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Planning for Working Lands Conservation

Team TomKat

Carlene Henneman

Sustainable agriculture can make significant contributions to maintaining biodiversity and valuable “ecosystem services,” such as clean water, carbon sequestration, pollination, and abundant birds and other wildlife. At the same time, healthy ecosystems can enhance agricultural productivity—as we are observing first-hand at TomKat Ranch.

As part of a new PRBO partnership, I have the privilege of living and working on beautiful TomKat Ranch, 1800 acres in the small coastal community of Pescadero (north of Santa Cruz). Thanks to the vision of TomKat’s owners, an exciting initiative is under way establishing PRBO’s newest field station for applied conservation and outreach—on a working landscape. The heart of TomKat’s mission is to ensure that agricultural practices benefit nature as well as the bottom line.

I work with a diverse group of people, with varied backgrounds and expertise, called Team TomKat. All of us—cattle managers, horse wranglers, organic food growers, healthy school-foods organizers, PRBO biologists, and the owners—come to the team with different values and experiences. Through working together, we are learning from one another.
At Tomkat Ranch, Kat Taylor, Carlie Henneman, and Jeremiah Stent visit with Bubba (one of the ranch’s two bulls). Photo by Kathy Webster.

Mike Giannini and Jeremiah Stent have primarily managed the ranch’s cattle, and they both have a strong relationship to the land. Mike comes from a legacy of farming, as the sixth generation in a family of San Mateo coast-side farmers. Jeremiah was raised and has spent most of his life on the TomKat property. The two have begun to teach me the complexities and challenges of raising cattle purely on grass. Just as I spend my time watching birds, I now have a huge appreciation for the importance of spending time on the land watching the cattle. In turn, I have helped the cattle team think about and implement alternative grazing strategies that may not only benefit their cattle but could also improve ecological conditions on the grasslands. Together, we are finding common guiding principles from which to move forward and accomplish the vision of TomKat Ranch.

One of PRBO’s initial tasks at TomKat was the development of a conservation plan, aiming to establish conservation goals for the working ranch and its natural and agricultural ecosystems. Early on, it became apparent that such a plan would only work if developed in conjunction with an overall ranch plan that looks at financial, agricultural, and ecological goals together. Today, we are working with Team TomKat to develop a TomKat Ranch Strategic Plan that incorporates a business plan, a grazing/agriculture plan, and an ecosystems plan. Through this process, we anticipate having agreed-upon guidance for all of our decision-making towards shared goals.

To understand whether the TomKat Ranch Plan actually achieves desired ecological outcomes, PRBO has implemented a monitoring program that will measure progress toward improving natural conditions on the ranch. Just as the business portion of the plan will provide a means of measuring the financial bottom line, PRBO’s conservation measures will provide a means of assessing the ecological bottom line.

We hope through our work at TomKat Ranch to better understand ways to optimize the multiple benefits that working lands provide for ecosystems and society. Ultimately, we aim to help guide others to make the best informed decisions—balancing the needs of sustainable agriculture to be economically feasible while also providing ecological benefits that we all depend upon.