Carson Valley’s major crop is green, but it’s not hay
Losing agricultural green space to unfettered growth is almost a recurring nightmare for Mack Ranch manager Jacques Etchegoyhen.
“I sometimes think we could go to bed in Minden and wake up in Reno,” Etchegoyhen, who is also a Douglas County commissioner, said Monday.
Asked to expound on the future of agriculture in the Carson Valley, Etchegoyhen began by looking into the recent past.
“In 1960, the Truckee Meadows – a cold valley like this one – had more irrigated land than the Carson Valley, about 70,000 acres. Today, that’s all essentially gone. I think they could have protected it and still had their growth, but they chose a different path.
“If they had gone green, it would have made their casinos, everything, more attractive. To create a classy tourist package, you need the green.”
Watching growth to the north in Reno and Carson City, Etchegoyhen said he feels a sense of urgency to figure out ways to keep at least a portion of the Carson Valley’s agricultural character intact.
– Cash crop is green. “Whether people realize it or not, our agriculture is what gives us open space,” he said. “The cash crop in the Carson Valley isn’t necessarily hay, but it is green. If we have high goals, open space is important to tourism and our economic future.
“It’s tied to outdoor recreation, outdoor scenery. It complements the reason people come and adds to tourism quality.”
Etchegoyhen sees a European style of community growth and development as a viable option for Carson Valley – intensely developed urban areas coupled with significant frontage on agricultural lands that are never developed.
But, in order to preserve the agricultural areas, he said, farming and ranching operations have to be profitable.
For Etchegoyhen, that means altering some standard operating procedures for both those in agriculture and the larger community as a whole.
“We all need to recognize the value of agriculture and its role as part of the community – it recharges the underground water reservoir we’re on, cleanses effluent and preserves the flood plain and allows it to function naturally. Agriculture is part of a system of balance, a system that works quite nicely if we let it,” he said.
Such understanding contributes to support for measures like moving development rights off agricultural land and either onto urban property or nowhere, as in the case of those rights to be purchased as conservation or scenic easements through the Bureau of Land Management’s Rural Lands Initiative.
– Long-term strategies. But, Etchegoyhen said, it also means the farmers and ranchers have to be visionary, looking for ways to be profitable and seeking out new markets.
That strategy, he said, is now beginning to pay off for the Mack Ranch.
“There are reasons why old timers did things the way they did. Our idea is to take an old way, add technology and common sense, and try it in a new way.
“The traditional cattle business is awful. Land values are so high, most start-up operations can’t get going and existing ranches don’t have the monetary reserves to get bigger,” he said. “We can’t compete with the big beef producers in the Midwest. It’s too cold for poultry. Labor costs are too high for sheep – the list goes on. You have to look for what you can find that fits and then make it productive.”
Etchegoyhen said the Mack Ranch, which is developing a registered black Angus breeding stock, has eliminated its market cattle operation and is concentrating on growing and selling “gourmet” Timothy grass horse hay.
n Do what is doable. “We don’t have the capital to be cutting edge in agriculture,” Etchegoyhen said. “What we do have is 500 acres in a valley with a short, 105-day growing season, where water is sometimes uncertain, but also where grass has always grown really well. Old records show Mack Ranch sold hay to Virginia City livery stables in 1865.
“This is also an area with more and more horses. There are now four or five operations here that have 50 horses or more. High quality horse operations, requiring high quality hay products. We have a market.”
Using new technology, Mack Ranch doubled its hay production in the past five years.
“Ranching is a series of linked problem solving – every day something breaks or doesn’t work right. You get where you’re pragmatic, you know how to fix something so it works. Ranchers are also famous for adopting good ideas,” Etchegoyhen said. “If you keep doing things the same way, you’re economically doomed in a few years.
“We laser-leveled the fields so irrigation is more effective and tried new varieties of hay. We planted one 50-acre test field in a new Timothy. It worked well and sold, so we planted more. We’ll convert more pasture into hay production – keeping some for our black Angus breeding stock – and make the transition complete. Given our unique weather, the short growing season and the number of horses in the Carson Valley, hay’s our future at Mack Ranch.”
Etchegoyhen said the survival of other Valley farmers and ranchers could lie in small niche markets like the one Mack Ranch has tapped into.
“Other small operators will have to look at things like this,” he said. “The consequence of doing nothing is that one day we’ll wake up in Reno. We don’t have to. We have the vision. Let’s do it.”
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