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Homes on the Range : Developers Pushing Ranchers Out

April 03, 1988|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

For years, Ventura County's cows have fended off natural predators with hoofs and horns. But no cow in its right mind wants to charge a suburban shopping mall.

So, as development marches inexorably into the canyons, plains and ranges of Ventura County, cows and their owners are pulling up stakes and moving to greener pastures.

Remote Sites

In less than 20 years, the beef cattle herd has dropped by two-thirds and the county's three feedlots have closed. Today, most of the remaining 16,500 cattle are raised by a handful of ranchers in remote hills fringing Simi Valley and all-but-inaccessible grazing lands near Santa Paula, Piru and Fillmore.

"You keep getting pushed further back," said Stephen Percy, a tall, lean, fourth-generation rancher who talks in slow, careful cadences worthy of John Wayne. Percy and his 30-year-old son Jim lease most of Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley and raise 1,100 head of beef cattle on its 9,400 acres.

"I could run cattle on here for 40 years and turn it over to my son," Percy said. "But a developer comes in, pours a bunch of concrete and builds a bunch of houses. Then he has to find someplace else to ruin."

Not surprisingly, developers see things differently.

"People need houses to live in. That's the American dream, to own your own house, and I don't think there's anything wrong with providing the American dream," said Glen Gessford, president of Big Sky Development Co., which owns Big Sky Ranch.

In recent decades, this scenario of cows vs. condos has flickered like a bad Western across the once-open California ranges as ranchers shut down their operations and allied businesses like feedlots move to states like Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska, which offer cheaper land, grain and transportation costs.

Economic Change

Since 1973, California's feed yards have dwindled from 175 to 65; the number of cattle in those yards has plunged from 1 million to 500,000, and the number of cattle-slaughtering plants has dropped from 100 to 20, according to the California Cattle Feeders Assn.

"Thousands of cattlemen in California and nationwide are threatened by economic change and a shift in the American palate away from red meat," said Chuck Levitt, a livestock market analyst for Shearson Lehman Hutton in Chicago.

Ranchers in Ventura County are no exception. Big Sky's Gessford says the Percys will lose almost one-third of their grazing lands if the company succeeds in a plan to develop 2,700 acres of the cattle ranch with 2,080 homes and a neighborhood shopping center. Big Sky is now negotiating with Simi Valley planning officials for the needed zoning changes.

"The economic realities of life are that there's not much profit and not much wages in beef cattle in Ventura County," Gessford said.

Cattlemen agree. Today, the county's annual beef cattle sales account for only $3 million. By contrast, the county's citrus crop, its biggest agricultural revenue-producer, brought in $163 million in 1986.

Cowboy Allure

But then, cattlemen say they're not in the profession strictly for financial rewards.

Ranchers say the payoff is less tangible, that it involves the lure of the cowboy life style and the chance to be part of the legendary American West. They talk about the harsh satisfaction that comes from doctoring an ailing calf before dawn, of being master of one's destiny, of riding on horseback across rolling green ranges with only the wind and an occasional bleating calf for company.

In short, most ranchers wouldn't be happy anywhere else.

"I don't make much money, but it's a good life," said Bo Ramsey, who runs a herd of 250 beef cattle on the Canada Larga Ranch between Ojai and Ventura. "You see your cows get better and weigh more each year. You're out here with nature, and there's nobody around to hassle you. . . . It's a little hard to explain to a city person," he said.

Indeed, the lure of the Western life style has in recent years attracted a new breed of cowboy. These are gentlemen ranchers, men who work full-time at other professions and run a few cows on the side.

Ventura County agriculture officials don't keep tabs on their numbers, but one part-time rancher says he knows of six men in the Ojai Valley alone who keep between 15 and 80 head of cattle each.

Norm Davis, who owns the Ojai Valley Feed store, earned his cowboy credentials two years ago when he and some partners began putting together a cow-calf operation--the term for beef cows that produce calves for sale to feedlots. Now they have about 16 head.

'Really Relaxing'

"It's a sideline, . . . something I like to do," Davis says. "When I get home from work, it's just really relaxing for me to go out and spend some time with the animals. If I can make a little money on it, terrific."

But for many of the old-time cattle-ranching families, the only other source of money is the land itself, and there are only three ways to tap it: develop, diversify or divest.

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