It is a crisp autumn morning. Thick fog is giving way to the emerging sun as we make our way along the winding Panoche Road. We pass by lush vineyards, dense orchards, and grazing cattle. Their backdrop is steep hills littered with tumbleweeds and wildflowers. “From highway 25 take Panoche Road, roughly 34 miles till you get to a Y in the road; veer left…” My husband and I were taking our son to visit the family operated, Douglas Ranch, whom we purchase our pasture raised pork from. We believe it is important to know and understand where our food comes from so I reached out to see if we could come out for a visit – they welcomed us with open arms. Don and Rani Douglas run Douglas Ranch, nestled in the hills of the Panoche Valley, where they train horses, pasture raise cattle, pork, and lamb, and dabble in high quality wood furniture crafting.
Although the journey would only be 34 miles the drive will take roughly an hour. The road is not well kept, windy, and at times narrows to one lane giving way to a steep hillside below. This doesn’t last too long and eventually you are driving a long stretch of road with rising golden hills as far as the eye can see. The only vehicles we passed during the drive were two road construction trucks, filling in significantly deep pot holes along the roadway. Our journey down Panoche Road took us past Claravale Farm, a raw dairy farm who has been producing high quality, natural raw jersey milk since 1927. We also passed Panoche Inn, a simple rest stop where you can grab a sandwich and a beer for a couple bucks; nothing fancy but I believe they wouldn’t have it any other way. After a few winding turns past Little Panoche Road, we approach the Y in the road, and veered left. A few yards ahead and we’ve arrived at the Douglas Ranch.
Don and Rani settled in the Panoche Valley a little over 16 years ago, where they continued raising their children and now their grandchildren. The ranch spans over 650+ acres of beautiful natural pastures. At first glance, you see miles of fencing, strategically placed wells & pumps, beautiful wooden structures, barns, stables, and corrals; none of which were in place when Don and Rani purchased the land. With a few hands, they transformed the Douglas property into a ranching paradise. Each length of fence, water line, and building were put up by Don and family. No day is “typical” at the Douglas Ranch. From sun up to sun down and in between Don and Rani are constantly on the move tending to horses, cattle, pigs, lamb, building maintenance, land management, fence repair, and the list goes on. As you look a little deeper, you begin to understand the blood, sweat, and tears it took to get Douglas Ranch where it is today.
The Douglas family chose Panoche Valley for its pristine surroundings but also for its prime land conditions. At one point in time the Panoche Hills were once part of an inland sea. When driving in you can see where the receding waterline cut into the hillside creating a staircase effect. The soil consists of marine shale, sandy and heavy with fossil resources. There are acres of level space with very few large rocks allowing prime grazing and roaming land for horses and cattle. The quality of the soil supports Douglas Ranch’s efforts to “grass fatten” their animals with choice native grasses that are plentiful throughout the year. Don explains that he continuously rotates his stock, allowing the animals to fertilize the land and native grasses to replenish, operating sustainably. They do not use chemicals or manufactured fertilizers – the land is managed by the animals, the way nature intended.
Providing natural pasture raised grass fed beef, pork, and lamb to their community was not always “the plan” of Douglas Ranch. Don was born in Minnesota but did most of his cowboy work in Montana where he learned how to train horses; and here is where Douglas Ranch got its start. Don and Rani were already in the environment because of raising and training horses. It was a natural progression when the rest of the livestock became part of their daily lives. They begin raising cattle, pork, and lamb for their family’s consumption. A few dinner party’s later and friends began asking for meat, then friends of friends, and so… here they are. Once the animals are ready for harvest, they work closely with a USDA Certified Organic processing plant to ensure the meat is properly processed and packaged for you and me, the consumer.
They are a small family ranch which means production is also small. Keep in mind they cannot nor do they want to keep up with the demand that the major grocery and restaurant chains require. It’s not natural. It takes Don several months longer to harvest an animal because he is raising them naturally. Keeping production small and allowing the animals to graze on the land as they were intended, Douglas is able to provide the highest quality natural grass-fed meats. The Douglas animals are allowed to roam freely, graze on the land, and breathe the fresh air. They are NOT by any means confined to cramped feed lots, where other animals are overstressed with minimal room to move, standing in their own feces. The Douglas animals are not given hormones or unnecessary antibiotics and they are treated humanely with minimal handling. They believe a happy, healthy animal is a tasty animal…and I too agree!
We met Rani last year at the Hollister Farmers Market. Every Wednesday we looked forward to getting our weekly “pork fix”. The market was seasonal so when it ended we were in a panic…where were we going to get our pork from? I can’t go back. I can’t un-learn what I’ve come to know about high volume food production and its negative impacts to my health, my environment, my community, and my future. Because of this, I am highly dependent on my local small farmer, such as the Douglas family. Thankfully Douglas sells directly from their website and also works with local cooperatives such as Santa Cruz Local Foods and Field to Feast. For those with room in the freezer I recommend purchasing directly from Douglas where you can buy whole, half, or quartered animals. For those with smaller storage options I recommend the local cooperatives where you can purchase individual cuts. Keep in mind that selection will be determined by harvest. It is important to understand that an animal only comes with so many parts and ordering 60 pounds of pork ribs is not an option. Several pigs would have to be slaughtered for this quantity; and that alone is wasteful.
Although they are a small operation the Douglas family still makes time to work with and give back to the community. Since 2005 Douglas Ranch has participated in the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms USA (aka WWOOF), where participating members join a network of organic & sustainable practicing farms. Workers also known as Woofers, travel around the country from farm to farm. The woofers provide a service to the farm and in turn are provided food, shelter, and an education in sustainable and organic farming practices. Don and Rani were expecting two new woofers the day we came to visit. The woofers will be helping them with the landscape of the ranch and planting new trees.
I asked Don and Rani what advice they’d give to someone who was considering a life/career change into ranching. They both echoed the sentiment that they wouldn’t change anything about their lives. The Douglas family loves what they do and wouldn’t have it any other way. That said, they also strongly caution those that want to enter into the industry. On the surface, they make it look so easy but it takes work… a lot of hard work. Weekends and vacation…they don’t happen. Weekdays blend into weekends. Will the Douglas legacy continue on with the next generation? Time will tell. For now Don and Rani love what they do and are fully immersed into the “life” of the ranch. Currently their worries are not of the Douglas clan continuing the legacy; their biggest concern is what is happening in their very backyard; in their community.
Panoche Valley and all of its residents are currently under fire. Many will lose their livelihoods and their homes, both human and animal, to the possible changes that will soon happen to the valley. Solargen Energy is in the planning and approval stages of a giant solar farm. The solar panels will span over 4,700+ acres and will occupy over 1/3 of the valley floor. This land is currently used by endangered species such as the San Joaquin kit fox, the giant kangaroo rat, and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard. The area is also used by ranchers such as Don and Rani Douglas who carefully maintain the land in step with the animals and nature. If these solar panels are put in, it would wipe out the habitats of the species listed. The grasses would be removed, creating a severe dust bowl within the valley. This would impact the farms with existing vineyards, orchards, livestock, and more. We as a planet are in need of greener resources and there is no way we can continue to waste and overuse as we do. Our planet will not survive… but this does not mean we must wipe out entire species along with hard working families who give back to their communities to use a resource in itself that just isn’t enough. There are other ways.
At the end of our visit, Don packed us up in his truck and took us around the property and the various pastures. Outside the front fence resides the pigs. Mom and piglets were resting under their shade canopy. Really mom was trying to rest and the piglets were scrambling about excited for us to visit. In the center of the field stood their 500 pound boar. He threw a few greeting grunts our way as he stood under a giant sprinkler, enjoying the spray. In the pasture next door were their lambs. They were anxious for visitors, following us along the fence line as we crossed the street to see the cattle and the lone buffalo. The backend of the property housed the horses, woofer cabins, and the mess hall. The mess hall is an amazing site, built solely of straw and mud. Only the door, windows, and roof were framed. All of the furniture inside was made by Don himself.
It was an amazing day and we are so grateful for Don and Rani opening their home to us. We are truly thankful and appreciative for people like the Douglas family who are fighting the good fight for what is our fundamental right… good, whole, healthy food! If you plan to be in the San Benito area I highly recommend a trip out to Panoche Valley and a visit to the Douglas Ranch. The views, the fresh air, and the welcoming community are well worth the trip. Lastly, I hope this read entices others to take a moment to get to know their local farmer/rancher. Besides having a better understanding of where your food comes from, you’ll be supporting your local communities, and may just make a long time friend in the process.
Original post written on October 12th, 2011 by The Sustainable Sweet & Savory Gourmet at site: http://thesustainablesweetandsavorygourmet.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/welcome-to-douglas-ranch-panoche-valley-ca/