AFT Awardee Embraces Stewardship
In San Luis Obispo County on the central coast of California, rolling rangeland is rapidly being converted to terraced hillsides for suburban homes. At Steve Sinton’s 18,000-acre ranch, however, the focus is on conserving the undeveloped land that remains. Sinton has enrolled his ranch in the state’s Williamson Act Program, which encourages landowners to voluntarily keep their land in agriculture, and he has dedicated much of his time to developing conservation strategies for his land and other California ranches.
Sinton was awarded American Farmland Trust’s 2005 Steward of the Land award for his environmental stewardship and dedication to conservation. By protecting the range, re-generating native trees and making the best use of rainfall and irrigation, Sinton’s stewardship focuses on the practical. After a drought in the 1970s wiped out his pastures, Sinton and his father Jim overhauled how the family runs cattle. Today, he monitors range conditions and stocks the pasture at densities that support it, not decimate it. He also changed the ranch’s schedule, selling calves sooner—at the calf stage rather than yearling—if conditions so dictate.
You have to graze at the right level,” he says. “Our philosophy is to leave enough grass so that if it doesn’t rain until February, the herd can make it.” Sinton currently runs about 500 cow-calf pairs, plus another 400 head of yearlings.
Sinton and his wife Jane also manage 125 acres of vineyards on their land. Sinton’s unique vineyard trellising system maximizes his ability to grow and harvest grapes. Jane Sinton markets their premium wine grapes to vintners in the Napa and Sonoma valleys and on California’s Central Coast.
With his love of trees, Sinton has tried to revive native species like oak and sycamore. He applied for and received funding from a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service program to improve his cattle habitat. As an offshoot, he is considering studying the impact of his herds on a stand of sycamore trees, a project he might launch if and when the federal government awards so-called “green payments” to ranchers trying to do the right thing.
“We’re pretty set on the size of our vineyard, our cattle system is set, so we’re focusing on taking better care of our plants, wildlife and the soil,” Sinton says. “It’s a lifestyle decision. We’re trying to run our ranch in a way that’s land-healthy.”
AFT is working with federal lawmakers to encourage a shift in agricultural subsidies from commodity payments to supporting conservation on farms and ranches.
“Most farmers and ranchers truly want to be good stewards,” he says. “They want to do things well, not just for now but for the future. It is a challenge to do so, though, when there are policies that limit conservation funding yet support prices for crops in surplus. We need a farm policy that encourages everyone in agriculture to be excellent stewards of their land.”
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