Stewards of the land
Jan./Feb. 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Tracy Sellers
Photos by Paolo Vescia
2010 Leopold Conservation Award winner and finalists.
California's land is as diverse as the people who call this great state home. From the rough terrain of the Sierra Nevada to the fertile farmland of the broad valleys and picturesque coastal plains—and everywhere in between—farmers and ranchers work daily to nurture the most precious commodity the state has to offer: its natural resources.
Producing enough food and farm products for a rapidly growing population, while taking good care of the land, is a challenge California's agriculturalists embrace.
"We need to view agriculture and the environment as friends," said Sutter County rice farmer Al Montna.
Montna is the winner of the 2010 Leopold Conservation Award, which recognizes landowner achievements in voluntary conservation and public education. In California, the 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.
Bill and Kay Burrows of Tehama County and Tim Koopmann of Alameda County were also honored, as California finalists for the 2010 Leopold Conservation Award. The award committee said all demonstrate an unwavering dedication to protecting soil, conserving water and safeguarding wildlife.
2010 Leopold Conservation Award Winner
Yuba City, Sutter County
There are many titles for Al Montna. Land steward. Dedicated rice grower. Tireless campaigner. National leader. And now, 2010 Leopold Conservation Award winner.
Montna grew up in Yuba City and is the grandson of a farmer who came to the area in 1884 to grow prunes, apricots, peaches and grapes. He became owner/operator of Montna Farms in 1975 and, over the years, has increased the family farm to its current 2,500 acres.
One of California's best-known rice growers, Montna led the way in replacing the practice of burning rice stubble with environmentally friendly alternatives and recently installed a solar-powered system to run his rice dryer. He was also one of the first growers in California to develop a wildlife conservation easement. Part of a larger estate-planning strategy, Montna said the move will help ensure his land is never taken out of farming and will always be managed to benefit wildlife.
"From a sustainability standpoint, we try to make decisions at Montna Farms that will make sense not only this year, but 25 years, 50 years down the road," said Montna, who has held leadership positions in numerous organizations and public policy boards, such as California Bay-Delta Authority and State Board of Food and Agriculture.
"We look at it as it's just part of our cultural practices," he added. "This property is producing something 365 days a year. If we're not producing rice, we're producing species or waterfowl or a better environment."
2010 Leopold Conservation Award Finalist
Bill & Kay Burrows
Red Bluff, Tehama County
"Learning from the past while adapting for the future." That's the motto Bill and Kay Burrows subscribe to and what helped save their 100-year-old ranch.
The Burrowses were introduced to a decision-making process called holistic management in 1985, after losing money for seven consecutive years at their 3,500-acre cattle ranch. As Bill Burrows describes it, his "blinders were taken off" and he was exposed to a new way of thinking.
Holistic management, he explained, is based on a personal vision that looks at the whole picture and "takes into account the well-being of your family and community, making a profit and enhancing the environment, all at the same time."
By focusing on their ranch's economic viability, social responsibility and environmental stewardship, Bill and Kay Burrows were able to return to profitability within two years. Today, the ranch is flourishing. The couple have a thriving agritourism business, a successful carbon sequestration program, a wetlands program for migrating birds and a management plan that utilizes cattle, as well as goats and sheep, for brush control.
Preserving the land you work on leaves a legacy for the next generation to follow," Kay Burrows said. "I'm just really proud of my husband and all that he's done here on the ranch and for his family."
The Koopmann family, from left, Clayton, Cari, Tim and Melinda.
2010 Leopold Conservation Award Finalist
Sunol, Alameda County
Tim Koopmann is a rancher on the urban edge. His family came to California in the 1860s and eventually bought land and settled in Sunol, about 40 miles southeast of San Francisco. Today, Koopmann, with wife Melinda, son Clayton and daughter Cari, raises cows and calves on their 900-acre ranch.
Once a remote area, the land of gently rolling hills and towering oak trees now beats to the pulse of the nearby city—with a golf course to the north, housing developments to the east and Interstate 680 to the west.
"All of this growth is new in my lifetime," Koopmann said of the expansion of the surrounding communities. "It makes me appreciate my property even more—all the blood, sweat and tears that my family has put into this ranch."
Koopmann himself has restored stock ponds to help sustain endangered species—namely the California tiger salamander and callippe silverspot butterfly. He also installed solar-powered pumps to bring water to places that hadn't had any before, which has helped preserve wildlife and plant habitat.
In addition to managing his ranch, Koopmann works for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission as a watershed manager.
"To me, a steward of the land means that you've been lucky enough to be given the responsibility to maintain that land," he said. "We're tied to this ranch and entrusted to its care. We're here for the long run."
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.