Jolley: Darrel Sweet – ranching California’s wine country

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Ranching is almost always a family business, sometimes stretching across several generations.  The Sweet Ranches, operated by Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) member Darrel Sweet and his wife, Karen, go back five generations with a sixth and seventh waiting in the wings.  The sixth generation includes son Eric and his wife, Michelle. They live on the ranch and work in nearby Livermore, California, just east of the San Francisco bay area.  Generation number seven is their children, Blake and Audrey. 

“This ranch is now a cow/calf stocker operation but it goes back to 1868,” Sweet told me.  “Part of the family came here from Nova Scotia and the other side traveled here from Missouri.” 

To understand the strong draw that led to a family heritage lasting almost 150 years, the Sweet Ranches website describes the place this way: “Located in the Diablo Range on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, the rangeland is excellent for cattle production and the ecosystem is very suitable for the numerous wildlife that depend upon open rangelands and riparian areas. Sweet Ranches are in the center of the Altamont Wind Resource Area, a major foraging area and flyway for raptors and other birds. It's also in the Diablo Range Wildlife Corridor.

"What makes it such good cow country is that assuming normal rainfall, we can keep a cow here year-round," Sweet says. "Closer to the Sierra foothills, cows have to be moved to summer range, but our cows summer well here on dry forage.  We have about 100 cows on 1,000 acres.”

Taking advantage of the favorable Mediterranean climate of the area, a lot of the nearby land is devoted to vineyards.  It’s also a great area for cattle.  His cows begin calving in September through about October.  The temperate climate and seasonal rains make for some lush pasture through the winter.  His cattle do very well on available forage and his calves are weaned in the early summer. They’re marketed through the Harris Ranch branded beef program.

Sweet has been very involved in cattlemen’s organizations, a trait shared by many CBB members.  He is a past President of the California Cattlemen's Association and a member and former Director of the Alameda County Resource Conservation District.  He’s also a member of the California Beef Council, California Rangeland Trust and the Contra Costa-Alameda Cattlemen's Association.

And, he serves on the checkoff’s newly formed global growth committee.  “When I was president of the California Cattlemen’s Association, our industry was hit by that BSE event and we lost export markets that we had been working hard to build since the 1980s.  Helping recover those markets has put a lot of dollars back into the pockets of American cattlemen.”

Like most cattlemen, Sweet can be called one of the original environmentalists. Taking care of the land is critical to his success and a good part of the reason behind his work with the Rangeland Trust which was founded by the California Cattlemen’s Association in 1998.

“The Rangeland Trust,” Sweet said, “has gotten the ranching community to the table with the environmental community. We can’t just sit at home on the farm or ranch and assume everything is going to be okay. We have to be at the table communicating with them every step of the way.

“We have over 300 endangered plants and animals in California,” he said.  “With over half the state being grazed, ranchers have to take steps to demonstrate to California’s 38 million residents the critical role we play in conservation and managing our state’s land resources.  California’s ranchers have voluntarily placed conservation easements on over 250,000 acres of their privately owned rangelands which are held by the California Rangeland Trust.  And there are another 500,000 acres on the Trust’s easement waiting list.”

He’s serious about communicating with the public, insisting the ranching community must have a good outreach program.  “We have to explain what we do and why to the public,” he said.

He’s opened his gates to tours by people from the nearby San Francisco/Oakland urban area, foreigners, tourists and the media, believing there is ‘no substitute for getting people out on a ranch to see what it really is.’

In 2010, he was appointed by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to serve a three-year term on the board.  He’s been reappointed and will begin his second term during the Cattle Industry Convention Feb.6-9, 2013 in Tampa, Fla. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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