Ranching with Fire

Over the past year, we've weathered two extreme fires.   Combined, they burned up 45 head of our cattle and reduced over 6000 acres of our grazing land to char. Our home ranch in Potter Valley was the only piece of land we manage that didn't burn. 

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From the perspective of the gray pines, whose cones open in the heat, this fire is good thing.  From the perspective of most manzanita and ceanothus, whose seeds require smoke to germinate, this fire is a good thing.  From the perspective of our deer and elk, who browse the regrowth from fire, and who benefit from the re-setting of the grasslands, this fire is a good thing. 

Wendell Berry famously wrote that we are all “farming by proxy.”  I hope that you get that experience when you buy our meat.  As ranchers, we are your representatives in a grand multi-species democracy taking place every day in the hills of Potter and Redwood Valley.  When our grass burns, your grass burns, when our trees die, they are yours.

Just as these fires burn away dry grass to expose bare soil, they expose limitations of our attempts to sustain a medium-sized agriculture business in a part of the world which has been overwhelmed by development.  The spectacle of a mountain on fire brings attention, even the News, but the quiet catastrophe is that so few large ranches remain in our region that, after the fire burns though, our cows are left with nowhere else to go.  

Sustainable agriculture is not a set of techniques but one part of a culture at home in its place.  For a rugged, grassy county like Mendocino, sustainable agriculture will mean curing overgrazing in some places by addressing over-rest in others.  Returning grazers, cattle, maybe goats, to long ago subdivided and agriculturally abandoned landscapes will bring nutrient-cycling back to these ecosystems, eventually re-opening the ground for native elk.  Sustainable agriculture will also mean protecting every acre of the remaining deep valley soils from development, and allowing committed farmers to devote their lives to its flourishing.  

While we can hope to use science and gumption to choose when these fire burn, eventually recreating the mosaic of small acreage, cool season burns which provided the abundance upon which we still draw credit, we cannot hope to stop the fires.  Sustainable agriculture will be as flexible and adaptable as the ecosystem upon which it relies.  Seek out your farming proxies, and join them for that ride.

How I got here - by Kate Magruder

I first set foot on Ingel-Haven Ranch one hot day in August of 1978.  I was there for a steam bath on the banks of the Russian River that flows through the Magruder property.  Mac and his sister Helen had initiated the ceremony years earlier for friends and neighbors, but this was the first time I had participated.  I didn’t know what to expect.

Mac and I had been introduced in the fall of ‘77 by our mutual friend, John Scharffenberger.  I lived in nearby Ukiah where I was in the throes of creating a theatre company with other transplanted thespians who had opted out of the roiling mainstream culture.  We’d ridden the wave of the back-to-the-land movement and found ourselves deposited on the shores of a sleepy agricultural community where we felt we could make a difference.  It was a heady time.  There were literally thousands of similar-minded 20-somethings streaming into the hills and valleys of Mendocino County in the 1970s, most looking to establish roots and then find a way to do what they did best.  For me it was theatre, for John it was growing grapes (this was before he ventured into making champagne and – later - exceptional chocolate). 

As Mac now tells it, for him it was a godsend to have this new contingent joining him where he lived.  In 1976 he had returned to Potter Valley to run his family’s ranch, immediately after getting his MFA in Ceramic Sculpture from the University of Washington in Seattle. His father had been diagnosed with cancer and he was needed at home.  I can imagine the frustration Mac must have felt, not only at seeing his larger-than-life vital father struggling with a debilitating disease, but having to put his artistic momentum on hold while he stepped into his father’s shoes and hunkered down in Potter Valley for the long haul.  The influx of young, energetic people his age helped lighten the load.  He and John Scharffenberger were tennis buddies, and John was helping me develop support for our new little company, Ukiah Players Theatre.  John brought Mac to see me play Mrs. Drudge in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound.  I was a vision in the role:  hair-netted, humped-back, blackened teeth, Spanish moss curling around my ankles. “I said to myself” (Mac likes to joke), “that’s the girl for me!”

 But I didn’t get out to the ranch until months later – for that steam bath the summer of ‘78.  Dozens of us took turns crowding into the willow lodge that was covered with tarps and filled with hot rocks which, when splashed with icy river water, let off billows of steam until we could no longer take it, and burst out the door running, laughing, down to the river, plunging happily in.

Later than night, as stars spackled the dark sky, we roasted salmon over an open pit fire and told stories.  During the evening, Mac was absent-mindedly picking up rocks from the riverbank and tossing them into the water.  At one point he stopped in mid-throw and held up the piece in his hand.  He told us he was about to toss it just like the others, but suddenly sensed a kind of tingling or a vibration emanating from it.  As he held it up, we could see its outline in the firelight:  it was a perfect arrowhead.

In the decades following, Mac and I married and had two daughters, Grace and Martha.  While he steered the ranch in the direction of holistic management, I kept the theatre company on course for new generations of young artists.  Both Grace and Martha have grown up feeling at home on the range, as well as on the stage – an interesting melding of arts and agriculture, coupled with a clear-eyed respect for the hard work both entail.  It bodes well for the future of the ranch, and I feel fortunate to be along for the adventure!