Earlier this month, friends of the California Rangeland Trust gathered at A Western Affair 2021 to celebrate our state’s ranching roots and the pivotal role ranching plays in the growth of healthy communities. Few know that some of California’s deepest ranching roots stem from Orange County, so it was a fitting return to where many of us began. Held in San Juan Capistrano, CA, this year’s event was hosted by Rancho Mission Viejo, which is one of the last remaining working cattle ranches in the county.
The weekend kicked off on Friday, October 1 with a special pre-party event at Rancho Mission Viejo’s Cow Camp – a private and secluded location known as the “spirit of the ranch.” Guests listened intently as seventh-generation Californian and Rancho Mission Viejo’s Chairman and CEO, Tony Moiso, shared stories from the family’s 140-year history on the land. Joining Tony was close friend and Rancho Mission Viejo’s Executive Vice President of Ranch Operations, Gilbert Aguirre, who spoke about his 50+ years spent working on the ranch. After listening to Tony and Gilbert recount stories from days gone by, guests took to the arena to watch a captivating performance by Mexican charro roper, Manny Gonzales.
The following day, folks assembled for the main event at Rancho Mission Viejo’s Amantes Camp. As they entered the ranch, they drove down a dirt road through a canopy of Oak trees – it was as if they were transported through a portal to place in Orange County untouched by time. Upon arrival, the excitement in the air was palpable, and it was immediately clear that the evening would be one to remember. Guests were greeted by friendly faces, both new and familiar, and all agreed how refreshing it was to be able to connect in person again out on the open range.
Cocktail hour was spent mingling with friends over glasses of superb wine donated by Ranchos De Ontiveros and supplied by Vintage Cowboy Winery, along with signature drinks served out of Rancho Mission Viejo’s “Good Times” bar trailer. Guests also enjoyed the lively music performed by the James Kelly Band, and who could forget the bit of friendly competition that ensued in the silent auction area which featured an array of carefully curated western specialty items.
After catching up with one another, guests took their seats for a magnificent dinner under the stars. Rangeland Trust Chairwoman Valerie Gordon welcomed guests and thanked the Rancho Mission Viejo family for hosting such a wonderful weekend. Michael Delbar, Rangeland Trust CEO, then thanked the event’s generous sponsors including: Hollencrest Capital Management, Personal Ag Management Services, Farm Credit, Cuesta College, Cook CPA Group, and Mitch Rohrer at Wells Fargo Advisors. As the meal of mouthwatering steaks provided by Certified Angus Beef were served alongside scrumptious Mexican cuisine prepared by El Adobe de Capistrano, the recipients of the 2020 and 2021 conservation awards were announced.
The Conservation Impact Award recognizes individuals who have excelled in environmental protection and made significant contributions to the advancement of conservation, while the Conservationist of the Year Award recognizes achievement in volunteer conservation by a private landowner. Rangeland Trust Emeritus Council Member, Steve Sinton, took to the podium and recognized Al Jahns as the 2020 recipient of the Conservation Impact Award and Sally Friend and Michael Dennis as the 2020 recipients of the Conservationist of the Year Award. Both were honored during the virtual A Western Affair event held in April 2020, so it was extra special to acknowledge them in person.
Next, Emeritus Council Members Darrell Sweet and Scott Stone presented the 2021 awards. Dr. Lynn Huntsinger was announced as the winner of the Conservation Impact Award for her path-breaking research on rangeland social-ecological systems which is helping to change the way California values working landscapes. Richard Rominger, who sadly passed away earlier this year, was honored with the Conservationist of the Year Award. Richard was a leader in agriculture policy and worked tirelessly to advocate for policies that benefited farmers and ranchers. He also demonstrated his conservation ethic when he, along with his sons Bruce and Rick, partnered with the Rangeland Trust in 2018 and 2019 to conserve two pieces of the family’s property consisting of 2,300 acres.
After honoring the group of conservation award winners, cowboy poet and Ventura County rancher, Mike Williams, recited one of his original poems titled “So You Want to Be a Cowboy?”. Mike’s beautifully articulated words perfectly summed up the ranching community’s grit, deep desire, and passion to care for the land and livestock despite daily struggles and challenges. Hanging onto every word, a strong sense of pride and gratitude was felt amongst the crowd for these rangeland stewards. Following this heartfelt moment, Rangeland Trust Legacy Council Member, Bruce Hart, stepped onto the stage and led the crowd in a toast to the land as a way of celebrating the 365,000 acres of pristine rangeland that have been conserved through the Rangeland Trust to date.
As the program concluded, auctioneer, Jake Parnell, introduced an exciting lineup of one-of-a-kind experiences available for bidding. Energy ran high as guests raised their paddles to further rangeland conservation efforts. Then, capping off the evening in the most perfect way, the crowd came together and raised over $100,000 during the event’s Fund-A-Need to conserve a newly acquired piece of the Bufford Ranch (located in the Walker Basin east of Bakersfield). The outpouring of generosity and support for rancher and landowner, Ernest Bufford, and his mission to conserve the land was inspiring, and it was a remarkable moment for all knowing that the funding needed to conserve this ranch had been secured in just one single night.
As the sun faded behind the trees, it was clear that A Western Affair 2021 was one for the books. The weekend filled with western wonder served as the perfect reminder of what is possible when people from all walks of life come together to help conserve the working rangelands that contribute to everyone’s wellbeing. Keep an eye out for details coming soon on A Western Affair 2023 which will celebrate the Rangeland Trust’s 25th anniversary!