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For the love of the land

Jan./Feb. 2007 California Country magazine

California's family farmers and ranchers are experts in caring for the land. Meet three of these families.



They are all visionaries who see the future of the land they tend with a keen eye for detail and with the understanding that their little corner of the world is alive, and it is their responsibility to nurture the land so that it can give back to them.

Their mindful attention to balancing the needs of the land with the sustainability of the commodities they produce has earned them the honor of being named finalists for California’s first annual Leopold Conservation Award. The award, presented by the Sand County Foundation in partnership with the California Farm Bureau Federation and Sustainable Conservation, recognizes the important contributions family farmers and ranchers make in preserving species and enhancing landscapes.

Aldo Leopold is sometimes called the father of wildlife management. This award, given in his name, recognizes that landowners are natural conservationists. As they make their living from the land, they are experts in caring for the land so that it may thrive not just for their generation, but for the generations that follow.

From growing grapes to raising cattle for meat and medicinal purposes, each of these families loves the land, and where they are and what they do. They are generous in spirit and in the joy they convey as they share a bit about who they are and what they hope to achieve.

Jim, Mary and James Rickert

Leopold Conservation Award Finalists
Prather Ranch, Shasta County

For everything there is a place and a purpose within the delicate balance of environmental stewardship and economic sustainability, thanks to the passionate work of the Rickert family.

From growing hay for their livestock to practicing the rotational grazing that increases plant diversity and overall productivity, the Rickerts know they will leave the land they tend in a better state than they found it. Their goal: to ensure that others can enjoy the beauty and bounty of their little piece of earth far into the future.

Species thrive alongside their beef cattle, and it is not unusual to see bald eagles, geese, swans, sandhill cranes, turtles and deer among the flora and fauna that grace their land.

The Rickerts raise their animals in a closed herd. No new females have been introduced into the herd for 30 years, and everything from breeding to feeding is carefully monitored and documented. “We can control the whole process from conception all the way to the consumer,” Jim Rickert said. Prather beef is dry-aged and hand-cut in a federally inspected facility on the ranch before it ships to outside markets and restaurants.

The Rickert family uses every resource at their disposal wisely and with reverence. Solar and hydroelectric technology are deployed for daily tasks, and all parts of the cattle are prepared for uses as far-ranging as skin grafts made from pituitary glands to surgical implants crafted from bones.

“We really like the feeling that with our cattle, we are able to use every part of the animal and we are helping people live a healthier life,” Mary Rickert said.

The Lange Family

Leopold Conservation Award Winners
LangeTwins Vinyard and Wine Estates, San Joaquin County

Although the Lange family has farmed in San Joaquin County for more than 100 years, LangeTwins Vineyards in the Lodi-Woodbridge area was founded in 1980 when identical twins Bradford and Randall took the farming operation in new directions: vineyards, joint venture partnerships and vineyard management services.

Last summer the family launched its own estate winery. The new facility in Acampo sits on 30 acres and includes 1.5 million gallons of tank capacity and lots of room for future growth. The youngest family members—five cousins in their 20s—now play an active role in running the operation and maintaining the family’s commitment to environmentally sensitive farming.

The Langes subscribe to the theory that you set an example by being an example. From voluntarily restoring riparian habitat along watershed areas on their properties to planting trees that attract beneficial insects and fowl, the family is setting an example about what can be ­accomplished when you care for the land while maintaining the viability of the family farm.

“Our children know the pressures of hands-on farming, but they are also out-of-the-box thinkers with strong goals to get the job done and remain focused on the environment and sustainability,” said Randall’s wife, Charlene. “They may argue from time to time, but it’s always fair. We are definitely a team.”

Jack Varian

Leopold Conservation Award Finalist
V6 Ranch, San Luis Obispo County

Jack Varian has a distinct philosophy: “We become responsible for our families, our children, our grandchildren and the wildlife that live on our land.” But he didn’t always feel that way. Coming to grips with a financially devastating drought is what turned him into a self-described “cowboy conservationist.”

“Ranching has taken on a whole new aura for me,” the rancher said. “I have always loved it, but for a good long while, the land was just there. It was dirt and you put cattle on it.”

Now he sees his land as a living being with a heart and a pulse. “You give it bad care and Mother Nature will deal you a lot of misery. You treat it with reverence and try to copy Mother Nature as best you can, and she will tell you every day if what you are doing is right or wrong. You just have to listen to what she has to say.”

Varian and his wife, Zera, have placed most of the land on their V6 Ranch into conservation easements, preserving its natural splendor for future generations, while also maintaining the working ranch aspects of the property. Income to maintain the property comes from hosting trail rides, cattle drives and other activities, in addition to offering outdoorsmen the opportunity to hunt deer, wild pigs and birds.

“When I go, I want the land to look just like it does today for the next 500 years,” Varian said. “With a conservation easement, you reserve the right to ranch and do all the things you have always done. You just cannot subdivide the land for development.”

Rosanna Westmoreland is internal communications manager for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or rwestmoreland@californiacountry.org.


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