Working with—and for—the land
Jan./Feb. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Tracy Sellers
Photos by Paolo Vescia
Farmers recognized for conservation practices
Farmers and ranchers are often called stewards of the land because of their close connection to it. They hold true to the belief that they can and must enhance natural resources and protect the environment, while simultaneously producing food, fiber and energy for a growing world population.
The Leopold Conservation Award honors landowners who demonstrate such a commitment, including 2015 recipients Jim and Mary Rickert of Shasta County.
"Winning this award is validation that our life's philosophies are being recognized," Mary Rickert said. "It's not about Jim and me; it's about the people we work with, the animals we look after and the land we care for."
Ken and Matt Altman of San Diego and Riverside counties and Bruce Hafenfeld of Kern County were finalists for the 2015 award. In California, the Leopold Conservation Award is presented by the Sand County Foundation, California Farm Bureau Federation and Sustainable Conservation. The S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation and the Nature Conservancy are major sponsors as well.
The Rickerts have placed several conservation easements on their ranch to protect wildlife habitat and the land for future generations.
Jim and Mary Rickert
Prather Ranch, Shasta County
Jim and Mary Rickert have worked in agriculture all of their lives and maintain a deep love of the land they call home. The couple began managing the Prather Ranch property in 1979 and last year became majority owners of the ranch's cattle operation.
Under the Rickerts' guidance, the ranch has grown to 35,000 acres and comprises land in five counties. The business incorporates several stages of beef production, including a cow/calf herd, feed yard, processing facility and retail meat outlets. In addition to providing certified organic dry-aged beef, Prather Ranch supplies bovine raw materials for the biomedical industry, such as bones and tendons for use as human replacement parts and hides for collagen. Other raw materials are sold for medical research and dietary supplements.
"To stay in the business of agriculture, it's important to think outside the box and be as creative as you can," Mary Rickert said.
Being environmentally friendly is an important part of the Rickerts' ranching philosophy, they say. Conservation easements have been placed on several Prather Ranch grazing properties, providing protection of vernal pools and riparian areas where deer, elk, wild turkeys and the endangered bank swallow reside. The easements also help ensure the ranch will be there for future generations to appreciate.
"As agricultural producers, we're entrusted with the management of a good portion of the country's land," Jim Rickert said. "Suffice it to say, we should always strive to do the very best job of taking care of it."
Matt Altman, left, and father Ken Altman have implemented a number of efficiencies at Altman Specialty Plants to conserve resources. The family also founded a nonprofit center for researching and teaching sustainable horticultural practices.
Ken and Matt Altman
Altman Specialty Plants, Riverside and San Diego counties
What began as an avid interest in plants for husband and wife Ken and Deena Altman is now a wholesale nursery business that encompasses more than 1,700 acres in six states. Altman Specialty Plants, today one of the nation's largest horticultural growers, specializes in drought-tolerant and water-efficient plants.
Ken Altman and his son, Matt, manage the company with a careful eye on conserving resources.
The nurseries are retrofitted with water- and energyefficient irrigation systems that reduce water use by 50 percent per acre, and soil-moisture sensors are being installed in container plants to further decrease water use. In addition, Altman Plants raises 5,000 plant species using integrated pest management, which controls pests in ways that minimize risks to people and the environment. The Altmans also founded the Center for Applied Horticultural Research, a nonprofit research and teaching center dedicated to advancing a sustainable horticulture industry.
In 2014, the Altmans embarked on their biggest project yet: a water recycling system at their Riverside County site that captures irrigation runoff, treats it and reuses the water.
"As a farm and nursery, we're reliant on water, and over the last five years, we've seen water become more and more limited here in California," Matt Altman said. "We took it upon ourselves to ensure we had access to water."
The Altmans recycle and reuse 1 million gallons of water a day. They say they hope the public and other nursery growers are able to benefit from their approach to water management.
"There's really nothing better than being able to do a good job with family, share your success and provide knowledge to others," Ken Altman said.
Sylvia and Bruce Hafenfeld and their family believe in responsible management of their open-range ranch, where land stewardship includes a conservation easement, wildlife-friendly water systems and protected wildlife habitats.
Hafenfeld Ranch, Kern County
The Hafenfeld family owns and manages their multi-generation ranch with land health foremost in their minds. They assert that it is their responsibility to continually care for and improve their greatest asset: the soil.
The open-range ranch, which encompasses 500,000 acres, is run by Bruce and Sylvia Hafenfeld, with their son, Eric, and his wife, Jamie.
The Hafenfelds manage certified organic cattle pastures on the family ranch and have leases with the U.S. Forest Service and Audubon's Kern River Preserve. The Hafenfelds' land stewardship includes erosion control, installation of wildlife-friendly water systems and improved irrigation infrastructure to more efficiently use water and manage water quality.
With a conservation easement on the property, the Hafenfelds say they hope to provide habitat now and into the future for species including turtles, butterflies and a small bird called the Southwestern willow flycatcher.
For this longtime ranching family, making measurable, lasting enhancements to the land, water and wildlife in their care is their duty and responsibility.
"We strongly believe that if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you," Bruce Hafenfeld said.