Thursday, May 15, 2008

Scenery, clean water and wildlife habitat are valuable crops

The rancher in the story below says, ""The most important crop on my land is scenery." If scenic beauty is an important "crop" locally -- and I believe it is -- those of us who enjoy that crop need to find better ways to pay for it.

Buying conservation easements is one solution, but I'd like to see us have a community conversation around ways we could compensate landowners (or create markets that would pay local landowners) for providing scenery, wildlife habitat, clean water and other valuable "crops" for which they receive no compensation today. That would help farmers, ranchers and timberland owners by creating a monetary value for crops they can't really "sell" and benefit the rest of us, too.


The article below is about a 17,000 acre ranch in San Luis Obispo County. After attending an estate planning workshop, the rancher decided to put a conservation easement on the ranch. The easement is held by the California Rangeland Trust.

On the Farm: Rancher Plants for the Future
By Steven Knudsen
San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau
Forward from California Oak Foundation

Just off the paved road outside Parkfield lives a man who is planning and planting for the future.

One tree at a time and one season after another, Jack Varian has developed a passion for sustainability. If all goes as planned, his actions today will grow for the next 400 years.

Varian is planting valley oak trees, native to the Parkfield region, and has collected a team of specialists and volunteers to assist him in his pursuit of transforming his rural landscape on the more than 16,500 acres of the V6 Ranch into what he calls "a more environmentally friendly approach" to ranching.

On a clear day in February, about 60 volunteers from the San Luis Obispo Native Tree Committee, Cal Poly and local 4 H Clubs plus agricultural and community groups joined Varian, UC Cooperative Extension natural resources specialist Bill Tietje and UC Cooperative Extension oak regeneration expert Doug McCreary to plant 1,000 oak trees.

Acorns for the saplings were collected from a small grove of valley oak trees that grows behind Parkfield Elementary School. The students there, who attend kindergarten through grade six in one of the last one room schoolhouses in the state, collected about 3,500 acorns for Varian.

In October 2006, Varian took the acorns to Growing Grounds Farm in San Luis Obispo for sprouting. Growing Grounds, a nonprofit wholesale nursery operated by Transitions Mental Health Association, employs adults with mental illness at a living wage to grow and care for the plants.

Last October, one year later, Varian was shocked to discover the magnitude of growth, with nearly 2,500 valley oak trees sprouted and grown. "We selected 1,000 of the oak trees and donated the remainder back to the nursery," he said.

Back on the V6 Ranch, the volunteers formed into groups of three to plant the native saplings. First educated by Varian on 11 tips for growing oak trees and then instructed on the best way to plant them by McCreary, the groups spread out over a predetermined four mile stretch of property running back toward Parkfield.

"The volunteers did a lion's share of the work, planting nearly 850 trees in a single day," Varian said.

Each of the year old seedlings, planted in groups of three in a triangle shape into the soft soil, were encased in wire baskets to protect them from gophers.

Soil was prepared with a shovel and covered with weed cloth to prevent grasses that would choke out the small seedlings. The cluster planting then was surrounded by three recycled iron fence posts, collected by Varian, and encircled with hog wire to keep pests and critters away.

All told, more than 330 planting sites were completed, all in a line with 60 feet separating each planting. Trees now run along the road and the foothills of the valley.

"The trees should grow about three feet per year, under perfect conditions," Varian said. "We are going to do everything we can to ensure that these trees get what they need to prosper."

Funding for "1,000 Oaks Day" came, in part, from a grant by the Wildlife Conservation Board's Oak Woodland Conservation Act of 2001 and from the Natural Resource Conservation Service cost share Quality Incentives Program.

Next in the strategic plan is irrigation. Each tree will receive water from a PVC irrigation line installed at the end of winter. Varian has allocated two wells in which he will use solar power to pump water into micro sprinklers that can sustain the small trees through the hot summer months.

Long term plan

The project has been a long time coming. In 1990, Varian realized that he was not satisfied with the way the ranch was being run and took over management of the cattle and husbandry of the land.

During the past 18 years, he has focused heavily on transitioning the land back to its natural state by encouraging the growth of native grasses, willow and oak trees and by evaluating and reevaluating the impact his herd has on the land.

Paramount to Varian's long term goal of preserving the land for future generations was entering into a conservation easement with the Trust for Public Lands.

In April 2001, Varian sold his development rights to the trust, now held by the California Rangeland Trust. That contract consolidated the number of legal parcels on the land to one, thus preserving the agriculture land in perpetuity. By entering into the contract, Varian is able to focus on his long term goals to improve quality of the rangeland and enhance biodiversity on the ranch.

In 2000, Varian was the first to receive the Native Tree Committee of San Luis Obispo County Stewardship Award. The committee works to promote voluntary planting and conservation of native trees through education, propagation and stewardship.

"The most important crop on my land is scenery," Varian said. "As development pressures force more agriculture land to disappear, we have chosen to preserve the beauty so that others may enjoy it in the future; as our lands' beauty survives, so do we."

Varian credits his success in range management to an education in "holistic management practices" that includes intensive rotational grazing, improved water management, proper fencing and a passion for the environment.

"We believe that the whole world should be thinking seriously about greater sustainability," he said. "Our agriculture businesses and livelihoods depend on it."

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