Steve Sinton, a fourth generation rancher of San Luis Obispo County, Calif., is being recognized for his lifelong commitment to conservation and dedication to furthering good stewardship practices throughout California. Sinton is the winner of American Farmland Trust's 2005 Steward of the Land Award, the largest nationwide award for land conservation and stewardship. He was to be presented with the $10,000 prize at a ceremony near his ranch on May 17.

“Throughout America there are farmers for whom protecting agricultural land is more than a worthwhile goal — it's a lifelong commitment,” said Ralph Grossi, President of American Farmland Trust (AFT), an organization committed to strengthening the future of American agriculture and increasing the public benefit from federal farm policies. “Steve is one such farmer, leading not only by example on his own ranch, but also actively working to promote land stewardship throughout California. His tireless efforts are helping to ensure the future of agriculture in his state and the U.S.”

Fifth generation

Sinton is a fifth generation California agriculturist and fourth generation cattle rancher, but his efforts extend far beyond his own fencerows. Sinton played an integral role in helping to form the California Rangeland Trust, California's statewide agricultural land trust formed by the members of the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA).

In 1998, a newly appointed board of directors for the Rangeland Trust elected Sinton to serve as the organization's founding chairman, an office he held for two terms. Under his leadership, the Rangeland Trust grew from a start-up nonprofit with no staff to a statewide organization that currently holds more than 170,000 acres in conservation easements on working cattle ranches.

“The benefits from rewarding good stewardship are enormous,” continued Grossi. “The Steward of the Land Award was created to recognize ranchers like Steve and to help increase awareness about how rewarding good stewardship produces a greater diversity of public benefits and conserves land for future generations. There are thousands of farmers across the country who would like to engage in better conservation practices but currently lack the needed public financial support. That's one of the many reasons why AFT is working hard for a farm policy that supports farmers like Steve.”

Throughout his 18,000 acres of ranchland and 125 acres of vineyards, Sinton utilizes a variety of innovative practices to promote sustainability and protect the environment. He has participated in experiments with cover crops and erosion control, and has employed a unique trellising method in his vineyards that helps to balance the canopy to fruit ratio, which allows for naturally higher yields and quality of fruit. Sinton and his wife Jane market their premium wine grapes to vintners in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys and on the Central Coast of California.

Additionally, Sinton protects his own ranch from development by enrolling it in the state's Williamson Act program, which allows private landowners to work with local governments to voluntarily keep their land in agriculture. Sinton and his family also played an important role in providing habitat for the reintroduction of the California condor on parts of his ranch, fighting successfully for the federal designation of the Machesna Wilderness Area, a nesting ground for the condor that includes parts of Sinton's ranch.

“Running a diversified ranching operation is obviously a full time occupation,” said Nita Vail, executive director of the California Rangeland Trust, who nominated Steve Sinton for AFT's award. “While Steve's on-the-ground accomplishments are matched in few places in California, it is his policy and community contributions in combination with the conservation-oriented management of his own ranch that make him an outstanding candidate for this award. Steve's generous leadership is a model for other farming and ranching community leaders.”

“Throughout California, we see ranchlands being bulldozed, hillsides being terraced, century-old trees being replaced by landscaping and wildlife being displaced by condos,” said Sinton. “Our farmlands and ranchlands are critical to the survival of local communities and businesses, our nation's ability to feed ourselves and the preservation of clean water and wildlife habitat.”

In addition to his service to the Rangeland Trust, Sinton has served as the vice-chairman of the CCA Land Use Committee where he led the CCA to change its ruling opposing the use of conservation easements on private land (a move that prompted other statewide organizations to follow suit). Sinton regularly partners with the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) on studies investigating oak tree regeneration, grazing, and erosion control. He is also a member of the Central Coast Vineyard Team that has created a system of self-analysis to promote research and innovative, environmentally friendly practices involving vineyard sustainability.

“It seems to me that people with a historical connection to the land not only care more about it, but also understand it best,” continued Sinton. “That's why it's so important to support conservation organizations that help ranchers and farmers preserve their family farms. By protecting our farmland, we enable subsequent, knowledgeable generations to continue their way of life and maintain not only the soil and habitat, but also the working landscapes that make this country so beautiful.”

Sinton is a graduate of Stanford University and the University of Colorado Law School. He practiced water and environmental law in Sacramento for five years before returning to San Luis Obispo County in 1978 to continue his practice and help manage the family's two cattle ranches (both cow-calf operations) with his parents, Norma and Jim. Steve and Jane have two children, Julie, age 27 and Daniel, 24, who are still pursuing careers, but love working on the ranch, becoming the fifth generation on the same land.

American Farmland Trust's Steward of the Land Award was created in 1997 in honor of farmer and conservationist Peggy McGrath Rockefeller, a founding AFT board member who cared deeply about protection and conservation of the nation's farm and ranch land. Steve Sinton is the ninth American farmer to win this award.