The Snow Ranch, home to Orvis Cattle Company, is rich in history. Since acquiring the land in 1873, descendants of the Snow family have worked hard to diversify the land to make a name for themselves and preserve the family business. Aside from being the first registered Hereford cattle ranch in California, it has also been used as a site for archeological studies, rocket launches, and film sets for movies like Big Country and Little House on the Prairie. This creative way of thinking is what has kept their 150-year family legacy alive and well, despite day-to-day challenges that come with ranching in California.
The historic Snow Ranch was first established by William Snow and Lydia Jane Board as a sheep ranch. After their daughter, Ada, married a local veterinarian, C.B. Orvis, the family changed the scope of their operation and began raising Hereford cattle in 1918. Then, when their eldest son, William Snow Orvis, married Grace Harper of Murphys, California in the mid-1900s, the pair took over the management of the land. In the mid-1970s, the ranch was split between William and Grace’s sons, Bruce and Jim Orvis, becoming what is today known as Orvis Cattle Company and Jim Orvis and Sons Cattle Company respectively.
In 2005, Bruce and his wife, Roma, partnered with the California Rangeland Trust to conserve their portion of the ranch, thereby ensuring the land will forever remain a working cattle ranch. In 2010, Bruce passed away and left the ranch in the hands of his now late wife and second cousin, Donald Harper. After Roma passed away earlier this year, Donald became the general partner of the land company. Today, Donald, his wife, Susan, and his daughter, Nora Grace (named after Grace Harper Orvis) own the livestock operation and manage the land company.
Donald explained, “We are – and the land is – a symptom of past generations.” Meaning, how the land is today, is a direct product of how it has been managed in the past. The family has been able to be successful for over 150 years because the family has listened to the land and adapted to its conditions.
“We are always looking to learn from the land,” Nora Grace said. Nora Grace took over the management of Orvis Cattle Company in 2011 at the age of 17. For years, Nora Grace has been leading that way and encouraging her family to grow their operation, while staying relevant throughout changing conditions associated with the environment and the current cattle market.
In recent years, the Harpers have sought out cutting-edge research, not shying away from incorporating new techniques into their cattle operation and management of the landscape.
Susan is a director on the Board of the East Stanislaus Resource Conservation District, which allows her to stay up to date on land management research and bring new techniques to the ranch. In 2018 the Harpers participated in a research project, funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), focused on regenerative range production through composting on rangeland.
For the last three years, the ranch has served as one of 17 field types involved in the composting trial. The project monitors the impact of compost on water infiltration, soil health, and plant composition on grazed pasture and non-grazed pasture. Through the research, they noticed while simply spreading compost has positive effects on the land, the practice can be better utilized in conjunction with grazing.
“In the area where the compost was spread with no cattle grazing, we have seen a reduction in the noxious weed, known as Medusa Head,” Nora Grace explained. “In the field with cattle grazing, we have seen a reduction in noxious weeds as well as positive regrowth of grasses producing a more quality feed.”
Based on these results that the NRCS saw in the first year of the trial, in one year’s time, this research will be recognized as an official NRCS practice that will be available to all rangeland in California.
“More and more ranchers are looking to be involved in programs like this,” Susan stated. “As ranchers, you have to do more to be resilient; there is no sitting back and hoping that the land will fix itself.”
Each generation has seen a lot of different outcomes from their management of the ranch – some have been positive; some have sent them back to the drawing board. Each day, the family demonstrates their commitments to staying in touch with the land and livestock with the hope that their legacy will continue throughout the next 150 years and beyond.