When Californians Mike and Kathy Landini packed their belongings into friends’ trucks and left Concord for Elk Creek, 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 that leaving the Bay Area would help them forge a new path. 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. “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.”
But things turned out a little differently for the family of four.
THE DIVIDE RANCH
Mike and Kathy reminisce about their journey.
“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 the 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.”
When they bought the property, the Landinis looked to restore the 100-year-old house and rent their rangeland to local ranchers. Five years after buying the place, leasing it, 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.
They graze on their own property, on the South Fork Willow Creek Ranch which they lease from the Colusa Basin Drainage District, and another leased ranch north of Elk Creek, totaling 8,000 acres.
The majority of the mother cows spend the summer in Modoc County with the rest on irrigated pasture in Glenn and Yuba counties.
STEWARDS OF THE LAND
Much of the Landinis success as new ranchers can be attributed to their commitment to conservation. When they purchased Divide Ranch, years of leasing had taken its toll. When restoring the house, they were also trying to figure out how to restore and improve the rangeland.
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 managed in a way that protects and enhances resources for the cattle, healthy land, and wildlife.
The Landinis’ conservation journey began with a simple knock on the door from a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) employee. NRCS is a federal agency that works with private landowners to implement conservation practices.
NRCS reached out to the Landinis since 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.
One of their first projects with NRCS 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 – providing infrastructure to implement rotational grazing practices.
These practices allows landowners to monitor and adjust how often cattle graze certain pastures, limiting overgrazing.
“It’s a great concept,” Kathy 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.”
They 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 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 received ‘The Outstanding Land Steward’ award from Point Blue Conservation Science, and took home Glenn County’s Resource Conservation District’s ‘Conservationist of the Year’ Award in 2011.
The Landinis have definitely made their mark in the ranching world.
“One thing I’ve learned is how hard people work to provide food to the world,” Kathy said. “Farmers and ranchers are the biggest land stewards and conservationists that there are.”
30-YEARS LATER – CONSERVATION EASEMENT WITH THE SERVICE
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. One of their conservation projects is about 35 miles east of their ranch near the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.
“I remember going to what we call the duck club with my grandfather as a boy,” Mike said.
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 to 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 Service purchases farming and development rights on a willing landowner’s wetland or agricultural property. The Landinis’ property is located in the Willow Creek Water District and is surrounded by many properties in the easement program.
The Landinis’ first easement contract with the Service was drafted in the mid-1980s. However, they didn’t officially put an easement on the property until the mid-2000s. Why did it take so long?
“[In the 80s,] the property was still my grandpa’s,” Mike said. “It was a new-fangled idea from us young college graduates,” Kathy added.
“I had a really cool grandpa,” he said. “But he wasn’t convinced on the easement.”
However, that didn’t stop Mike or the Service from thinking about it.
“We had two full-fledged offers on file before we got here,” Mike said as he looked at Matt Hamman, California state coordinator for the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, which provides financial and technical assistance for private landowners to restore wildlife habitat. Hamman formerly worked for the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (Sac Refuge) in Willows, Calif.
When Hamman began working for the Sac Refuge in 2003, the refuge had already spent 20 years developing a relationship with a few generations of Landinis. The last 18 years of relationship-building began at the Glenn County Resource Conservation District’s monthly meetings where Mike was a board member.
Since Hamman was the new employee, he picked up the duty of attending these meetings. Every month, he went to the meetings, even though landowners in the area weren’t exactly thrilled to see him.
“I would go to the meetings and talk about the things they wouldn’t yell at me about,” Hamman said with a slight laugh. “I’d talk about the number of visitors on the refuge, bird counts, things they wanted to hear.”
Occasionally, Hamman would give a presentation on the Partners Program. He did this dance for years - go to meetings, give his spiel, and leave. And for years, landowners would listen to him, but no one seemed interested in what he had to offer (i.e. the Partners Program).
Then one day, “out of nowhere,” as Hamman describes, Mike Landini walked up and said, “Matt, I’d like to talk to you about the Partners Program.”
According to Matt, he was surprised that a local rancher was interested in the program, but he was even more taken aback that Mike Landini knew his name.
This one encounter eventually led to one of the Partners Program’s first contracts in the watershed.
As a part of the project, the Service 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 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 agreed 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.
(Editor’s note: Writer Byrhonda Lyons is a public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in Sacramento, Calif.)