Welcome to Paicines Ranch (Rancho Cienega de los Paicines), Paicines CA
It is mid spring on a late Sunday morning. I am driving down State Route 25. Also know as Airline Highway, the single lane highway stretches over 75 miles starting in Priest Valley CA and ending in Gilroy CA.
Row crops, orchards, and grassy rolling hills are a blur passing my window as I make my way out of the City of Hollister. I am given a brief warning to slow my speed from 55 to 35 before driving through the town of Tres Pinos. The small town is out of an old western, donning historic wooden buildings and horse stables along the roadway. Less than a minute has passed and I’m out of Tres Pinos, kicking the speed back up to 55. I drive through Bolado Park, home of the San Benito County Fair. Despite our recent rains, the green is already fading. There are mixed yellow and amber waves of tall grass and flowers that stretch as far as the eye can see. I’ve now entered the town of Paicines. A road sign and a small general store are the only major markings indicating you’ve entered the town. There is also a small post office a few feet further down the road. This will be the last major stop you see for several miles. Route 25 will lead the way to wild grasslands, rocky hillsides covered with cattle & horses, vineyards, sandy shale covered mountain ranges, and various small bodies of water.
To my right is the Paicines Reservoir where I’m arriving upon my destination. I turn right off of Highway 25 onto Cienega Road. I pass a slightly crooked, faded stop and arrive at a large green metal gate. The sign on the gate reads Paicines Ranch Grass Fed Beef. I am here today to meet with one of San Benito County’s few female cattle ranchers. Sallie Calhoun; former electrical engineer turned California grass fed beef rancher and Holistic Management student.
My family and I are extremely passionate about where our food comes from and how it was raised. For that, I have been a customer of Paicines Ranch’s grass fed beef for a little over a year now. I’ve had the opportunity to visit the ranch on occasion but I wanted to learn more about the beautiful ranch that provided my family a healthy protein option. There has been a lot of talk recently in the media over the ethics of eating meat, grass fed vs. conventional beef, and the validity of sustainable ranching, specifically with cattle. I wanted to know more and wanted to see how one of the few female cattle ranchers in my community was making a difference in the environment and her surrounding communities.
I drive past the gate. To the right are golden rolling hills and to the left, fields of row crops (I later find out, certified organic row crops). There are a couple of buildings scattered among the property’s backdrop, hidden by oak trees and wild flowers. I follow the dirt road past several horse corrals. It’s a warm spring day and the horses are taking cover under the pepper trees that surround the fence line. I’ve arrived at headquarters where a giant steel structure houses towering rows of hay. Ahead of me are several old buildings, stables, and barns. I find a parking space closest to the beautifully landscaped courtyard next to the Grogan House. There were crowds of people bustling about, breaking down tents, chairs, and other event related items. The day before, on Saturday April 28th 2012, the E-Cubed Foundation hosted their annual Spring Trail ride here at the Paicines Ranch. The foundation is a non-profit organization that provides sustainable financial support for programs within the small schools of rural San Benito County. I spot Sallie at the end of the Grogan House walkway, who is quietly overseeing the breakdown of the event. After brief hellos we made our way up to the patio of the Grogan House where we would spend the duration of our conversation. In 1867 the ranch was owed by Alexander Grogan, a transplant from Ireland. Mr. Grogan built many of the structures that are still standing on the property today. One of which is the Grogan House built in the 1860’s. A few steps lead the way to a covered porch, offering a cool breeze and inviting wicker seating. We settled in and jumped right into the conversation.
Born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee; Sallie knew from an early age that she enjoyed the outdoors and gardening. She spent a lot of her free time hiking The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the largest protected areas in the Eastern United States. After college she found herself learning more about organic gardening. During the accounts of her past, she talked about her subscription in the late 70’s to Rodale Organic Farming and Gardening magazine. Sallie also talks about Earth Day, “I remember the first Earth Day very well, and it seemed important to me.” Once becoming a resident of California, she began reading into the problems of the disappearing native perennial grasses and the dying oak trees. In the late 80’s she chose to landscape her yard with the native perennial bunch grasses as a way to be part of the solution in bringing the grasses back. Since then Sallie has been passionate, considering herself an environmentalist, focusing on the issues of organics, sustainability, recycling, and the environment as a whole.
A graduate of Rice University, with an electrical engineering background, Sallie is no stranger to hard work and challenges. After meeting her husband, they settled in the town of Saratoga, California where they owned and operated a software company. In 2000 they sold their company and went on a journey to find a place of rest and relaxation. This is where they came upon the historic Paicines Ranch located in Paicines, California. The ranch was scheduled to be turned into a resort hotel with golf courses, and residential homes. The project never came to fruition and the ranch was eventually purchased by Sallie and her husband.
The biggest question on my mind at this point was how do you go from the world of high tech, owning and operating a software company to 7000 certified organic grazing acres and 2000 head of pastured cattle? Sallie smiled and jokingly explained “I had no intention of getting into ranching. It sounds crazy now, but we kind of bought it as a place to wander around and hang out.”
After a long pause, she smiled, and continued “it’s an awfully big place to wander around and…hang out. But we’re also really fascinated by old buildings. The very first time we walked down the path from our current house to what is known as the Grogan House… we were sold. We were quite fascinated by the history of the land and the old buildings and that is how we came about buying the ranch.”
Still, the ranch itself was extensive. There were several old buildings, many historic, that needed maintenance. Plus, 7000 acres is no tiny patch of lawn. There is some serious land management needed when dealing with this size of property. She agreed and remembers back to the first moments moving into the ranch. “It was the craziest thing two analytical engineers ever did, was buy this ranch. The first day I moved in some items, my sister was with me – we entered one of the buildings where half of the roof was collapsed in. We had setup some old yellow couches to sleep on and my sister says…’my god, what have you done!’ Yes, it was a huge venture but at that time I really had no intentions of owning cattle.”
The early years on the ranch were spent bringing many of the buildings back to life. Sallie and her husband believed in restoring what existed before creating new structures. I noticed throughout our discussion that the common theme was use- less and use what you already have. She didn’t want to create more waste by breaking down these buildings. Given their love of historic architecture they chose to restore everything that existed on the property and what they now call headquarters. As they made their way through restorations she was also looking into how they could best utilize the land.
When Sallie arrived at the ranch in 2001, she was she was introduced to the concepts of Holistic Management™ by one of the ranch’s previous owners, Joy Law. Joy and her family used to own the ranch from the early 40’s till 1989 when it was purchased by Ridgemark Corporation. Joy advised Sallie to read Alan Savory’s book on Holistic Management. Sallie admits that her original intention for the land was to lease it out to local San Benito county cattle ranchers. She expressed that the biggest challenge for ranchers today is to obtain land. It took some time but after many discussions with local ranchers and reading Alan’s book on Holistic Management; Sallie realized there was a possibility that by the way they managed cattle they could dramatically improve the health and quality of the land as well as bring the California Native Perennial Grasses back. Given the “environmentalist” attitude of her past, this information ‘hooked’ Sallie on the idea of raising cattle on the 7000+ acres of beautiful grassland.
During her discussions with local ranchers, she met Joe Morris of Morris Grass Fed Beef. Joe and his family have practiced Holistic Management™ on their ranch since the early 1990s. Sallie had initially discussed the possibility of Morris Grass Fed leasing the land. She even states in our discussion that “the ranch may have been better off in the hands of the Morris family, but… my life would be VERY different.” Sallie knew she would learn some things but, “doing it yourself is always different” she explained. Sallie was greatly intrigued by these ideas and with that she dove head first into the life of ranching, sustainable agriculture, organics, and the practice of Holistic Management™.
It Takes a Village…
Under USDA regulations, Sallie is just under the guidelines for being considered a beginning woman rancher or farmer. Her husband is involved at headquarters as he is passionate about the historic architecture but he has chosen to take a step back in the aspects of managing the cattle operation. Sallie jokes that he greatly enjoys the grass fed beef and the serenity of the land but he has no desire to get into the logistics of managing a herd. Sallie’s deepest passion is the management of the land and the impact the cattle has on the landscape. So how does one take on this huge task of managing 7000+ grazing acres? You have a strong able bodied team to back you up. Sallie gave a brief account of her team, every time acknowledging the hard work each person puts forth in their daily jobs. She is grateful for her team and understands the challenges they face every day. Meet the good folks of Paicines Ranch!
Chris – is the ranch manager and Sallie’s right hand, jack-of-all-trades kind of guy. Chris manages the day-to-day operations of the cattle, while working closely with Sallie on the strategic plans for the management of the herd and land. Chris also handles the major tasks around the ranch as well as the rental properties that surround the land. For example, if Sallie informs Chris they need to restore a barn…Chris will find a way to restore the barn…he makes it happen. “Chris is really important to the ranch”, Sallie explained.
Leti – manages the event center and is the face of customer service and hospitality for the ranch. Sallie boasts that there is nobody who stays at the ranch, who doesn’t rave about Leti in the end. She makes your event and visits to the ranch a pleasant adventure.
Jeb – manages construction projects and is instrumental in assisting Chris as needed on other major building projects around the ranch.
Bobby – Worked at the ranch for over 8 years bringing with him a great passion for old buildings. He’s no longer at the ranch but in his previous years he played a key role assisting Sallie and team with much of the hard restoration projects. One project specifically was the Grogan House that rests at the end of the long driveway at headquarters. The house is gorgeous, boasting large pillars at the front porch, surrounded by flowers. The porch itself offers wicker chairs for resting in the cool shade while enjoying a passing breeze. The main entrance has large doors that welcome you to a high ceiling banquet room. The windows fill the room providing a panoramic view of the rolling grasslands that surround the ranch.
Betsy – manages the grass-fed beef inventory and sales. Betsy also manages the horse facilities at the ranch, which include long and short term horse boarding. Betsy’s love of the animals and her attention to detail allow a wide array of horses to board at the ranch. They also specialize in boarding young horses that need time to develop in small, age appropriate groups.
Sherry – is the Controller for the ranch and manages the overall administrative duties. Sallie jokes that Sherry is “ranch supervision” making sure everyone stays in line…kindly of course.
Jen – manages the housekeeping for all of the ranch properties, keeping the ranch clean and beautiful for its guests.
Gabe and Ricardo – are key ranch hands who are instrumental in helping around the ranch. They are in the fields on the daily making the water work, putting up electric fencing, and helping Chris move the cattle.
The Good The Bad The Holistic …
There are many challenges that come with owning land. There are even more challenges owning land with a large herd of grazing cattle that depend on the wild forage of your land for survival. Year after year the seasons change and the weather extremes are more and more severe. San Benito County’s landscape is not a forgiving one. Most places the climate is very different than here. Most places expect a summer rain. More often than not, there is little to no rain from May until early November. This year has been one of the worst years for rain. There was a heavy rain early in November and then it remained dry until March. Even then it only rained a couple times. It has been dry since and it’s only April. This is where Sallie’s exposure and education in Holistic Management come into play.
Sallie learned about Holistic Management roughly three months into her residence at Paicines Ranch when she was advised to read Alan Savory’s book. Soon after, she met with Joe Morris and got a firsthand account of how the Holistic Management practices worked. When they first arrived at the ranch, it seemed that everything they touched fell apart. They had a lot of things to sort out and it took some time to actually implement the practices of Holistic Management on their landscape. Chris and Sallie took a two year course through The Holistic Management Institute on Ranch & Range Management. The program allowed them to travel to different ranches throughout the U.S. learning about Holistic Management in depth. It’s only been within the last three years that Sallie and team have been able to implement the Holistic Management practices they’ve learned. It’s been within the last year they’ve gotten close to what they want to happen from a landscape perspective. Sallie explains, “first it’s a matter of setting up a cattle operation and then you’ve got to change the way traditional cattle ranchers think, which all takes time.”
Water…We Need Water…
The goal of Holistic Management™ is to teach people about the relationship between large herds of wild herbivores and the grasslands. These principles are then highlighted helping people develop strategies for managing herds of domestic livestock to mimic those wild herds to heal the land. The goal for Sallie and team is to actively try and capture every drop of water building soil carbon. The more carbon you have in the soil the better the soil can retain the water and more fertile the soil will be. Sallie explains, “we have perennial springs and a river and we do everything we can to slow the water down and let it soak in…we want to grow grass! We make sure we have the ground covered so none of the water ‘runs off’.” Historically the goal for the ranch has been to get the water off. Since the ranch has been owned and run by Sallie, the goal is now to keep the water on the land.
If they keep enough grass around during the summer months and the river maintains a green environment, the cattle won’t loose weight; the cattle will be fine. There is no supplement to their diet, only wild forage. Sallie explained that there is this misconception that cows only eat grass. Cattle will eat many things besides grass. “We try to encourage biodiversity which allows for a wide range of plants for the cattle to choose from. Russian nap weed, not a native plant, is viewed as a nasty invasive weed. It has a root system of over 12 feet and you can’t kill it. It’s green during the summer and has more protein than alfalfa.” I joke that this weed must be abundant in my backyard because I can’t get rid of the ones I have. Sallie laughs because she knows the challenges of battling non-native plants but at the same time understands the benefits of varied forage. “You have to view the amount of the food and variety of food being very important. Our animals are between 3 and 4 years old before we harvest them. We keep our animal twice as long as most people because we are not supplementing and farming to add to their diets.”
Sallie’s biggest passion is the restoration of the land. Many peoples’ response to her end goals are to plant seeds. “We don’t plant seeds and there will not be any seed planting here at Paicines Ranch for at least ten years. The seed is really expensive. If we can bring back the grasses by changing the way we manage our cattle – the seed bank is there and as we rotate the animals the grasses will return. We’re already seeing results of it.”
In addition to learning how to find the perennial grasses that are available (another California rancher taught Chris and Sallie to look on the north and east facing slopes), Sallie chose to join the Soil Carbon Challenge. The Soil Carbon Challenge is presented by the Soil Carbon Coalition (SCC) and is comprised of over 60 participants across the country. The goal of the SCC is to advance the practice, and engage people in the opportunity, of turning atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter (oxidize less, photosynthesize more). The SCC will monitor the soil carbon of ranchers to see whose practices are increasing the carbon in the soil. As Sallie put it, “this is a human nature idea. We are competing and sharing the results. We want people to know of our challenges and successes. We will take 3, 6, and 10 year measurements. If we can suck the carbon out of the air and put it into the soil we could make a dent in the climate change. The more resilient your landscape is as climate changes the more likely you are to survive – the more diversity you have the more seeds you have… “
At this point, Sallie and team are really interested in harvesting animals that taste great. The animals are aged on the hoof as well as dry aged. The grass fed herd consists of various ages, allowing for annual harvests. By Holistic Management practices, the herd is rotated every few days across 200 acre paddocks divided by single wire electric fencing. A product of Sallie’s passion for land restoration is raising high quality tasting beef that takes minimal to no inputs or use of fossil fuels. It’s taken years of learning and experimenting to find what Sallie and her team considers being the right formula for the high quality beef they produce today. The challenge is they are still considered a small operation. So how can they be small and economically viable?
Today, the convenient model for most consumers is to go to the supermarket to buy cuts of beef. Most grass fed beef producers are challenged with how to sell their beef because they have to sell the whole animal verses the basic cuts that are sold in the supermarket. “We had to plan starting our beef 2.5 – 3 years before we harvest it. At harvest we’ll end up with 40 different cuts of beef to sell.” As most of us know, the average American home cook knows how to prepare roughly 3 to 4 different cuts of meat; not 40. The answer most grass fed producers came up with was to sell the animal as either a whole, half, or split half. Paicines Ranch decided their customer base was primarily in the South Bay. A majority of these people do not have giant freezers able to accommodate hundreds of pounds of meat that come in these whole and halved portions. Because of this Paicines Ranch decided to sell their meat by the cut in addition to whole, half, or split-half options. They worked out the pricing and distribution models to allow grass-fed beef to get to people who wouldn’t normally eat it.
Working some of the bay area farmers markets during the beginning of her grass-fed beef career, Sallie could estimate that roughly 90% of her potential customers did not understand what grass fed beef was. Not many people were writing about it and not many were managing as Paicines Ranch was.
Sallie believes the communication and understanding of grass-fed beef is not done, but it’s improving. This is proof based on the current request from NY Times and the call out to the communities for their thoughts on ‘Why is it Ethical to Eat Meat?” Here is Sallie’s response: Sallie Calhoun NY Times Essay. Sallie explained that, “It’s people like me who show what happens when they practice good land stewardship, working to regenerate their landscapes and the earth. The ranchers must be willing to share their stories. It’s people like you who can share the information they’ve learned.”
There Will Always Be Challenges…It’s All in How You Manage Them…
As a female engineer in the 70’s, Sallie is no stranger to being the only woman at a table and facing challenging situations head on. From land management, herd management, meat processing, marketing, and community involvement, there is a lot of responsibility that rides on the ranch.
For example, I’ve heard from several small ranches across the bay area that processing their meat has always been a challenge. Going back to the idea of being small and economically viable, how do you get past the challenges of processing the product that keeps your operation running? Sallie explained that they had the typical complaints, but that was “until we ran a meat packing plant in Newman. It is not an easy task to take a giant animal and break it down into a clean visually nice looking retail cut for market. The equipment used in larger scale operations, which allows for faster processing, is very large and very expensive. The small packing plants do not have this thus there are guys with very sharp knives working the meat. Many can’t appreciate the skill and time it takes to break a giant animal down into clean looking retail cuts for market, using only your hands.”
The small operations are also challenged because the grass fed producers are harvesting their animals between the months of April and July. This means there is a waiting list because the small plants can only take five to six animals at a time. More often, ranchers say that “processing is the weak link in the grass fed chain” and Sallie explained, “There are more problems after processing… it’s a matter of how you face them and work with them. Processing is only the link that you run into next.”
Sallie believes the future is bright based on the information they are learning and implementing. As we discussed in the beginning, the biggest challenge for most small operations is a lot of land is now being owned by people other than private ranchers. “This leaves not a lot of continuity and flexibility in how you, as a small rancher, can manage the land. This could be a great opportunity to change policies and views in how we manage the land – so it’s a challenge but a huge room for growth and opportunity. Public organizations don’t own the land to make money; they own it ‘In public trust of land’. This could mean neighbors and ranchers can collaborate to raise the cattle and maintain the land. As we are learning what is best for a healthy symbiotic relationship between the land and the animals.”
Working with the community also makes the future bright for sustainable ranching. I asked Sallie if she believed the ranch is setting precedence for helping and operating sustainably in the community. She believes that they are just now getting to the point to be considered a role model. They are trying. This is why they host the Holistic Management workshops to build and educate a community of like minded people who are focused on making a difference.
In addition to the workshops and the practice of Holistic Management, Sallie and her team work within the community to raise awareness and support. Some recent and past partnerships include a sponsorship for the San Benito Rodeo, hosting of the annual Kinship Wine Tasting, and this year they will host the Save the Music Program for the San Benito County school district. The ranch also worked with the Oaxaca Children’s Garden to help them acquire a tractor for their farming. As I mentioned earlier they hosted the E-Cubed Foundation Spring Trail ride and are supporters of the Community Foundation of San Benito County. Sallie explained that, “this is the community our ranch resides in and the community our employees live in and we believe it’s important to help make it thrive.”
Beyond the restoration of land, Sallie is also passionate about food and feeding those less fortunate. She explained, “I am a big believer in if you give a man a fish he can eat for a day but if you teach a man to fish he can eat for a lifetime.” This year Sallie is working with Valley Verde, a non-profit in Santa Clara County. The organization installs organic gardens in low income family backyards. They will teach the families how to organically garden, harvest, and how to use and cook the food they grow in their gardens. The goal of this organization is to put over 20,000 gardens in Santa Clara County over the next 10 years Sallie explained that she is extremely passionate about how we can produce food in urban environments.
The Future Is Bright…
Sallie’s passion is the land, her community, and the results of the hard work her & her team put forth. She will continue to raise excellent grass fed beef through her efforts in responsible land management. They also offer pasture finished lamb. Sallie explained that due to predator problems they’re only beginning to attempt to grow their lamb from birth. They’ve had some recent success and will attempt to bring them to market soon. Sallie expressed interest in bringing aboard someone who knew pig extremely well and having them manage the process on the land. Sallie is not versed in raising pork and she talked about the challenges in managing your domestic stock away from the wild pigs that currently roam the land. Sallie welcomes the wild pigs; their rooting and wallows provide a natural tilling for the land. Sallie explained that “the land needs some level of disturbance. We keep them out of headquarters but ultimately we don’t try and control their population. They don’t bother the cattle and we don’t bother them. We try to manage for biodiversity. The more different types of conditions you create on your landscape the more different kinds of plants and animals will be happy.”
A small portion of the land is leased out to large certified organic producers. Sallie and team work closely with those producers to manage their ‘run off’; pushing it through the wetlands before it gets to the rivers and streams. “We use the water to grow grass and clean it at the same time.” Sallie expressed the desire to bring on more small family farmers to utilize the land. She explained that the small family farm is more viable and provides more stability for the community and she would like to help this movement grow.
Sallie sees the next step for the ranch to be a ‘giant classroom’. She wants to be public with their successes and failures regarding the land management. Through this she would help teach others in her community. She wants to bring classes to the general public that focus on the ‘urban dwellers connection to sustainable land management’. She would like to teach people how to get the most out of their land without pulling too much from it and keeping it thriving; a Holistic Management for urban sustainable homesteader. Sallie is also currently working on her permaculture design certification. Eventually she sees children visiting the ranch for further education, fostering the growth of young farmers, ranchers, and future environmentalists!
In Sallie’s closing statements she emphasized that she sees herself doing this for another 25 years. Throughout our conversation Sallie brought forth such a deep passion for her environment and what she is learning through Holistic Management. She’s taken the time to understand her land, the biodiversity, the ecosystem and how the pieces fit together.
I will say upfront that Sallie is extremely easy to speak with and has an infectious enthusiasm about what she does. I admire Sallie’s passion and her motivation to tackle the environmental and community challenges that lay ahead. I appreciate Sallie taking the time to speak with me, share her story, her successes and failures, and continue being a strong advocate for our environment, community, and viable healthy protein options.
Paicines Ranch Grass Fed Beef, Events, and More…
You can obtain their grass fed beef and lamb directly from Paicines Ranch by making an appointment. All customers have the option to tour the ranch with advance notice. Visit the web site at www.paicinesranch.com for more ordering info.
Inquire on their pre-arranged drop points in San Jose, CA and Saratoga, CA getting their grass fed product to the customer with minimal use of fossil fuels.
Paicines Ranch beef is also available through the CSA – Eating with the Seasons, if you are a CSA customer you can order your meat directly. Stay tuned for new CSAs to be added later this year
Make reservations at Jesse Cool’s Flea Street Café, where Paicines Ranch provides meat for their weekly specials
The ranch will continue to host your best events from weddings, corporate workshops, and parties… “Anything you can think up we’d like to host here!”
Get to know your farmer. Stop by and say hi at your weekly farmers market. Ask questions – they welcome it! If you don’t have a farm within driving distance or want to seek out grocery stores supporting the grass fed movement check these following resources:
www.americangrassfed.org– promoting the grass-fed industry through education, govt. relations, concept marketing, and research
www.eatwild.com– a resource for safe, healthy, natural and nutritious grass-fed beef, lamb, goats, bison, poultry, pork, dairy and other wild edibles.
www.localharvest.org– an online directory of farms, markets, and other resources offering sustainably-raised meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.
www.eatwellguide.org– an online directory of farms, markets, and other resources offering sustainably-raised meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.
 A little known fact about the town of Paicines and Tres Pinos – in the early 1870s the towns of Paicines and Tres Pinos were opposite of each other. In 1873 a railroad was slated to be built through to the town of Tres Pinos. The railroad builders made it to Paicines and did not want to continue building more line. In 1874 the names of the two towns were switched so the railroad could say they had filled their commitment to build a line all the way to the town of Tres Pinos.