Along the winding hilly roads south of Livermore is a family-owned ranch much like any other: eight black Angus cattle grazing the field, leggy baby blue oaks encircled by protective fencing, and rows of milkweed and asteria near the barn. The Calhoun sisters’ ranch is their pride and joy—and it’s also the Alameda county conservationist’s.
The cattle have been made to graze evenly: they’re contributing to wildfire risk reduction with every bit of fuel they munch, a strategy that’s incentivized by a U.S. Department of Agriculture fund called the Conservation Stewardship Program. The flowers belong to a pollinator garden that the local resource conservation district helped fund. The little oaks are experimental subjects being assessed for their hardiness, planted by researchers from Point Blue, the conservation nonprofit. In the six years since they inherited this land from their parents, the three sisters Nancy Mueller, Merry Carter, and Susie Calhoun—fourth-generation ranchers—have been hustling to improve this place where they grew up, not only as ranchland but as wildlife habitat.
And many of their efforts have been made possible by an array of federal conservation programs designed to help farmers conserve their land, increase biodiversity and join the fight against climate change—programs that have recently been given a boost.
About this project: Bay Nature is reporting on funding for nature in BIL and IRA. Tell us what you think or send us a tip at email@example.com, and read more at our Wild Billions project page.
About the Conservation Stewardship Program: These USDA grants are evaluated annually. There’s no fixed deadline, and applications simply roll over to the next year. The next batch of applicants will be evaluated on March 22, 2024. CSP and other NRCS grants in California are listed here.
Today, standing in the barn before a row of five binders documenting their conservation efforts, Mueller notes that their ranch has recently been certified by California Audubon as bird-friendly—the first one in the Bay Area, and the fourth in California.
“Our mother would be thrilled. Just absolutely thrilled,” Mueller says. Their mother, Marilyn Tilli Holm, is the sisters’ inspiration. She was a lover of monarchs and wildflowers whose bird sketches now decorate the walls of the barn. “Our mother used to take us down to Pacific Grove to see the monarchs, so it’s drilled in our DNA,” Carter says. “We need to save them.”
Outside of their barn, the Calhoun sisters tend to a pollinator garden where a monarch hatched this past year. (Clockwise from top: Anushuya Thapa, Courtesy of Nancy Mueller, Anushuya Thapa)
Funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP—the money that’s helping bring bees and birds to the ranch—has recently doubled, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. Agency officials at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers the grant, will need more than twice as many applicants as they had last year to spend all the money. Any money they can’t spend, they will have to give back. And with no additional time or budget for outreach efforts this year, federal officials are hoping that ranchers like the Calhouns will spread the word about what this money can do.
“This allows for farmers, producers, et cetera to be able to actually do conservation, where maybe they couldn’t afford to do it on their own,” says Rose Collins, assistant conservationist at the NRCS office in Alameda County.
While many farmers participate in NRCS programs, few have dived as deeply into the conservation world as these sisters.
CSP is just the latest pact in their long partnership with the NRCS. It pays private land managers for committing to five-year plans for conservation and eco-friendly resource management on their land. Through CSP, farmers and ranchers, including those leasing land, can be paid at fixed rates—such as 20 cents per foot of wildlife-friendly fencing, or over $800 per acre for monarch-friendly habitat—with a maximum total annual award per ranch of $40,000. Each grant lasts for five years, during which the awardees can rack up more repayments as they do more—for instance, installing bird boxes or raptor perches.
The Calhoun sisters have gotten really into it. From one of the five binders, Mueller pulls out a report she submitted to the NRCS last year. I expected bureaucratese, but it’s got more of a family scrapbook vibe. It’s filled with the sisters’ photos and one-sentence updates on eventful days (“7/2: Bumblebees come by the dozens to our flowering artichokes”), logs of rainfall (“1/013: Rain, 1/14: More rain!”) and outside ventures (“4/18: Had a booth at the Farm to School for 3rd Grade Classes”) that paint a picture of the vibrant lives of the three sisters, and the life that’s flowering on their ranch.
More grants than grantees
Despite the program’s appeal, NRCS officials have a tall allocation task ahead of them. Last year the agency awarded $10.2 million to about 175 applicants in California. This year they have $20 million to distribute, just in California. “We’re in a place where we have more money than we have applications,” says Brandon Bates, assistant state conservationist with NRCS. They really don’t want to have to send this money back to Congress. And by law, the amounts are fixed—they can’t just spend more on each farm.
Typically, they’re looking for awardees who have already made some conservation efforts, and often they see grantees who have come through the Environment Quality Incentives Program, an entry-level version of CSP. But doing one before the other is not a hard-and-fast rule, NRCS officials say.
Rose Collins (left), with NRCS, and Nancy Mueller go over the three sisters’ extensive history of collaboration with NRCS. (Anushuya Thapa)
“Who’s a good fit for the program? Really just someone that’s willing to do the work. That’s where we’re at,” Bates says.
Most partners, like the Calhoun sisters, come to the NRCS through word of mouth, according to Jonathan Groveman, the agency’s director of public affairs for California. NRCS meets with grower groups, who will then pass on funding opportunities to their members. Since the agency is non-regulatory—that is, it doesn’t enforce environmental regulations—NRCS officials need to be invited onto properties to work with new owners. This helps them work with farmers who may be mistrustful of government interference, but it also means NRCS needs potential partners to come to them first.
The Alameda county district conservationist, Alyson Aquino, says her NRCS office is not doing any additional outreach this year because officials don’t want to over-promise on what they can fulfill. “The IRA funding sources and stuff like that are new,” she says. “So we don’t really have a quick way to get that out to the community in a way where it’s clear.” Across California, Groveman notes that while IRA funds a lot more on-farm conservation, it doesn’t give NRCS any more money for outreach.
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This is climate-focused money
The IRA funding now accounts for more than half of the total EQIP and CSP funding—but it comes with some limitations. The new funds only support climate-smart agriculture practices, leaving out things like building irrigation systems. But Aquino, who oversees the program’s work in Alameda County, says that she’s been surprised by the variety of farm improvements that the climate money does fund.
“With all the research in recent years and information that’s coming out, people are realizing that well-managed grasslands sequester carbon,” Aquino says. Adding troughs and fence lines helps manage grazing, and keeps lands greener for longer portions of the year. “That’s the tie-in to IRA.”
The ranchers’ rewards
Participating in these programs has been a learning process for the Calhoun sisters. “We grew up on the land, we thought we knew the land,” Merry says. “But we didn’t know anything.” Though Mueller says these programs haven’t been huge for her bottom line, the knowledge gained from doing them has been invaluable. She estimates that CSP has amounted to about $2,000 each year; the sisters have kicked in some of their own money as well.
The 110-acre property is a modest ranch, with eight cattle and profits that just cover the costs, according to Nancy Mueller, pictured on the right. (Anushuya Thapa)
We leave the barn to see what they mean. Outside, a field of now-drying asteria and milkweed has been planted and carefully tended by the sisters. This past November, a monarch hatched on their ranch, after a pair had been spotted lingering on the wildflowers well past the usual time. It was an NRCS ecologist, Jackie Charbonneau, who first discovered milkweed on their property, and gave them the idea to plant more.
“It’s not every day that you get access to an ecologist, a biologist, to tell you what’s really going on the land,” Mueller says. “We’ve got a team of geniuses helping us.”
Over the years, that team has come together from all over: a bird specialist from Alameda’s Resource Conservation District, an NRCS rangeland specialist, the Point Blue oak researchers, and Xerces Society butterfly enthusiasts.
Since inviting experts onto their land, the sisters have learned that their ranch is home to multiple endangered species—like the California tiger salamander, the California red-legged frog, and at least two Western pond turtles, all of whom have made a home in the pond downhill from their barn.
Ian Howell, a resource conservationist at the Alameda Resource Conservation District, an agency that works closely with NRCS, helped plant some of that milkweed. “They’ve had a lot of great influence on some of their neighbors, who have also been like, “Oh, yeah, I’d love to do some milkweed plantings,”” Howell says.
Spreading the good word about conservation
The road down to the creek is just wide enough for the truck to roll onto. Its tires skitter small rocks into the brush, where a buck leaps away as it hears us approach. “It’s rutting season,” says Mueller, from behind the wheel. “They’re everywhere these days, chasing girls.” Later, she shows me a video of her latest conservation success: a row of deer. Fawns, then doe, and finally an antlered buck dip underneath a fence on her property, one by one. Their first ever NRCS grant, she explains, paid for the fencing, and ensured they’d be just the right height to let wildlife pass through. These days, they say they spot more bobcats on the property.
Mueller and Merry both acknowledge that not all farmers see milkweed and bobcats as a good sign. “The mindset from the past is to shoot and kill everything—mountain lions, coyotes,” Mueller says. “It’s like, ‘Gosh, you guys have to realize that they’re not gonna be there for your grandchildren.’ ” For Mueller, the divide is personal. She says members of her own family, who operate a separate ranch along the same road, see NRCS’s funding opportunities as handouts, and choose not to participate.
The sisters say they have been doing their part to change the culture. They post on social media and their personal blog about their conservation efforts. They have hosted other ranchers on their property to talk about pollinator-friendly habitat, hoping that their message, like yellow grains on bee legs, will carry from one ranch to the next.
But they, and the conservationists they work with, would like to reach people who live in the cities as well as other ag workers. Grazing and ranchland isn’t nature’s enemy. “When it comes to conservation, private landowners are critical,” says Howell, because ranches and farmlands are protecting some of the last bastions of open space. “If you don’t have valuable agricultural production on that land—that land’s going to get scooped up. It’s going to get developed.”
Update, Jan. 12: This story has been updated to correctly name the Natural Resources Conservation Service.