Ranchers move their cattle to a fresh pasture along a Tres Pinos country road. Leslie David Photo
Ranchers move their cattle to a fresh pasture along a Tres Pinos country road. Leslie David Photo

This article was written by BenitoLink intern Vivian Sierra

Ranching, a time-honored industry in San Benito County, faces an array of issues that could threaten the existence of the family-owned ranch. On July 26, a concerned group of 13 ranchers gathered at the Community Foundation Epicenter to highlight their concerns and explore solutions which, they hope, will protect the future of local ranching and benefit the county in general. The meeting was hosted by BenitoLink and was the second in a series of Community Vision San Benito County listening sessions. 

Community Vision is a community-wide listening project—sponsored by the Community Foundation for San Benito County and the Calhoun/Christiano Family Fund—which invites an array of community members to share their views on the future of SBC. 

Representatives of the ranching business of varying ages, businesses types and parts of the county discussed several challenges faced in ranching, from ensuring safety on ranches, to the estate taxes which they say cast a shadow over family finances.

Many participants expressed concern over the absence of young people in the field, both in hands-on roles and management positions. The session included Russell Tobias, 28, and Kate, 31, and Daniel Modic, 29, all of Tres Pinos. 

Participants also said there is a need for community relations to address misconceptions about ranching. Paicines rancher Ed Callens said, “We need to try to get our story out to the people so they have a better idea of what it is we do and how we do it.”

Session leader Corinne Kappeler, prompted the 13 participating ranchers to brainstorm both the best and the worst possible outcomes for the future of ranching in San Benito County depending on the resolution of their current challenges.

Among the worst outcomes, Russell Tobias expressed the ranchers’ fear of urban expansion on ranch lands, eroding the uniqueness of ranching in the county and the loss of family-run ranches. 

Rancher Heather Callens said that a lack of public education about ranching could put land decisions in the hands of uninformed decision-makers which could threaten family ranches. Daniel Modic and long-time rancher John Eade agreed that this is a possibility, as ranchers only make up about 1% of the county’s population. Others said that escalating land prices could put more pressure on ranching.

Attendees also discussed the best possible outcomes that included establishing networks within the ranching community to encourage shared learning and camaraderie, enhance sustainability, better profit margins, community education and youth involvement. 

Farmer Rufino Ventura and rancher Joe Morris talked about the possibility of the government taking an active interest in ranching and providing an economic stimulus to support both large and small enterprises. Rancher Sonya Taylor, from South County near the town of San Benito, proposed compensation for ecological services such as carbon credits could also help support ranchers. San Juan Bautista rancher Julie Morris said, “Ranchers provide and so many things to the community that we are not recognized or paid for, like views, water and wildlife corridors.” Attendees agreed that most county residents are not aware that ranches protect wildlife by providing habitat and maintaining large animal corridors.

To secure the positive outcomes, these participants agreed that proactive measures are essential. Both rancher MaryLou Coffelt and Heather Callens suggested initiatives such as an Agri-Tourism marketing campaign, saying that an ag-tourism board could spotlight the significance of ranching in San Benito County. 

Kate Modic said that the wine industry’s model of fostering pride in the county could inspire similar feelings toward ranching. She also suggested that the group take advantage of the trending “coastal cowboy” aesthetic to get their work on social media and inform people about ranching in fun and creative ways. 

Attendees discussed that interaction between themselves and their elected officials in San Benito County can help build rapport. 

As to what advice they would give elected officials in San Benito County Joe Morris said, “Get involved. Get to know what ranching is all about. Get to know your ranchers. I don’t know who they are and I’m sure they don’t know me.”

The concept of a “Farm Day” emerged as one way to engage elected officials and the community in understanding ranching as it exists today. 

At the end of the nearly two and half hour session, the ranchers took time to feel the room and it was filled with “hope and optimism” many said during a group reflection. 

As the session ended, the ranchers stayed to discuss ways in which they can take more action in the future. 

The BenitoLink Internship Program is a paid, skill-building program that prepares local youth for a professional career. This program is supported by Monterey Peninsula Foundation AT&T Golf Tour, United Way, Taylor Farms and the Emma Bowen Foundation.