Van Vleck Ranch News

Fenced In Ranchers face an agonizing choice: Stay and struggle, or sell and leave.

Posted on May 03, 2016

By   Mary Lynne Vellinga
Bee Staff Writer

The call came just three days after Stan Van Vleck's father died in a helicopter crash.

On the line was a man who said he represented a developer. Given the circumstances, he asked, did Van Vleck want to sell his family's 5,000-acre ranch?

"I said, 'I can't believe you're calling; my father hasn't even been buried,'" Van Vleck said.

The man called several more times over the next month, and Van Vleck kept saying no. His father, also named Stanley, had entrusted him to keep the eastern Sacramento County ranch together, and he was determined to do so, even though the business was producing little profit and would be a major distraction from his job as a lobbyist and lawyer in downtown Sacramento.

By deciding to remain in ranching after his father's September 2000 accident, the 37-year-old Van Vleck chose a difficult and unusual course. These days, he said, the children of ranchers tend to flee the physically demanding and economically marginal business.

Van Vleck himself went off to college at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in part to avoid spending his life digging fence post holes in 110-degree heat. Instead of coming back to the ranch full time, he became a lawyer and joined a Sacramento firm - Kahn, Soares & Conway - that represents much of California agriculture.

"Building fence just makes you know there's got to be something better," Van Vleck said.

A golden hill dotted with oak trees and grazing cattle may be the prototypical Northern California landscape, but such vistas are dwindling. Many thousands of acres of grazing land in the Sacramento region have been developed in recent years or sold to land speculators who one day hope to develop.

Privately held grazing acreage in Sacramento and western Placer and El Dorado counties dropped by 13 percent between 1988 and 2000 - from 432,816 to 375,944 acres, the state Department of Conservation said.

Cattle once roamed the hills of Serrano, the El Dorado County development that now boasts luxury golf course homes. Vast stretches of Folsom, Roseville and Rocklin are being built on former family ranches that once covered thousands of acres.

"There's just hardly anybody left," said Chuck Bacchi, 59, whose family has been ranching in El Dorado County since 1852.

That kind of change is just beginning to arrive in eastern Sacramento County. Aside from the isolated community of Rancho Murieta, just across Jackson Highway from the Van Vleck property, the county supervisors have refused to allow urban development beyond the growth boundary established in the 1993 general plan. The Van Vleck ranch sits about 10 miles beyond that boundary on Jackson Highway and Ione Road.

But speculators are betting the boundary eventually will be moved. In 2000, developer C.C. Myers spent more than $2 million on an unsuccessful ballot initiative that would have allowed him to build a golf course enclave for seniors just north of Rancho Murieta.

More recently, the city of Folsom succeeded in getting 3,600 acres of undeveloped prairie and oak woodlands just south of Highway 50 included in its sphere of influence - a precursor to eventual annexation and development.

The growth pressure has left environmental groups and county officials scrambling to figure out a way to protect open space in eastern Sacramento County. Although the east county does not have the prime agricultural soil found in other parts of the region, it is home to some of the area's most scenic vistas, an important watershed and habitat for endangered species.

Opinions differ as to the best way to keep it open. But most who support open space agree that keeping ranches viable is the best way to preserve large tracts of land from development.

"The open space, ecological and watershed values of our grasslands are beyond measure; they're so important," said Mike Eaton, director of The Nature Conservancy's Cosumnes River and Delta projects. "By and large, the cattle industry are good stewards of that landscape. It would be a shame to lose that."

But it's gotten harder to make good money in the ranching business. Beef prices are down because of competition from other meats and beef grown in other countries, ranchers said. A market recovery vanished last fall when the outbreak of mad cow disease in Japan sharply cut beef consumption there.

Ranchers also have seen their share of industry revenue decline because of increasing dominance of the market by a few large processors and purchasers, such as McDonald's, who can hold wholesale prices down.

"For every dollar spent on beef (by consumers), we're now down to 43 cents, whereas a decade ago it was much higher," Bacchi said. "We have no negotiating power."

California ranchers face additional challenges. The state has no slaughterhouse, meaning transportation costs are higher. And the high price of land means ranchers here can't expand as easily. They also face more temptation to sell.

Armed with his experience as a lawyer and lobbyist, Van Vleck has emerged as an articulate voice for Sacramento County ranchers. Earlier this year, he was selected to represent ranchers in El Dorado, Sacramento and Amador counties on the board of the statewide California Cattlemen's Association.

In east Sacramento County, he said, the push and pull between developers dangling dollars and defenders of open space has left ranchers in a difficult position.

Most of them would hate to see their land turned into subdivisions, Van Vleck said. At the same time, they fiercely oppose any county effort to designate their property as valuable open space. "We don't want the county to come and use us as the open-space dumping ground," he said.

Having their land designated as permanent open space - stripping it of the potential for development - would severely undercut its value, he said, and actually could hurt ranchers' ability to remain in business. Lines of credit are secured by the land. When its value drops, so does a rancher's ability to borrow.

Van Vleck said ranchers also fear that eliminating the development option could trap them in a business in which it has become difficult to turn a profit.

"If you're in your late 50s, and your kids are off doing things in other cities, it's not fair for me to say you have to stay in farming," Van Vleck said.

He belongs to a newly formed group of east county ranchers who support government programs that would pay them to keep their land undeveloped for a certain period, but not lock them in permanently.

In this vein, Van Vleck has contributed $5,500 to the campaign for Proposition 51, a controversial transportation funding initiative on the ballot Tuesday. The measure, sponsored by the Planning and Conservation League, would divert about $1 billion annually from the state general fund for transportation and open space projects. About $1.5 million annually would go for grants to eastern Sacramento County ranchers who manage their land in an ecologically sensitive way.

"We have to figure out a better way to do this to survive," Van Vleck said. "It's not going to do it to just keep breaking even every year."

The Van Vleck family is one in a small group of remaining east county ranching families whose roots in the area stretch back for generations.

His wife, Nicole Montna Van Vleck, is a farmer. The Montna family has been growing rice in Sutter County since the 1800s. Nicole manages the Montna family operation and runs her own 500-acre rice farm.

Parked near a barn on the Van Vleck ranch is a covered wagon that served as a mess tent in the 1859 wagon train that brought Van Vleck's great-great grandfather, Amos Van Vleck, and his family from Wisconsin to a new homestead on Apple Hill.

A lone oak tree on a nearby hill shaded his grandfather, Orin Van Vleck, when he came scouting for a new ranch in 1915. Van Vleck saw the valley spread out below and decided to buy it. He moved his family to Sacramento County two years later.

Until the 1950s, the family used horses to drive their cattle up Highway 50, then a two-lane road, to their summer pastures at Tells Peak, near Lake Tahoe.

Later, the cattle were brought to the mountains by truck. In the 1970s, the family sold the Tahoe land and used the money to irrigate pasture in Sacramento County so the cows could stay there in the summer.

Stan Van Vleck Sr., who was 79 when he died, was known for welcoming large groups onto his land, something many other ranchers are reluctant to do. The Boy Scouts use the ranch every year for a mass camp out. Members of the National Guard practice landing helicopters on its hilly terrain.

The elder Van Vleck also pursued an eclectic list of ventures not related to cattle to boost his bottom line. Cattle sales actually account for less than half the annual income at the ranch.

His ongoing legacy includes two paintball operations that lease land on the ranch, a horse club, a campground along the Cosumnes River, a clay-mining operation and a soil-reclamation operation that involves smoothing down the jagged hills left by hydraulic gold mining and selling the leftover sand and gravel.

"He said, 'I won't sell my land, but I will give people the opportunity to use it,' " Stan Van Vleck said of his father.

Still, the place just "pretty much breaks even," Van Vleck said. It generates enough money to pay Jerry Spencer, the ranch manager Van Vleck hired after his father died, and four other employees. His father's widow, Lynn Van Vleck, continues to live and work on the ranch.

Stan Van Vleck works full time at his job in Sacramento. He and Nicole live with their children, Christian, 4, and Tori, 18 months, in Land Park on a street lined with stately old homes. He goes to the ranch on Fridays, mostly to take care of administrative tasks such as paying bills and filling out paperwork.

He and Spencer have been trying to figure out ways to make the ranch more profitable. Selling more of their beef to organic or gourmet meat companies is a possibility, but Van Vleck isn't sure the market is big enough yet.

He said the biggest threat to success at the moment comes from the county. He recently received a notice that the paintball operation needs a recreational use permit. Other facilities, such as the rental campground and horse club, may need them, too.

"If they come back and say we have to stop everything except for normal ranching operations, that's going to cause problems," Van Vleck said.

Tricia Stevens, a principal planner with the county, said she's evaluating the ranch operations. "We'll do whatever the fair thing is to do," she said.

Stan and Nicole Van Vleck said they want to keep the family ranch intact long enough to pass it on to the next generation, whose members scampered around the covered wagon one recent afternoon. Tori Van Vleck, a sturdy toddler, stomped around in little cowboy boots and a pink shirt with a horse decal.

"It's important what we have here," Stan Van Vleck said. "I'm betting part of my life on it."

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The Bee's Mary Lynne Vellinga can be reached at (916) 321-1094 or