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Home on (and off) the range

How two local farmer-ranchers have carved out a living by working in agriculture as well as in other endeavors

jlynem@thetribunenews.comFebruary 1, 2013 

Like other Central Coast cattle ranchers and farmers, Jeff Buckingham and Richard Gonzales exist in two distinct worlds, where juggling the demands of ranching, farming and other work is part of daily life.

Buckingham, who owns a 540-acre cattle ranch near Los Osos, is equally at home tending to the cows and bulls, horses, cats, dogs, roosters and tortoises living on the property as he is leading a San Luis Obispo telecommunications firm.

Gonzales, whose family has farmed for generations, also does not depend solely on the fruits of agriculture. He makes a living from his construction business, as well as a small Paso Robles cow-calf operation. He also harvests walnuts in autumn, and operates a wine and walnut oil tasting room.

Whether out of choice or necessity, many farmers and ranchers like the Buckinghams and Gonzaleses have other jobs, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, which forecasted a 3.4 percent rise in 2012 of smaller farms relying on off-farm income. In 2011, the latest statistics available nationally, 67 percent engaged in work other than farming or ranching, earning an average of $107,188 in off-farm income. The most common occupations for off-farm income involve natural-resource or ag-related industries, construction and retail sales.

No such recent data is available for San Luis Obispo County, according to the research service, although it’s not unusual to find local farmers and ranchers who are both energized by and get supplemental income from another occupation.

“It’s the getting away from the desk job, plus a lot of people want to be in San Luis Obispo because, well, it is San Luis Obispo, and it’s absolutely beautiful,” said Jackie Crabb, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau. “It’s that romance of working the soil and hard work, but satisfaction at the end of the day that you own that business.”

As romantic as it may appear, the business of agriculture requires intense focus and an understanding of the challenges that come with managing farming or ranching operations, Crabb said.

“There are people who want to get into agriculture, but they can’t do it at the scale to be able to make it a full-time career,” she said.

Wearing two hats

When Jeff Buckingham isn’t rustling cattle, he runs Blue Rooster Telecom, a San Luis Obispo firm that provides voice phone service, Internet and private data networks to small businesses.

Buckingham has been involved in the telecommunications industry for about 30 years. In 1983, he was president of Call America, which became the first commercial Internet service provider on the Central Coast. In 1997, Call America was sold for $16 million to GST Telecommunication. Several years later, after GST went bankrupt, he resurrected the company from scratch with business partner Cheryl Lovell. At that time, he and Lovell also partnered with friends from Stockton, but when they found the partnership was no longer a “good fit,” they left their Call America leadership roles in 2009, retaining an ownership stake in the company now run by Utility Telephone, Buckingham said. They started Blue Rooster a year later.

Although Buckingham is connected to the telecom industry, he couldn’t resist ranching. As a boy growing up in the small New England town of Glastonbury, Conn., he wanted to be a dairy farmer, and with his parent’s blessing, he worked odd jobs to achieve that goal.

In 1979, he enrolled at Cal Poly, where he got a job milking Jersey cows for the university’s dairy to pay his way through college. But Buckingham, who graduated in 1981 with a degree in dairy science, decided that he would try his luck in the burgeoning telecommunications industry. He was soon hired at SLO Telecom, where he was a small investor and had been hired to sell telephone service.

But it wasn’t until after the sale of Call America in 1997 that the family bought the ranch, a property they fell in love with the moment they climbed up the hill and looked out over Highway 1 at the sweeping view.

Keeping the ranch and its 40 cows in order has always been a team effort, with son Lochlan, a Cuesta College student who rides out on horseback with Buckingham to round up cattle, and wife Joan, whom Buckingham calls the “unassuming bedrock” of the family, often at the helm, feeding and helping the cows give birth. A daughter, Leslie, is a student at Chico State and helps out occasionally.

While Buckingham enjoys life on the ranch and in the office, he acknowledged that he would not be able to do ranching were it not for telecom.

“Every now and again, we’ll have a good year,” said Buckingham, noting that his cow-calf operation generates roughly $25,000 to $35,000 annually, before expenses. “But we have to have outside income. Many in agriculture have outside income to support what they’re doing. I admire people who make a full-time living in agriculture.”

A fickle business

In addition to the day-to-day costs of running a farm or ranch, farmers and ranchers are often at the mercy of Mother Nature and the whims of the economy.

“Like any business, it has its costs and risks, and they can come from weather or changes in prices,” said Jeremy Weber, economist with the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

They can also face increased regulatory costs, Crabb said. There are fees for testing and additional paperwork, and that can “build up,” she said.

“The increasing fees are being attached every year, and the regulations are making it more expensive to operate,” she said.

The higher fees, she said, can put many small farmers and ranchers in California at a disadvantage relative to those in other states such as Texas because “we have to spend more if we want to get the same profit,” she noted. That can have consequences for consumers, who may experience higher prices at the grocery store.

There’s a growing movement internationally, nationally and regionally of smaller farmers who want to develop innovative ways to market themselves, and operate more efficiently, she said.

“They’re creating hubs where they can share processing, equipment or whatever it is to enable them to cut the costs,” said Crabb, noting that some local full-time farmers share resources and costs.

Still, small farmers can make it work.

Jerry Rutiz, owner of Rutiz Family Farms in Arroyo Grande, contends that the key to success in agriculture is the ability to diversify, offer a unique product and take advantage of resources such as direct marketing.

“It’s really been in the last 20 to 30 years that that has really evolved, and that has enabled smaller farmers or less capitalized farmers, at least in California, to really make a good living without having to work off the farm,” Rutiz said of marketing.

“It’s just like any other business; whether it’s opening up a shoe shop or a farm, you have to be good at it,” he said.

Family operation

Richard Gonzales is an example of one local farmer and rancher who has devised innovative ways to expand his North County farming and ranching operation.

While Gonzales’ primary business is Roadrunner Construction, everyone in the family of entrepreneurs — including wife Deanne, daughter Olivia Wenger and son Phillip — has a hand in keeping the Paso Robles ventures afloat.

The family has about 23 acres of Hartley and Franquette walnuts, which they dry farm as part of Limerock Orchards, the source of their rich walnut oil.

“Walnuts are at record highs,” Wenger recently explained. “The Japanese really like walnuts; there’s a huge export market for it.”

In addition to walnuts, they also have partnered with local wine-grape growers to sell Chateau Margene, a boutique wine, out of their tasting room. Wenger was even married at a pond on the tasting room property off Peachy Canyon Road.

As well, they have a small cow-calf operation consisting of about 40 to 45 mother cows. Each year, the Gonzaleses sell the majority of their calves, keeping about six to eight of the heifers as replacements to put back into the herd.

Gonzales hires contracted help — about 20 people mainly to harvest the walnuts for about two weeks each fall — but his daughter recently returned to the ranch from Modesto with her husband, Luke, to assist in managing the many facets of the family business.

“We don’t have weekends, by the way,” said Wenger, smiling at her father.

While Gonzales, who graduated from Cal Poly in 1981 with a degree in crop science, is deeply rooted in agriculture, he does not discount the value of outside work. After graduation, he quickly found that he earned more money doing mechanic work, and he started an equipment repair business, beginning with one semitruck for hauling.

He launched Roadrunner Construction in 1987, and today, the business, which prepares the ground for building, does work for many of the local wineries, including Denner, Opolo and Whalebone.

Having a diversity of operations gives the family a cushion in years when one industry falters. When the recession hit, the farm and cattle ranch helped pick up the slack from a declining construction industry, Wenger said.

“If construction is not as good, then cattle or walnut prices might be better,” she said. “If one business isn’t doing great, then you’re not completely squeezed.”

Lifelong work

For families like the Buckinghams and Gonzaleses, it’s about striking the right balance on and off the property.

It also takes a high level of organization, respect for the land and the animals living on it, and a certain grit and mental toughness to handle it all.

On one particular autumn morning, the Buckinghams noticed that a heifer in their herd had not been eating, and on the agenda for the day was a visit from a veterinarian. After coaxing her into the squeeze chute to keep her secure, Buckingham kept her calm while the vet performed his exam.

“We get really attached to them,” Jeff Buckingham said, patting the cow gently.

The stories of days spent on the property with his two now-grown children, wife Joan, neighbors and friends are unforgettable.

Neighbors and friends who share a passion for ranching often help one another with no expectation of payment, Buckingham noted. They repair each other’s fences, corral runaway cattle and take turns hauling cattle to market. At branding time, multiple generations of family gather after a hard day’s work for barbecue and fellowship.

In many ways, the ranch, he said, is what binds them together, he said. But the connection between ranch life and telecom also isn’t lost on him. In the end, it’s about “figuring things out,” he said.

“It tests your resourcefulness constantly,” Buckingham said.

He isn’t sure whether he’ll ever retire from either.

“I don’t have a plan to stop doing telecom and only do ranching,” he recently confessed. “I do what I love to do, and I love to do both.”

Richard Gonzales also isn’t interested in hanging up his work boots.

“I don’t see myself retiring,” said Gonzales, whose hands, caked in dirt, examined a fallen walnut. “But I might slow down one day and let the younger guys do more of this stuff.”

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