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Salinas Californian Writer Dennis L. Taylor Recounts AgKnowledge Experience

Dennis L. Taylor: Salinas Valley humbles writer

Call it one of those moments in life when your ignorance shines bright. When I began to forge an agriculture-water beat at The Californian earlier this year, I thought to myself, “How hard could it be?” After all, I spent a large part of my youth on a cattle ranch east of Redding. I knew ranching, so farming couldn’t be much different, right?That’s the moment I was blinded by the light. Two glaring problems with my assumption became obvious —the scale and sophistication of the Salinas Valley. Of course, I had help fully understanding the depth of what I didn’t know. The help even has a name: AgKnowledge.

The program is modeled similar to leadership classes. Once a month our class focuses on one or two specific aspects of farming and ranching in the valley. Two people I tend to work closely with —Maia Carroll, Monterey County communications coordinator; and Robert Johnson, assistant general manager of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, suggested I go through the program.In hindsight I’m sure I asked a question or made a comment that clued them in that Ranch Boy could use a little help grasping a few key concepts about agriculture in the Salinas Valley.

We are now three classes into the nine-month program sponsored by the Grower-Shipper Association Foundation, but believe me, it didn’t take more than the first class to humble me. We spent that afternoon in April with Steve Dorrance on his family’s 4,300-acre ranch on Mt. Toro’s northern ridge.

When we stopped for lunch, I meandered back to a fence line and soaked up the sight of the oak forest, the calls of a half-dozen different song birds and the piercing calls of red-tail hawks. I breathed deeply of the familiar smells of acrid oak, sweet native grasses and omnipresent cow dung. It transported me back to my family’s ranch, about half the size of the Dorrance Ranch, along the rocky plateau under the western shadow of Mt. Lassen.Dorrance spoke to us about the need for sustainability, about his ranch being held in a permanent conservation easement, the economics of modern cattle ranching, the regulation landscape and the connection he has with the land. His is an amazing story, and the complexities of modern agriculture began to shine its light in my skull. I was praying it wouldn’t leak out of my ears and nostrils and attract attention from classmates.It was also clear I never ranched a day in my life. My father and Uncle Charlie ranched. I occasionally rode fence line and helped cut firewood, but I was fairly sheltered as a youth from the challenges —from the real work —of agriculture.

Since that first class I have become a sponge, setting ego aside and embracing my ignorance —soaking up a vast amount of new knowledge. Darlene Din, David Bonetti and Jim Bogart from the Grower-Shipper Foundation are ever-present mentors to our class, while the “professors,” if you will, have been the growers and ranchers who have graciously opened their operations to our class.

One lesson learned early on is that farming in this valley is not about corporate agribusiness. Certainly there are a few of those, but for the most part the valley comprises multigenerational family farms, no matter how big they become. D’Arrigo Bros., Taylor Farms, Tanimura &Antle, and Mann Packing were all scrappy growers trying to make a living just a few generations ago. Like Dorrance, they have never lost their connection with the land, their heritage or their values.

I was clueless to all that, and will remain relatively ignorant throughout the AgKnowledge program. The Salinas Valley is highly complex. I could spend the rest of my career here and still not fully grasp all its nuances.

But I’m OK with that. Like Clint Eastwood said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Dennis L. Taylor covers agriculture and business for The Salinas Californian.

Follow him on Twitter @taylor_salnews.

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