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One of the amazing things about farmers and ranchers is solidarity. We will always have differences of opinion about everything, but when push comes to shove, you’ll never find a group of people that are more supportive of each other. This becomes apparent to me every time agriculture has a serious event like a drought or a major storm. As we know, the western United States is suffering from an epic drought. The networking, and information being shared amongst our groups right now is staggering. The messages of support and advice I’ve been receiving has blown me out of the water (sorry, bad pun). Carin has been one of those people that has offered her support. Like me, she is passionate about her way of life and ranch. She has graciously shared with me a post about her experience with our drought. Please take the time to follow her blog here. Thank you.
93432. Creston, California. It’s a tiny little slice of heaven most folks have never heard of because we boast a population of 240 according to the sign at the NorthWest edge of town. We only have two paved streets. One is Highway 229, or you can head south on O’Donovan Road. I grew up in a log cabin my parents built about a mile and a half down O’Donovan Road. My Dad’s family has been here since 1874 when Patrick O’Donovan, an Irish Immigrant, settled here.
Creston doesn’t have much. We do have a church, elementary school, rodeo grounds, steakhouse, post office, dive bar – all the essentials. And water. We have water. The greater Creston area parallels the beginning of the Salinas River Valley. The branch of the Huer Huero River that skirts our property is a tributary to the Salinas River. It’s dry for years at a time requiring steady, heavy rain for weeks on end or several wet years in a row in order to flow water. On a few occasions and only during tremendously wet years, the river has overflowed its banks and rerouted down our driveway. A good excuse to stay home from school when we were kids!!
It’s a Sunday night and I sit on my parents back patio with my Dad. It’s 100 degrees at 7:00 pm, down from 106 earlier. Typical summer weather. Hot days and cool nights make for great growing conditions for wine grapes. In the last 30 years, the Paso Robles AVA, which Creston is a part of, has seen numbers jump from 5 wineries in the late 70’s to nearly 300 tasting rooms, probably thrice as many individual grape growers, several custom crush facilities and countless other businesses directly related to grapes and wine. Wine has been good to us.
Dad remembers the wet years and the dry ones. He can name them off the top of his head. 1958, Dad and his brother swam in the creek in front of the house in May – long after the rainy season had passed. 1969, he was in a leg cast and dating my Mom. Grandpa would pick Dad up at the end of the driveway in a tractor and haul him to the top of the hill to get Mom. It was so wet he couldn’t drive his car up their driveway. I was born in May of 1978. A friend had a helicopter on standby to get mom out in case it was too wet to drive to the hospital when she went into labor. The early 90’s were bone dry ending in the March Miracle in 1995. Dad will tell you that 2011 – 2014 have been the driest he remembers. Our average is 13″. We haven’t seen 10″ in the last 3 years combined.
I grew up knowing that just 5 miles from us in three directions were areas of land that had terrible water – quantity and quality. We’ve sold water by the truckload to folks that live in those areas, from our ag well for as long as I can remember. Some of those folks abandoned their wells completely, years ago. Add 10 miles to that radius and I can name 5 areas outside of Paso Robles where subdivisions went in, everyone had their own domestic well and leach field on their own 5, 10 or 20 acre lots. Old grain land which used to be dry-farmed and grazed with cattle and sheep was gobbled up by folks moving to the “country” from the big cities 250 miles north and south of us.
As the wine industry grew, more land was absorbed, wet years, dry years, wet years again and more vineyards were planted. As of late, some large corporations, either wholly comprised of wine and wine grapes or having large interests in the wine industry, saw the writing on the wall in the Napa Valley and bought up Northern San Luis Obispo County land, largely made available as a result of the economic collapse. They installed vineyards at a record pace. Hard to blame them. A savvy local reporter revealed that one of these corporations is active in water banking in the San Joaquin Valley. This bit of information raised the hackles of some of the locals and, as they say, the fight was on.
During our record breaking drought of late, wells that were installed in those Paso Robles Sub Divisions started failing and going dry. Folks took to their computers, wine in hand, and lobbied locally to form water districts so that the big corporations would be held responsible for the well failures. Farmers and ranchers were wise to counter. They formed their own groups. Now we have PRAAGS, PRO Water Equity, an individual who is filing for overlier rights on behalf of landowners. And then we have the politicians. A quick thinking North County Supervisor immediately omitted two towns and the City of Paso Robles from the areas to be affected by the initial Urgency Ordinance passed by County Sups to stop the bleeding. (Note: the City of Paso Robles is undeniably the largest user of water in the basin – without argument.) The Chairman of our County Board of Supervisors (his district does not include one ounce of water in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin) sent errant letters to State Elected officials full of lies and inaccuracies. We have a state Assemblyman filing for legislation that lays the groundwork on how to govern the water district that has yet to be approved by LAFCO. I sat in his office and he told me, to my face, this legislation doesn’t form the district. I do not believe him.
Let me be clear. In this crowded groups of litigants, politicians and groups promising to be in my family ranch’s best interest, I don’t know who to believe. I believe the rain gauge when it said we got ±5″ at the ranch, more than doubling the two years prior. I believe my Dad when he said we had to reduce our cattle herd down to 10 females because our unit per acre ratio (usually 1:25 – 1:50) was, at best, 1:100. I believe the quivering chin and tears on my Mom’s face when she gets back from her usual favorite activity with Dad – a Jeep ride to check the cows. She cries because there is no grass, no water, little hope. Checking cows now takes about 15 minutes and is hardly the romantic endeavor she used to enjoy. She and Dad would share memories, discuss important topics and dream of their future, all while taking pride in their herd.
My parents are blessed with good water, and they know it. Our ag well pumps 400 gallons a minute and does not waver. Our domestic well that feeds two houses is set at 60 feet. Sixty. The ag well provides water to our longtime customers, fills our reservoir and was formerly used to pump water for our alfalfa hay operation. We abandoned the hay business when Dad didn’t have enough time and we weren’t old enough to help. The water never left. Dad tells a great story of he and my youngest brother in the field down below the house the middle of one summer. There’s a small, abandoned well shaft. Dad showed my brother the casing. My brother dropped a rock down the casing to see how deep the water was. They heard nothing. My brother bent down and put his skinny arm down the shaft. He was wet up to his elbow. We had standing water at about 18″.
I had the privilege to listen to DeeDee D’Adamo of the California State Water Resource Control Board during our May, California Women for Agriculture meeting, speak about State water issues. Most the questions were about pending Bond measures to fund more State Water projects, the Delta tunnels, and so on. I stood up in front of my peers and asked her directly about what was happening in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. She didn’t really answer my question and only said she’s very interested in what’s happening here. She’s interested because what happens in Paso Robles and its surrounding areas will be echoed all over the State of California in areas where the water isn’t adjudicated. If you think that because you have water under the property you own, and you are entitled to a well and that water, you may be right – but not for long. What happens here, won’t stay here. What’s happening here is the answer to politicians desire to control every drop of water in California. Some of the Paso Robles water groups are for water districts because they’re against water banking and private entities selling water outside of our basin. Our family is part of the water-blessed. We fear that if this district is implemented, what will stop the State of California from pumping the water from my family’s well into the pipeline that already runs through our ranch, and selling it to someone else?
If you come to dinner around our family table, you will say a Catholic Blessing. “Bless us oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive. From thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” Dad will pause, then close The Blessing saying thank you to the God that has given him so much. Then he humbly and quietly asks God to bring us more rain. I also believe that if God answers Daddy’s nightly prayer and brings us enough rain to end the overdraft in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, much of these passionate debates over water will be yesterday’s news. I believe we have a water problem. The problem is that not enough rain and snow fell from the sky in the last three years. Regulation and new governing bodies are not the answer. Because dissolving government agencies and removing regulation is like trying to un-ring a bell.
As I told a friend in a heated Facebook debate on the subject of water: You can have my family’s water but you’ll have to buy it, one truckload at a time. And then I offered her a glass of whiskey.
Carin Ryan grew up on a grain and cattle ranch in Creston that her father’s family settled in 1874. Her mother’s family began farming grain in the Independence Ranch area of Paso Robles in the late 1860s. She is currently serving as the Public Relations Director for California Women for Agriculture. She served as the President of SLO County CWA in 2009 and several years as Secretary for Paso Robles Friends of NRA. She currently resides on the ranch in Creston where she helps her family with their cattle operation. Her blog can be found at carinryan.wordpress.com
EDIT: January 15, 2014
We’ve had no rain since my original post. We are basically out of hay and grass. We’ve purchased more supplement’s. Today was the first day my Dad mentioned selling some cattle. I want to cry. California Cattlepeople need help. Hay is sky high, if you can find it, the grass is gone and the weather forecast is not good. This is really scary and sad.
2013 was a rough year for many cattlepeople, and we here the Brown Ranch are no different. While our ranch did not have it as bad as the ranchers in South Dakota, we struggled with a pasteurella outbreak in the spring, pink eye over the summer and finally our year is ending with extreme drought, which means, no grass to feed our cattle.
My family has taught me that in order to be good at what what we do, we need to have a contingency plan for everything that could go wrong. Life in agriculture is never boring, it’s never easy and Lord knows, it is anything but simple. Since my family has had generations and generations to learn this lesson, our ranch will survive.
Even though we had no idea that this year would be so severe in terms of rain and feed, we planned for it, because we must. As I explained before, our cattle spend half the year on Table Mountain Ranch and the other half on The Mound Ranch. If you want to know more details about why we do that please read this. When we shipped our cattle to The Mound Ranch this past spring, we made sure to leave lots of grass or “feed” for the cattle to come back to. Again, this “feed” is not guaranteed to even be here when we ship our cattle back in the fall because often, we have fires here in the summer.
In addition to leaving feed on the winter ranch to come back to, another thing we do, as a contingency (what if we have a fire??), is make hay. In a good feed year, we can sell any extra hay for income. In a bad feed year, like this year, we use the hay to supplement our cattle. Since the grass has not grown, our girls must eat the dry grass from last year. But that dry grass can only last so long, and it doesn’t have the same nutrients as fresh, green grass.
By supplementing our cattle’s diet with hay, they will continue to be happy and healthy. Our number one goal on this ranch is the health and comfort of our animals. We do not want them to feel any type of stress, by making sure they don’t realize we are having a poor feed year, we prevent a whole list of health problems; from aborted calves to illnesses and death.
Yet another tool we use to ensure the health and happiness of our cattle are supplements. Our cattle always have access to mineral salt, it is necessary for their survival. However, during lean years when there is not new grass growth, they also get a protein supplement. When cattle eat dried out grass, with no new green grass, they must have a protein supplement to maintain their health (in our opinion). I know this is a horrible thing for me to admit to, but, I love these supplements because I up-cycle the blue tubs, they are the perfect size to plant dwarf trees in!!!
There are many, many, many, different supplements on the market for cattle. In the past we’ve used Crystalyx, and other local companies. Right now we are using a generic 24% protein supplement, since we are feeding hay as well.
I know those of us in agriculture are famous for never being happy with the weather. It’s always too wet, too dry, too cloudy, too sunny. But this is serious, cattlepeople in the west are facing some very tough times right now. Hay is expensive, if you can find it, extra rangeland is impossible to find, and the weather refuses to compromise. I am afraid for many of my neighbors and friends. Hope for rain my friends.