Conservation Couple: From Bay Area Business Owners to Award-Winning, First Gen Ranchers

In less than twenty years, Mike and Kathy Landini, shown here vaccinating a calf,  went from building custom homes to first generation ranchers and award-winning conservationists. Credit: Kathy Landini, used  with permission by USFWS

By Byrhonda Lyons
Photos by Kathy Landini

January 25, 2017

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."

Five years after buying the ranch and becoming involved in the livestock world, Mike thought maybe it was time to get into the ranching business. Above, Mike and Kathy rotate cows from one pasture to another. Credit: Kathy Landini

"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... and
saw this huge billboard that read, ‘Cattle Ranch for
Sale,’” Kathy said. “At that moment, we thought,
‘maybe we could buy a ranch.’” Credit: Kathy Landini

Sitting at their long, wooden dining room table, 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 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.

Mike Landini and his son Tony after a day's work
in the wetlands in 2014. In less than 15 years, their
ranch has gone from an overgrazed property to
a rangeland that protects and enhances resources
for cattle and wildlife. Credit: Kathy Landini

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.

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 8000 acres.

The majority of the mother cows spend the summer in Modoc County, the rest on irrigated pasture in Glenn and Yuba counties.

With a view of the Sutter Buttes on the horizon,  the Landini's Divide Ranch sits in the foothills on the western side of the Sacramento Valley. Credit: Kathy Landini

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.

New fencing allowed the Landinis to double their number of pastures and control cattle access to specific places on the ranch—giving Mike and Kathy infrastructure to implement rotational grazing practices. Credit: Kathy Landini

“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.

A routine day on the ranch — this young cow could not
walk after a tough calving, so the couple gave her a
ride to the barn for rehab. Credit: Kathy Landini

The Landinis’ conservation journey began with a simple knock on the door from an NRCS employee. NRCS is the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency that works with private landowners to implement conservation practices.

“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.

Originally in rice production, Mike also wanted to restore the 65-acre duck hunting property shown here. The Landinis gave up their rice production and after partrnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, biologists from 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. Credit: Kathy Landini

“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.

“In the ranching world, you can’t have a healthy ranch unless you have a healthy ecosystem,” say Mike. “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.” Above, the wetlands facing the Sutter Buttes in the background. Credit: Kathy Landini

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.

Sunset on the Divide Ranch, near Elk Creek, Calif.
Credit:Kathy Landini

RECOGNITION

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.

“I remember going to, what we call the duck club, with my grandfather as a boy,” Mike said.

“We liked the hunting quality and the aesthetic of a wetland, versus the rice fields,” says Mike Landini. Above, waterfowl of all types frequent the wetland's improved habitat. Credit: Kathy Landini

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.

Mike and Kathy's son, Tony, after a successful hunt on their family "duck club" located 35 miles east of their ranch, near the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Kathy Landini

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 Service purchases farming and development rights on a willing landowner’s wetland or agricultural property.

Family friend Garrett Grady on a cloudy fall morning at the
"duck club" in 2015. Credit: Kathy Landini

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 used to work for the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in Willows, Calif.

When Hamman began working for the Sacramento refuge in 2003, thestaff there 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. And since Hamman was the new employee, he picked up the duty of attending these meetings. Every month, he would head 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 described it, Mike Landini walks up and says, “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.

“Out of all those years, he had never called my name, so I was surprised that he even knew who I was,” Hamman said.

That one encounter eventually led to one of the Partners Program’s first contracts in the watershed.

“One thing I’ve learned is how hard people work to provide food to the world,” says Kathy. “Farmers and ranchers are the biggest land stewards and conservationists that there are.” Credit: Kathy Landini

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 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.



Learn more about theThe Divide Ranch on their website. If you are interested in seeing their conservation first-hand, the Landinis annually host a ranch tour as part of the yearly Snow Goose Festival in Chico, Calif. This year’s festival is happening on Thursday, January 26, 2017. You can also contact the Landinis for other tour opportunities.

Byrhonda Lyons is a public affairs officer in the Pacific Southwest Region's Office of External Affairs, located in Sacramento, Calif.