Throughout the years and between the birth of six children, numerous state elections, and the welcoming of 14 grandchildren, the Touch the Earth Ranch, located in the hills of Calaveras County, has served as a haven for John and Patricia Garamendi and their family. All who have encountered it have been undoubtedly touched by the ranch’s peaceful serenity and scenic beauty.
Touch the Earth Ranch is a special place with a name that holds special meaning. In 1978, when John was first elected to the California State Senate, Dorothy Stanley, the tribal leader for the Tuolomne Me-Wuk Band of California Indians, visited the ranch. While touring the property, she came across a section of the land that the Me-Wuks consider sacred ground. Dorothy knelt down, felt the ground, and told the couple to name the ranch “Hye ya Nye Wall ye,” which means “Touch the Earth” in Me-Wuk.
As a state elected official, John worked with Dorothy on Native American and environmental issues for more than 30 years, right up until the time she passed away. Each time they were together, Dorothy reminded John and Patricia just how special the ranch is. “She always told us to protect this land, so we have always made sure to do that,” explained Patricia.
While the Garamendis stewarded their land with great care for the health of the ecosystem, they saw development encroaching on the working landscapes surrounding them. Meanwhile, Dorothy’s words remained in the back of their minds. “I realized we were losing precious ranchland, and it made me question how we were helping to solve this problem,” exclaimed Patricia.
In the late 1990’s, right around the time Patricia was appointed Assistant Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency by President Clinton, the family began researching options to protect their land, just as Dorothy had instructed. The Garamendi family started the conservation easement process with a different land trust, but once the California Rangeland Trust was formed in 1998, the choice of which organization would hold the easement was clear. In 1999, the Garamendis donated the development rights on their ranch to California Rangeland Trust.
“It was almost like [Dorothy] was sending down a blessing,” said Patricia. “At that moment, we knew this is what we wanted to do.”
The Garamendi’s decision resulted in the Rangeland Trust’s first conservation easement transaction. Not only did this protect the ranch in perpetuity, it also helped the Rangeland Trust establish credibility as a bridge-builder between agricultural preservation and environmental protection. “There was a bridging that took place, and we were happy to walk across that bridge,” John stated.
Over the last 40 years, the Garamendi family has used the land to bring people together. The couple has worked to instill the same love and respect for the land that they hold in their children, grandchildren, and everyone that steps foot on the ranch. “These lands allow humans to interact with nature; without them, we would lose that,” said John.
The land serves as a sanctuary, not only for their family but also for the plants and animals that inhabit it. The ranch is home to their Angus cattle herd, a permanent flock of geese that find refuge in the multiple ponds throughout the property, dozens of majestic oak trees, and numerous other wildlife species, such as deer and ducks. “It is like they know they are safe here,” Patricia explained.
Like most ranchers in California, the drought has affected how the Garamendis care of the land. “There’s a new reality or normal,” John explained. “The droughts that used to be every 10 years are now every three to five years.” This daunting truth has forced the family to pull back on their number of cattle and diversify their family business to ensure the ranch will remain viable for the future generations.
“We bought the ranch for the family. The conservation easement through the Rangeland Trust ensures that it will be there through the generations,” John explained.
Over the years, the Garamendis have been strong conservation advocates, encouraging other ranchers to conserve their land and protect the natural resources these spaces provide. “To preserve the land — it is essential for all the ecological reasons; the diversity of wildlife, the diversity of flora and fauna, the protection of watersheds, and it supports the economy,” John emphasized.
John and Patricia have made a legacy for themselves in more ways than one. But the one that will outlast the test of time is the permanent protection of Touch the Earth Ranch, and it is something they are proud to hang their hat on.