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Sonoma County spends $1.88 million to protect McClelland family’s Two Rock pasture

Jana McClelland and dog Missy tour the 300 acre Hansen Ranch Friday Oct. 6, 2017. The county recently paid $1.88 million to preserve the land which is farmed by the McClelland's Dairy ranch. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

J.D. MORRIS,

Nestled among wide rolling hills on the edge of the Two Rock Valley northwest of Petaluma, where generations of farmers have found fertile ground to support their livestock, the McClelland family’s vast open pasture provides ample room for cows to graze and scenic vistas that epitomize Sonoma County’s bucolic beauty.

Family members want their 330-acre property to stay that way forever, so the McClellands secured a deal with county officials this week to make it happen. Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday approved spending $1.88 million in taxpayer funds to conserve the property, ensuring it won’t be developed for housing and will remain as farmland.

The deal, about three years in the making, signals a landmark moment for the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, because the McClellands’ pasture connects seven other properties the county conserved over the past two decades.

Including the latest pasture — known as Hansen Ranch after the family who owned it before the McClellands — the county has now formed a 2,900-acre contiguous stretch of protected farmland in the area, an effort meant to keep dairy farms and other agricultural uses thriving in the southwestern corner of the county.

“When we protect these properties, we really do it for everyone who lives in the cities as well,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the area and serves as a director of the open space district. “It’s what makes our county unique, with the greenbelt, the community separators, the ag preservation. We want growth to occur in the incorporated areas, not the unincorporated areas, and I think this is a great tool we have in our tool belt to make sure we can ensure that going forward.”

The pasture was once part of a larger property, Arrowhead Ranch, owned by the late Alvin Hansen. Following his death, the McClellands purchased the acreage in 2014 to support their dairy, based off Bodega Avenue about 3 miles away. They use the land for grazing and silage.

“It made really great sense to us,” said Jana McClelland, who runs the family’s organic dairy with her parents, George and Dora. “And we believe in keeping land in agriculture, keeping it in literally open space for future generations, which is why working with Sonoma County preservation and open space was so important to us, not only for our next generation of McClelland family but just future generations as a whole.”

McClelland said the conservation deal approved by county supervisors will give her family the financial security its needs to hold onto the property and pass the farm operation to the next generation. And because the easement requires the site to be used for agriculture, the deal also has value even in the unlikely event that her family gets out of the farming business, she said.

“If for some crazy reason we decide not to be (in agriculture), another family will be able to continue this,” McClelland said.

The agricultural easement allows the family to switch to a different type of farming if market pressures led them to do that, said Misti Arias, acquisition program manager for the county open space district.

Arias said the pasture site provides multiple other benefits to the county.

“It’s really scenic, it has that rural character — people love to drive by on those old country roads and see the rolling agricultural hills,” she said. “It has a historic nature ... And then this is an area that is really important for water recharge. So it does all of those things together.”

Creating a connected series of protected agriculture properties also has a collective benefit for the landowners, Arias said. “Agricultural landowners always tell us it’s easier to stay in ag if they’re surrounded by ag,” she said.

The open space district is actively working to preserve four additional sites in the area, including the McClellands’ Bodega Avenue dairy, according to district officials.

“We are an agricultural county first and foremost. We always have been,” Rabbitt said. “To maintain those greenbelts, those rural areas that are so beautiful with the cows grazing on the hills under the oak trees and that typical Sonoma County scene, I think that’s an important part of it as well.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com.