2019, one year into Swan Song Ranch

It is 5am, cold and wet and overcast, and I can see almost nothing.  My arms full of hay, I open the gate to enter the pasture, when Jack, our 24 year old donkey, pushes past me, hard, into the road.  Before I understand what is happening, he is followed through the barely open gate by the silent shadows of several of our Black Welsh Mountain Sheep, and then by a goat, and then by Jill, the other donkey.  Jack has never done this before, and I am surprised at how quickly this simple, morning ritual has gotten out of hand.  

It is a moonless, starless sky, and apart from the many animals now running around the vineyard and up the road, I am alone in the cold, wet darkness.  I have surgery starting at 7:30, patients to round on before I go to the operating room, and sheep and goats and donkeys to pasture before I can get to my real job.  Welcome to my vertically integrated life.  

Vertical integration is an economic term that describes the process by which one company acquires another that makes the components of a  product within its supply chain — like acquiring a tire company if you make cars. It is distinguished from horizontal integration, which is when a company gets bigger by acquiring another company that does the same thing — one car manufacturer buying another, for example.  Whether one or another approach is better in business I do not know, but the vertically integrated company must master a broader set of skills and knowledge, possibly at the price of being less skilled at any one part of the process; while horizontal integration requires greater expertise in a narrower part of the production process, possibly at the price of being less able to control the final product.   

Today, the pressure is to become more and more horizontally integrated. To compete and to succeed we need expertise, and efficiency; and so, we become better at fewer things.  It is true of our civilization, and it is true for many of us when we are in the midst of our careers — working hard to become expert at a small body of skills, while outsourcing everything else to an external supply chain.  My grandfather was able to build a house and barn that still stand today, with skills he learned I know not where. My father was born at home on the farm, midwifed by his grandmother, who knew not just how to cook a turkey, but how to grow its food, raise it, and butcher it. Hard times those must have been, living their vertically integrated lives.  How they must have yearned for the luxury of horizontal integration — a contractor to build our house, a turkey from Whole Foods, a child delivered in a hospital by an obstetrician.  

A year ago we bought a farm in Carmel Valley — 30 acres with a house, a barn, a well, a tractor that wouldn’t start, an acre of neglected grapevines, lovely neighbors and beautiful sunrises.  I’ve become about as vertically organized as I can — planting fruit trees, fixing broken plumbing, repairing fences, clearing dead trees, fending off predators, and getting to meet people in ways that would otherwise not have been possible for me.  In that year I learned that it does one no good to chase a donkey in the dark, when it does not want to be caught.  And even if you can catch a sheep or goat in the darkness and carry it back into the pen, every time you open the gate, another one will run out before you can react.  I learned that grapevines need more water than I expected, that it is really hard to trap gophers and that they can damage even mature vines.  I learned that a house unlived in for 3 years is guaranteed to harbor a healthy community of rodents but that it is possible to adopt feral cats from the SPCA, and it is possible to tame them and they will do wonders with the rat population; that a tell-tale bit of green grass in the midst of a dry pasture means that there is a broken irrigation pipe somewhere below; that fences and gates need constant repair.

It may be my imagination, but I anticipate disapproval from my sons, as they watch me fail and fail and fail again.  Sons expect their fathers to know stuff.  But give me time.  Maybe I’ll get it at least part right.  Maybe I will channel my grandparents to help me out.  At 5 am. When it is cold and wet and dark.  And the animals are out. And the water isn’t working.  And the fence is broken.  And I have to get to the operating room for a big case.  Welcome to my vertically integrated life.