Walt Ryan and Sharon Doughty share a great deal in common. Their family roots run deep in the hills of western Marin and Sonoma counties. Each is trying to save an 800-acre family farm for the next generation. Ryan runs a large herd of beef cows and Doughty operates a dairy. Both are feeling the pressure to become more creative on the business side and more responsive to concerns about environmental quality.

That is what led them to the University of California's Cooperative Extension Service (UCCE) in Sonoma County, where advisors Stephanie Larson and David Lewis have been able to help them find the answers they're seeking.

Ryan's great-great-grandfather founded the ranch 114 years ago. “My family has had this property a long time,” he said. “The problem I'm faced with is I need to find an economic niche.”

“You would think an 800-acre ranch would be a viable unit,” Larson said. She is working with her UC colleagues and the county agricultural commissioner's office to develop a program that will certify grass-fed beef from Sonoma and neighboring Marin County. It should fetch a retail premium and help shore up Ryan's bottom line.

“It's not for everyone, but it's perfect for Walt,” Larson said.

Creek fenced off

Largely at the urging of his late sister, Pat, Ryan took advantage of the educational outreach and field-level research available through the county UCCE office. Faye Creek runs through the Ryan Ranch. Today 3,000 feet of it is fenced off from a neighboring pasture, the result of Larson's involvement in brokering a win-win situation with state fish and game officials and local environmentalists who wanted to ensure that salmon and steelhead habitat was protected.

“We contacted Fish and Game and told them we'd fence the creek, but they had to recognize that this was our water source,” Ryan said. They compromised and left access to two “beaches” along Faye Creek where the cows can get to the water if need be. The beaches probably won't be needed because Ryan has also installed a solar-powered well to pump groundwater from near the creek upslope to troughs for the cattle. This improves grazing management by more evenly distributing cattle.

With Larson's help they were able to obtain financial assistance from the local Resource Conservation District, funds obtained courtesy of the Coastal Conservancy. “Every situation is different,” she said, “but in this case everyone is happy.”

New breed advisor

Larson, who was raised on a sheep ranch in Idaho and wanted to become a county Extension agent her whole life, says she's much more involved in this type of watershed work than the more traditional production fare of years ago. But that's true of much of UC Cooperative Extension today.

David Lewis is one of a new breed of Cooperative Extension county advisors. Three years ago he was appointed watershed advisor for the North Coast, the first UCCE advisor to have an issue-oriented assignment. But watershed work covers a varied cross-section of environmental issues — wildland conversion, endangered species and sedimentation, for instance. And Doughty's dairy, along the eastern shore of Tomales Bay, provided a golden opportunity to bring UC's problem-solving experts to an area with a contentious past.

The Tomales drainage gets a great deal of scrutiny from regulatory agencies because water from dairies flows into the long, narrow bay formed by the San Andreas Fault, where several shellfish operations thrive. Concern about bacteria in runoff leads to annual closures of these operations. Finding solutions to the situation meant getting to the source of the problem at the dairies, not an easy task because of past history. The Tomales Bay Watershed Council, which UCCE had a significant role in creating, helped tremendously in bringing various interests to the table and creating an atmosphere of trust, avoiding lawsuits and charting a course of consensus rather than confrontation.

Lewis, who first developed an appreciation for Extension work in Africa as a volunteer with the Peace Corps, sees his role as one of opening the door to the resources that can help people solve real-world problems.

“It's my job to help identify the questions with which our faculty members can assist through their knowledge and skills,” he said. “This is the heart of the Cooperative Extension mission — research-based education and science-based solutions.”

Problem to scale

UCCE Rangeland Watershed Specialist Ken Tate and Extension Veterinarian Rob Atwill, have been key in breaking down the problem from the watershed level to a more manageable, on-farm scale, where the units of measure are lots, corrals and pastures. Now, a formerly barren area on the Doughty dairy is mulched and seeded with rye grass. A supplemental feeding station lures ambling dairy cows up the hill away from an ephemeral stream. Spillways have been repaired. Pipes buried. And a recirculating water system flushes out the dairy barn.

“A lot of this isn't rocket science,” Lewis says. “But it is making a difference. We've been able to document that. The two points of entry we have to manage water quality are the concentration of pollutants and the volume of runoff water. The measures taken by Sharon and others are having beneficial effects on both of these.”

Doughty said she is delighted at the work of Lewis, Tate and others from UC. “I took a chance that they would keep their word,” she said. “The practices they've suggested are reasonable.”

Because of the success here, the UC team has been able to expand its efforts to nine other dairies and ranches in the Tomales Bay watershed.