March 19, 2020 BY MARKIE HAGEMAN

“It had to be the Rangeland Trust,” Don Tompkins exclaimed as he talked about he and his wife’s decision to partner with the Rangeland Trust. Don has close ties to members and friends of the organization. He even attended college with several ranchers who partnered with the Rangeland Trust to conserve their ranches early on. 

“John Lacey and I were classmates at Cal Poly. I have a picture where we’re standing side by side in the Boots and Spurs club. There were a bunch of us that were classmates at Cal Poly together and that meant a lot to me.”

Don and Merrie Tompkins are the charmingly dynamic duo of the TS Ranch, a commercial cow-calf operation nestled in the foothills of Guinda in Yolo County, California. The sprawling 3,496-acre ranch was taken over by Don in 1976 but was first purchased by Don’s father and mother, Henry Willis and Mabel Tompkins, in 1948. There were many reasons why they wanted to ensure the conservation of their ranch forever. “Not only because of the history but also to keep it as an open range and in ranching forever. This is all ranchland for cattle, and it has been that way since the early 1800s,” Merrie stated.

Image of Don and Merrie Thompkins
Don and Merrie Thompkins are the charmingly dynamic duo of the TS Ranch.

Both Don and Merrie are self-proclaimed history buffs that care deeply about their roots. Most people don’t buy two separate gun safes just to fill them with genealogy binders documenting years of family history dating back to the 1300s, but that’s precisely what the Tompkins did. The fear of repeating history, however, was reason enough to protect their land.

Don’s great-grandfather built a 5,306-acre ranch in Peachtree Valley in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, when the land was dispersed to the grandchildren, only a fifth of the land remained in the family. The rest of the ranch was sold, and the grandchildren moved away. Don somberly explained how he didn’t want his ranch to face the same fate. 

“Some members of the family lost every bit of their property because their kids weren’t interested in taking it over. Because of all that and growing up knowing all that, and because I love the history of the family, that’s why. When the Rangeland Trust came into activity, I was one of those applicants… That’s our story. It all goes back to that ranch.”
Image of Merrie displaying family pictures
Merrie points to a photograph of Don’s parents.

The TS Ranch’s wide-ranging history runs much deeper than the Tompkins, though. What is now land for a cattle operation once served as a haven for an African-American community who farmed the land as a source of income in the 1800s. Merrie said she keeps in touch with descendants of these families and mentioned how they used to farm livestock and tree crops on the very hills where the cattle now roam today.

Deep rooted in history, it’s obvious that the land on the TS Ranch holds great value to numerous families. Conserving the ranch will not only preserve the memories already made by past and current generations, it will also allow for future generations to create memories of their own.

Don and Merrie have high hopes for the future of the land and find comfort in knowing it will be taken care of when they are gone. Their son, Mark, with the help of their daughter, Marylyn, will uphold family traditions and management practices once they take over the operation. “He plans to lease it out with the same kind of practice that we’re doing now,” Don said. Those practices are the same ones Don learned from his father. Their son, while not in the cattle business himself, still helps by building fence, “up to my standards,” according to Don, and completes chores when Don and Merrie can’t do them. He knows how the land should be managed and will keep it well cared for.

Image of the TS ranch in Yolo County
The 3,496-acre TS Ranch in Yolo County.

As for right now, the couple is looking forward to refurbishing a wooden barn and extending another hay barn. Both projects will help them keep up with their daily tasks. Don and Merrie are ages 85 and 82, respectively. Their ages might seem like an inhibitor to living a ranching lifestyle, but they don’t show any signs of slowing down. After 59 years of marriage, they have a system down. “He drives the truck for all the hauling of the water, and I get the gates,” said Merrie. They have worked hard to manage the land Don’s father left to them, and it shows in their dedication to conserving the ranch. A large portion of the easement value was donated by the Tompkins, rather than receiving total easement funding, to ensure the ranch’s continuity after their passing. Additional funding came from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, along with funds raised by the Rangeland Trust.

In an emotional confession, Merrie told of her promise to Don’s father regarding the ranch. 

“I made a promise to his dad on his deathbed, because his dad, his mother, and I were close. I made a promise to him, before he passed with cancer, that I would work my best to keep this a ranch and carry on his wishes that he was already doing. I told him I would do it. He knew I would keep the promise.”

With the Rangeland Trust’s partnership, Merrie and Don fulfilled their promise.