Byrhonda Lyons of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contributed this blog on USDA’s work in conservation partnerships.
When Mike and Kathy Landini packed their belongings into friends’ trucks and left Concord, Calif., for Elk Creek, Calif., they had no idea what their new life would bring. They were looking for a quieter place to raise their children.
Little did they know, leaving the Bay Area would help them forge a new path. And in less than twenty years, Mike and Kathy went from building custom homes to first generation ranchers and award-winning conservationists.
“Being a first generation rancher is really exciting,” Mike said—his voice filled with astonishment and a tinge of ‘what were we thinking.’ “It’s really a crazy task to take on. I didn’t look at it when we did it, but now at 57, wow! That was pretty risky."
"We didn’t come here saying, ‘we’re going to ranch here,’" he said. "We came here saying, ‘we’re going to live here.'”
But things turned out a little differently for the family of four.
“We were driving up the road, toward Elk Creek, when we came around the corner and saw this huge billboard that read, ‘Cattle Ranch for Sale,’” Kathy said. “At that moment, we thought, ‘maybe we could buy a ranch.’”
And they did.
The Landinis purchased their 2,000-acre ranch, which included a small, rundown yellow house in 1999. “This place was in need of a lot of love and a lot of work,” Kathy said. “It was a hundred-year-old house; the porches were falling off. There was not much infrastructure.”
THE DIVIDE RANCH
When they bought the property, the Landinis were looking to restore the 100-year-old yellow ranch house and rent their rangeland to local ranchers.
Five years after buying the place, leasing it, learning a lot and becoming involved in the livestock world and the community, Mike thought maybe it was time to get into the ranching business.
“Basically, one day, I said, ‘this doesn’t make sense. I should be running my own cows on it [our rangeland],” Mike said. Soon after, the Landinis started the Divide Ranch.
They now run a herd of mother cows and their calves, a battery of bulls, yearling steers, replacement heifers and a herd of their own steers for the ranch’s Direct Sale Grass-Fed Beef business.
Much of the Landini's success as new ranchers can be attributed to their commitment to conservation. When they purchased Divide Ranch, years of leasing had taken its toll. As they were restoring the house, they were also trying to figure out how to restore and improve their rangeland.
STEWARDS OF THE LAND
“We had to do something because this place was severely overgrazed,” Kathy said. “Everything was falling apart. We had very little infrastructure whatsoever, but we really didn’t know enough to know what we needed to do.”
They learned quickly.
In less than 15 years, with the help of neighbors and government agencies, the Landinis’ ranch has gone from an overgrazed property to a rangeland that is managed in a way that protects and enhances resources for the cattle, healthy land and wildlife.
Being a steward of the land was not in the plan in 1999,” Mike said. “We didn’t walk in here, look at this old ranch and go, ‘This is a perfect rundown ranch. This is a perfect opportunity to be a steward of the land.’” “We didn’t even know what that meant,” Kathy added with a smile.
The Landinis’ conservation journey began with a simple knock on the door from a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) employee.
“That knock started everything,” Kathy said.
NRCS reached out to the Landinis because the Divide Ranch fell into the Upper Stony Creek Watershed Restoration Project. At the time, NRCS was working with landowners in the watershed to develop and implement rangeland management plans that improved soil, water and wildlife habitat in the area.
Mike and Kathy jumped at the opportunity to develop a rangeland management plan with NRCS. The Landinis used the plan to guide them as they slowly worked toward rehabilitating their ranch.
One of their first projects was installing six miles of fence throughout the ranch. The fencing allowed the Landinis to double their number of pastures and control cattle access to certain places on the ranch—giving Mike and Kathy infrastructure to implement rotational grazing practices.
Rotational grazing allows landowners to monitor and adjust how often cattle graze certain pastures, limiting overgrazing. Although rotational grazing is a common conservation practice, the Landinis have tailored it to fit their needs.
“It’s a great concept,” she said. “We do it, and we love it. But we have evolved out of the strict rotational grazing practice into one that works best with grazing on hills, since our ranch is not on flat land and we have a heavy clay soil profile.”
In addition to fencing, Mike and Kathy installed an expansive water system on their property, thanks to technical and financial assistance from the Parks and Water Bond 2002 (Proposition 12) and NRCS. Now, the Landinis can pump water to tanks and gravity feed to troughs throughout the property, limiting cattle access to streams and wetlands. So far, the ranch has 14,000 feet of piping, eight water troughs and three tanks totaling almost 40,000 gallons of storage.
The Landinis have also implemented an extensive conservation plan on the land they have leased from the Colusa Basin Drainage District for 13 years, which includes two miles of riparian habitat along South Fork Willow Creek and miles of fencing, pipelines and troughs.
The Landinis’ conservation efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2016, they were awarded The Outstanding Land Steward award from Point Blue Conservation Science. They also took home Glenn County’s Resource Conservation District’s Conservationist of the Year Award in 2011.
Although they did not plan on becoming a ranching family, the Landinis have definitely made their mark in the ranching world. Every chance they get, Mike and Kathy tell others what it takes to be both ranchers and conservationists.
“One thing I’ve learned is how hard people work to provide food to the world,” she said. “Farmers and ranchers are the biggest land stewards and conservationists that there are.”
“In the ranching world, you can’t have a healthy ranch unless you have a healthy ecosystem,” Mike added. “We can’t have a good cow herd without having a healthy ranch. Grasses, wildlife, waterfowl, and beavers all seem to come along with it. This all goes together.”
THIRTY YEARS LATER: A CONSERVATION EASEMENT
While the Divide Ranch is home base for Mike and Kathy Landini, their commitment to conservation reaches far beyond the 2,000-acre ranch in Elk Creek, Calif. One of their conservation projects is about 35 miles east of their ranch, near the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. Yes, the Landinis are new to ranching, but their hunting roots run deep.
The family’s 65-acre duck hunting property has been in Mike’s family for five generations. Originally in rice production, Mike wanted to make the property more diverse. The Landinis gave up their rice production income and slowly began rehabilitating the property on their own.
“We liked the hunting quality and the aesthetic of a wetland, versus the rice fields,” he said.
While he was working the restore the property, Mike was also thinking about putting the land in a wetland easement through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Conservation Easement Program. The easement program is a voluntary program where the USFWS purchases farming and development rights on a willing landowner’s wetland or agricultural property.
As a part of the project, the USFWS worked with the Landinis to cost-share improvements to the family’s wetlands, helping transform the former rice field into a healthy environment for waterfowl. Mike and Kathy did most of the manual labor themselves. They built a levee on the property, added some islands, concrete water control structures and created a drainage structure.
“We really tried to make the property as natural as possible,” Hamman said.
Once the infrastructure was in place, the Landinis were ready to move forward with a perpetual easement.
But not without the approval of the next generation of Landinis who would someday manage the family’s property—Mike and Kathy’s children, Nicole and Tony.
“My way out of signing the contract with the Fish and Wildlife Service easement became, ‘I want to wait and see what the kids think about it,” Mike said. “If they buy into this conservation thing, if they’re good with it, I am good with it.”
Nicole and Tony were “good with it,” and in 2012 the Landinis officially signed a perpetual easement on their wetland—about 30 years after the family received their first draft contract with the Service.