Ranch sales puts Carson Valley in transition
With word that Carson Valley rancher and casino mogul John Ascuaga is selling off three of his four cattle ranches, some are questioning how many generations are left that are willing to hang onto traditional family agricultural businesses.
With growing development pressure that has caused prime agricultural land to surge to $10,000 or more an acre, some believe it is only a matter of time before the wide open range of Carson Valley is replaced by either small, 200-acre farms, 19-acre “hobby” ranches or tract-home housing developments.
The days of the family ranch patriarchy, in which the father passes down to his children the family business are slipping away. Higher land values, mounting development influences and the revolution of corporate ranching have begun to pave the changes of today and the future, ranchers, county officials and historians believe.
“In reality, to remain economically viable today, the number of ranches that exist now will probably be scaled back,” said Jacques Etchegoyhen, a former ranch manager who is now a Douglas County commissioner and the Nevada director of the American Land Conservancy.
In the heyday of ranching and farming in the Carson Valley, there were about 60 ranches that produced cattle, feed and milk, Etchegoyhen said. Now, roughly half of the ranches exist, and the numbers are declining.
“What we’re seeing is really where the industry is going,” Etchegoyhen said. “And there are a lot of influences that are affecting those changes.”
That means bad news for those who do not want to see ranchlands turned into sprawling development, said Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha.
Speaking both as a long-time Nevadan and historian, Rocha said the sale of the Ascuaga ranches shows the Carson Valley is in transition. The Valley is no longer looking to an economy based primarily on agriculture as it was 20 or 30 years ago, he said. And it is no longer seeing ranches being handed down generationally. Instead, the new economy is accommodating people who are moving into the Carson Valley seeking retirement away from the bustle of urbanized California.
In his 1999 book “Stories from the Sagebrush” Rocha wrote encroaching development looms in Carson Valley’s future.
“Gardnerville, Minden, Dresslerville and Genoa, also find their bucolic ways of life at risk. Twenty-five years ago, these Carson Valley communities were surrounded by dairy farms, fields, and ranches,” Rocha wrote. “Today, the battle is over open space and green belts amid rapidly proliferating housing tracts and custom homes.”
Characterizing the area on the east side of the Carson range, from north Highway 395 north of Reno at Cold Springs to Topaz to the south as “the emerging sierra megalopolis,” Rocha said development remains the biggest threat to agriculture in the Carson Valley.
The future and who dictates it, Rocha believes, lies in the hands of its residents and policy makers.
“While the Carson Valley still has the remnants of its long-standing agricultural past, the fundamental question in the 21st century, is how much is going to survive?” Rocha asked. “Will there be any dairies left? Any farms? Because what has become prime agricultural land in the state – what brought settlers to the state to produce crops, that way of life that has been so much a part of western Nevada – these are the last vestiges. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
While Ascuaga was not available for comment, many believe the selloff of the Ascuaga ranches is a result of family members not wanting to continue on the ranching tradition.
“We put a lot of hard work into the ranches themselves and we had some fun doing it,” Ascuaga said in a statement. “It’s just time to let someone else take over.”
Chris Gansberg is one of a handful of the family ranchers who has staved off the influence of big money for his properties. The Alpine County, Calif., supervisor and longtime rancher will buy roughly 2,000 acres of Ascuaga’s ranch near Bridgeport in neighboring Mono County and continue to ranch it.
Still, hope remains in keeping family tradition in ranching alive, Etchegoyhen said. He knows a number of young men who the ranching tradition.
“I think there are plenty of young folks out there who would pick up where their families left off,” Etchegoyhen said.
Once such person, David Hussman, is a fourth-generation Gardnerville rancher whose family emigrated from Germany and settled in the Carson Valley in the 1860s.
At age 44, Hussman has chosen to keep the 560-acre ranch in full operation, partly out of obligation but mostly because he loves the business.
“It’s been in the family for so long that the continuity of it makes it worthwhile,” Hussman said. “But also to me, the reward comes when I plant something or raise something and I can watch it grow. That’s what’s been appealing to me.”
But even now, as the cattle industry rebounds, making a living as a rancher comes down to a hard choices when it comes to the influence of money. The biggest threat to the Carson Valley, Hussman insists, is the burgeoning value of land.
“When your land is valued at several thousand dollars an acre and your return is only a few hundred, when you meet your accountant and ask him what can you do and he tells you to sell the land, well, that’s a hard thing,” Hussman said.
Temptation to sell has been fleeting, he admits, but he knows that the right thing to do is what he enjoys.
“Once we lose an acre of farm land, it is irrevocable,” he said. “I’d hate to see us give up the possibility, because you never know what kind of crops we will be able to grow here some day.”
As for growth in the Valley, there’s no doubt in Hussman’s mind that it will continue and at a much faster pace. The question is what can be done to make it economically viable for the rancher to stay in business. The Bureau of Land Management’s plan to allow for easements on agricultural land is a start, Hussman said.
In the plan, the BLM proposes to grant land easements to ranchers who choose to keep their property zoned agricultural. In exchange for that, the BLM will open up nearly 400 acres to Douglas County for development purposes.
“While I don’t think it’s going to stop growth, because growth can’t be stopped, I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Hussman said.
Any other steps will have to come from Carson Valley residents themselves, if they choose to maintain the quality of life they desire, Rocha said.
“It requires leadership, vision and support of citizens who support a quality of life they want to sustain,” Rocha said. “The people of Douglas County need to ask themselves what kind of future do they want. Who is going to define the threshold, because the things the people do today will dictate the future of Douglas County and the Carson Valley.”