Agriculture, Food, Land Protection, Ranching

Chileno Valley Ranch: A Story of Partnership and Conservation

May 29, 2019

Here at MALT, we use the word forever a lot.

When we sign an agricultural conservation easement with a landowner, we confirm our responsibility to uphold the standard of that agreement in perpetuity. The moment we sign, in addition to extinguishing the development rights, it becomes our legal responsibility to protect and conserve the natural and agricultural values of that property — with the invaluable partnership of the landowners — forever.

Forever, as it turns out, happens one project at a time.

Chileno Valley Ranch

Chileno Valley Ranch, nestled in the iconic valley of the same name just west of Petaluma, is a wonderful example of how much can be achieved over the course of nearly three decades, and of the vital role MALT can play in reinvigorating a ranch.

The ranch is also a spectacular testament to the hardworking and visionary owners-operators, Sally and Mike Gale.

Sally and Mike Gale began running this 586-acre ranch in 1993, after Sally’s mother gave it to her; the property was originally purchased by Sally’s great-great-grandfather, Swiss immigrant Carlo Martinoia. Sally and Mike’s first project was restoring the historic home on the property, a heroic undertaking in and of itself.

The MALT Partnership

In 2000, after tackling the house restoration and innumerable other infrastructure repair projects — from miles of fencing to roofing fixes — they partnered with MALT to protect the ranch from development forever. They leveraged the capital from the conservation easement to restore the barn and purchase their first herd of beef cattle, the final push in a chapter of the ranch’s history that Sally refers to as the “infrastructure years.” That move enabled them to put their land back into active agriculture, or, as Sally says, “It’s MALT that helped us get our start.”

A History of Conservation Partnerships

Over the next 19 years Sally and Mike have worked toward ambitious conservation goals, including: increasing carbon sequestration, reducing sediment in Tomales Bay, increasing the water retention and health of their soil, restoring riparian areas and enhancing wildlife habitat. And their ranch boasts the conservation projects to prove it.

Their first big endeavor was the restoration of Chileno Creek, which runs through their property into Walker Creek and ultimately Tomales Bay. With the help of the Marin Resource Conservation District (Marin RCD), the Gales planted native trees and shrubs along the banks, creating nesting bird habitat, improving water quality and retention for migrating steelhead and salmon, and reducing sediment in this important waterway. The restoration of this creek has slowed the water’s flow, and each winter when it floods their lower pastures it enriches that earth with a host of nutrients.

Sally and Mike then partnered with PRBO Conservation Science (now Point Blue Conservation Science) and the Marin RCD to monitor birds on the ranch. They host a bird count annually; a recent survey on their ranch found an impressive 33 species using the restored creek corridor in a single spring.

Sally relishes the return of the barn swallows after each winter, watching them from the porch as they gather mud for their nests in the barn rafters. Birds respond quickly to changes in their environment and serve as evidence that the ecosystem is thriving. “I keep seeing new birds,” says Sally. “Now we have lazuli buntings and yellow warblers. It is so exciting!”

After restoring Chileno Creek some 20 years ago, Sally and Mike set their sights on the creek’s tributaries that run through their property. In 2008, with support and funding from MALT’s Stewardship Assistance Program (SAP) and Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed (STRAW), they fenced and planted three gullies that run down their hillside toward Chileno Creek. They’ve tackled the planting and fencing of a few more gullies entirely on their own. These drainages bisect smaller livestock pastures, and stabilizing them by planting native trees and shrubs has helped to reduce erosion during the winter and has provided refuge for nesting birds and other wildlife.

As if they weren’t busy enough, Sally and Mike also actively manage invasive weeds on their land, a sometimes daunting task. But, with some good advice from partners and some support from MALT, they’ve been able to prioritize their resources in a thoughtful and systematic way. As Mike puts it, “We got this land in trust, and it’s our responsibility to leave it better.”

The Importance of Partnerships

Sally, who has been on the Marin RCD board for the past 20 years, credits partners, and not herself, with the ranch’s success. The story here, she says, is one of partnership.

Yes, she and Mike have a vision. Yes, they are hardworking. But without critical funding, sound advice and community support along the way, none of this would have been possible she says. “These projects turn out so wonderfully that we just keep wanting to do more,” she says. Independent of any projects on the ranch, Mike has found the time to serve as a board member for MALT, a founding board member for Marin Organic and, many years back, president of the Marin Farm Bureau.

Stewards of the Land

Over the years, we at MALT have been able to see firsthand the multiple benefits of protecting — and stewarding — farmland for the long term. Sally and Mike’s ranch is one example of many. And we could not be more proud to offer our support and expertise along the way. As Sally puts it:

“We try to do what is right for the land, our animals, the wildlife we share this land with and the community that sustains us. We realize that the land will be here long after we are gone. We want to be good stewards in partnership with all those in our community who care for this beautiful place.”

MALT is excited to continue working on conservation projects with Sally and Mike’s family, and all MALT families, for years and years to come. For forever, actually.

Support Chileno Valley Ranch

Chileno Valley Ranch sells beef and lamb directly to customers, in addition to hosting u-pick apple days in the fall. For more information, visit: mikeandsallygalebeefranch.com.