The Cambrian

Cambria-area ranches, vineyards adjust to wet winter

Clayton Fiscalini, riding the mare Fancy at rear, works the Radar Ranch bordering the southern portion of Cambria with a friend in January.
Clayton Fiscalini, riding the mare Fancy at rear, works the Radar Ranch bordering the southern portion of Cambria with a friend in January.

As Mother Nature’s wintertime wrath disrupted lives and livelihoods on the North Coast, those storms and downpours also threw a major curveball into the schedules, workloads and already-skinny profit margins of area agriculturists, no matter how big or small those operations are.

There was rain, rain and more rain; runoff gushing down creeks and hillsides; slides of mud, rocks and dirt, sometimes covering and/or damaging roads and trails; wind toppling trees right, left and center; temperature swings of 50 degrees within a week.

The situation’s not all bad. Ag folks say they’re grateful for the rain and rapidly growing grasses, after five years of drought, dry fields and smaller cattle herds.

Still, “none of us have our hay in,” said third-generation Cambria rancher Gloria Fiscalini via text messaging, “and even if we had got it in, the rain would have flooded it out. We’re still too wet to even try.

“The hills have been so wet,” and there’s been “soil erosion along the creek beds and major slides on our hills,” she said. The ranchers aren’t “riding out in the hills much … too dangerous for rider and horse. We have our calves done, but it was scary out there.”

Fitzhugh, Upper Highway 46 West, Cambria

Some ranchers are scurrying now to brand calves that are two months larger than usual, which means they’re harder to rope and flip.

The Fitzhughs have a “calf table,” a metal press that creates kind of a temporary calf sandwich. Once the animal is securely confined, the table tilts and “lays the calf down and puts it on its side,” third-generation rancher Joy Fitzhugh said by phone Monday, March 13.

But, with wet corrals and meadows, the branding was very delayed — the Fitzhugh roundup that normally happens in January was done March 11. Some of the animals “were too big for the calf table,” Fitzhugh said, which can make the process even more of a wrestling match, and more potentially dangerous, than usual.

Last week, we gathered cattle, taking them down the canyon road. Then they came back at us. There was a huge tree across the trail, and they couldn’t get through.

Joy Fitzhugh, Cambria rancher

For more than 30 years, Fitzhugh has been a legislative analyst for the county Farm Bureau (a post she’ll retire from at the end of May). So she has a lot of institutional knowledge, including that gleaned from previous drought-and-flood weather cycles.

She described the yin and yang of weather impacts on ag operations. This year’s storms, Fitzhugh said, resulted in “numerous trees down, lots of slides blocking the roads or places where the road itself slid out … a lot of livestock trails that will have to be reopened. … Everybody’s scrambling now,” she said.

Surprises can lurk around every corner. “Last week, we gathered cattle, taking them down the canyon road,” Fitzhugh said. “Then they came back at us. There was a huge tree across the trail, and they couldn’t get through.”

Despite some hot, dry days recently, there still are soggy areas on the range and in corrals, which can be dangerous for cattle, horses and the ranchers.

“As typical ranchers, we may curse a little bit” about the weather, Fitzhugh said. “But through all of that, we’re very thankful. We have feed and we have water.”

Pedotti, San Simeon Creek Road, Cambria

Farmer-rancher Jon Pedotti said in email and phone interviews March 11 that “wet corrals have our branding and vaccinating season running nearly two months behind. Now that corrals are drying out, there is a rush to get the calves worked. Because of the delay, the calves are bigger than normal.”

Soggy fields also have had a major effect on Pedotti’s farming schedule. Normally, he would have planted oat hay in January.

This year, that couldn’t happen.

“Most of our vegetable crops (sugar peas, sugar snaps and summer squash varieties) are planted midsummer, for late-fall harvest,” he said.

Last fall, “we were picking well into November, at which time this rainy season was well under way. By then it was too wet to disc the old crop into our heavy soil, and soon, even too wet to flail mow the crop residue on the surface,” he said.

“The result? A big crop of volunteer mustard ... what a mess! Our yellow-mustard-covered fields have become a popular ‘photo op’ attraction,” the traffic from which can be a real hazard on the narrow, winding rural road.

Pedotti estimates that “we'll clean things up when it gets dry enough to get equipment back on the ground.”

The flip sides, of course, are the benefits from the rain. “Despite the challenges,” he concluded, “we are glad to have the rain, 39.73 inches to date since October at our ranch.” Twice this amount has been recorded at Rocky Butte, in the upper watershed above the Pedotti ranch.

Hearst, from Cambria to the Monterey County line

Stephen “Steve” Hearst is another fifth-generation rancher, but his family is probably better known for the holdings, wealth, art and influence of his great-grandfather, media magnate William Randolph Hearst, who also founded the vast Hearst Corp.

Corporation vice president Steve Hearst loves the 83,000-acre ranch and can talk about it and its grass-fed beef by the hour.

Of the five-year drought, Hearst said by phone March 11, “You know, if God doesn’t water the lawn, we’ve got trouble.” Now, with all the rain, the “lawn” looks great. “We’re in really good shape for grass.”

After nearly 40 inches of rainfall, many of Hearst Ranch’s 309 miles of roads “are impassible” he said of the “catastrophic road failures … it’ll be a lot of work, putting the roads and culverts back.”

Last week, we gathered cattle, taking them down the canyon road. Then they came back at us. There was a huge tree across the trail, and they couldn’t get through.

Joy Fitzhugh, Cambria rancher

Last summer’s Chimney Fire torched thousands of acres of the ranch, followed by the winter’s heavy rains. Hearst said, “We have to build and rebuild 25 miles of fence, which is a million bucks.”

“The creek encroached on the corrals” in one area, and runoff carved a 15-foot ditch in one corral. Despite those setbacks, Hearst said, the ranch’s cowboys were able to complete the branding in January — it helps to have 17 corrals from which to choose.

Hearst said that, after lots of rain, “hay prices fall like a stone, because nobody needs it. And the price of cattle goes up,” in part because so many ranchers rebuild their herds from historic lows during the drought.

He and Ben Higgins, director of agricultural operations, will be restocking the herds at Hearst Ranch and Jack Ranch in Cholame. Hearst estimated they’re currently running “just south of 1,000 head at San Simeon and just south of 3,000 on the Jack Ranch.” He said that about 50 percent of the 83,000 acre Hearst Ranch is grazeable, and about 92 percent of the Jack Ranch is.

But there’s always a downside in agriculture, it seems. Hearst said eavy rain also produces lots of clover and other “hot” feed that can stop up a cow’s digestive system, to put it politely.

Stolo’s grapes, Santa Rosa Creek Road, Cambria

In the winter stormy siege, one local crop that wasn’t severely affected was grapes. But timing is crucial.

Nicole Pope, winemaker for the Stolo Family Vineyards and Winery on Santa Rosa Creek Road, said by phone March 13 that their vines were dormant during that period, and harvest was complete before the rains hit. Now “the vines are taking up water and taking in nutrition,” courtesy of the rainfall.

Vine pruning was delayed by the storms, “because you can’t prune during the rain,” she said. “You’re not supposed to prune a few days ahead of the rain” because water on the cut vines is a bad thing, and, until recently, there hadn’t been enough consecutive dry days in between the storms.

Pope has been with the winery since 2011. The operation has 23 acres planted, she said, specializing in pinot noir, cool-climate syrah and Gewurztraminer, but also producing chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

Salts can build up, so the rain kind of clears out the soils so there’s less mineral buildup.

Nicole Pope, Stolo Family winemaker

Stolo soils “drain really well,” she said, even “in the newer planting area across the street, in a flat area nearer the creek.”

After several years of drought, “the rain helped the soil,” Pope said. “Salts can build up, so the rain kind of clears out the soils so there’s less mineral buildup.”

However, tentative predictions for more rain for the week of March 20 are a concern. The vines have started “bud break,” Pope said, which is the precursor to having leaves, then blooms, then grapes.

How will the soggy winter affect the wine? “We won’t know until we pick the crop and ferment the grapes,” she said. “There’s a potential for more fruity, more tannin. But it’s hard to say, with so many factors. Overall,” she said, echoing the other agriculturists, “we can say we’re happy it rained as much as it did.”

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