “Some years, in California, we could buy good hay for $90 per ton and other years it might be more than $200 a ton, and hard to find. I did all the math, and even though everyone says we should get out of the hay business, and that a person doesn’t need to grow hay or buy hay, it works out best for us to make hay,” says Jesse. Jesse can make the hay for about $1.25 per bale. “Last year we didn’t buy any hay, and we were in the middle of the worst drought ever.”
The 4 Fouch children the animals and the older children did a goat project this year. “They bought 20 bottle babies from a goat dairy and raised the kids themselves. With their profits they bought some lambs, so now they have a share in our lambs as well,” says Jesse.
“This year we also started giving them each their own heifer every year. Thus they have a stake in the ranch and enjoy going out to help and do chores. They have an interest in taking care of the animals.”
Jesse and Hannah feel fortunate to be able to farm and raise their family on the farm. Despite high land prices and drought, this family has been able to make their farm cash flow and will be paying off all debt by the end of the year. In a time when many farmers and ranchers are struggling to stay afloat, Fouch Farm is a great example of what effective management, clarity of goals, passion, and persistence can accomplish.
This Success Story has been summarized from the article “Fouch Farm – Making a Farm Cash Flow” by Heather Scott Thomas, IN PRACTICE issue 166, pages 13-16. Read the full article here.
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