For over 65 years, the Hopland Research and Extension Center (HREC) has been well known as one of the last large scale sheep ranches and research facilities in the northwest. Their woolly forms are a familiar sight against the backdrop of the 5,358 acre site, well loved by the community for school field trips during the lambing season and for the sheepdog trials during the fall. In addition, they have a long history of being on the forefront of emerging research and management strategies related to sheep for topics such as: sheep biology and management, rangeland management, livestock/predator/wildlife interactions, as well as grazing as a tool for vineyard owners, fire prevention, and noxious weed control.
This summer the HREC flock will be reduced from 500 breeding ewes to approximately 125 and their full time shepherd position will be cut. The sheep will be sold at auction on the site (4070 University Road, Hopland, CA) on June 3. The sale will allow sealed bids from 8am-11am, with a minimum lot size of 20 animals. This reduction echoes a change that can been seen across the state in flock size and management styles.
Agriculture moves in cycles, following both the seasons and market demands. The sheep population in Mendocino County has fallen from 140,000 in 1954 (UCANR) to 10,400 in 2018 (USDA), and statewide sheep numbers have fallen from 2,034,000 in 1954 (UCANR) to 550,000 at the end of 2018 (USDA). As California flock numbers have declined, so has sheep research interest and funding.
Magnifying the impact of these changes, HREC is facing a significant reduction in funding from the University of California system. HREC is one of nine Research and Extension Centers (RECs) under the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) division which has seen significant budget challenges in the last few years due to flat state funding. Overall, budget reductions of $3.1 million from central (ANR) funding across the REC system are planned, and HREC’s share of these cuts will amount to over 30% of its budget. The scale of this budget reduction is driving a statewide reevaluation of priorities and strategic decisions about where ANR should allocate limited funds to best meet its mission of strengthening the health of California’s people, communities, food systems, and environment.
“While we must strategically adjust to financial realities and changes in research and extension priorities, we are sad to see the flock reduced and to face the coming loss of our dedicated and talented shepherd Jim Lewers. The smaller HREC flock will continue to fulfill an important role at the site, allowing us to continue to offer sheep focused educational programs and events, and to share our experience and research with sheep owners. The flock is a key tool in reducing the risk of wildfire through grazing for fire fuel reduction. Targeted grazing also helps to reduce invasive species and provides food and fiber. We plan to continue to welcome our community youth to “meet the lambs” and celebrate the services and products provided from the HREC flock at our events, for example our Wool Growers Field Day which takes place on June 1” said John Bailey, Interim Director at HREC. “We are also working to pivot our livestock programs to meet a broad array of identified research and extension needs. This will include working with private producers and potential diversifying into other species such as cattle.”
Although sheep have been considered a core feature of HREC, many other aspects of natural resource management and education are offered at the site. The diverse landscape offers oak woodland, chaparral, and riparian areas, as well as the ability to compare areas affected and unaffected by the 2018 River Fire. This landscape provides an important site for researchers from across the University of California system and beyond to study diverse aspects of the ecosystem services and working landscapes that makes California the wonderfully productive and diverse state that it is. Currently 19 research projects are studying topics including: climate change effects on soils and oaks: to tick-borne diseases: to wildlife ecology and management: rangeland ecology: fire science and sustainable land management practices.
In addition to diverse research opportunities, HRECs Community Education Specialist, Hannah Bird, has built and continues to develop a rich portfolio of extension and education events including workshops, field trips, and field classes. With the goal of educating and inspiring connection to and knowledge of diverse aspects of agriculture and natural resources, program offerings include not only sheep and wool focused events but also naturalist trainings, fire science education, birding trips, a youth summer camp, and extensive field trips which have brought over 2000 community members to the site in the past year.
“We are excited to share this wonderful site and extend the deep and broad knowledge which researchers and passionate individuals have developed about California ecosystems and agricultural systems. In this era of increasing focus on digital devices, we offer an alternative of hands-on, science-based educational opportunities for youth and people of all ages to engage with and deepen their love for our rich environmental and agricultural heritage.”
Despite the system-wide budget challenges, HREC continues to build its research and educational programs. Donor support and grants have become an integral part of their future. “Over the last year, we have been successful in obtaining grant awards from the Environmental Protection Agency with our partner REC in the Sierra Foothills for $100,000 to support fire education for middle school youth and adults, local grants to support youth education from the Mendocino Community Foundation, and individual donors have supported us with over $18,000 in 2018. Never has there been a time when such support is more needed at HREC to help us to continue to fulfill our important role in northern California.” commented Bailey in closing.
For further information regarding the sheep sale on June 3rd please visit http://bit.ly/HRECSheep. For information regarding the Wool Growers Field Day on June 1st please visit http://bit.ly/WoolGrowers . To find out more about HREC or donate to their work visit: http://hrec.ucanr.edu/ or call Hannah at (707) 744 1424 ext 105.