A Ranch Reinvented: Stemple Creek Ranch

“When I turned 30, I had the conversation with my wife that I wanted to move home and try to make a go of it,” says Loren Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch. “If we never tried, I would always wonder what could’ve happened.” Loren and his wife Lisa are now the fourth generation running the family ranch in the coastal hills of Northern California. Their farm transfer’s success rests on reinventing the ranch as a business and a commitment to working in sync with Mother Nature.

Stemple Creek Ranch got its start when Loren’s great-grandfather Angelo immigrated from Italy and bought the ranch in 1902. It’s been in productive agriculture ever since. Loren grew up on the farm and when he hit 18, he didn’t even want to go to college. Loren was ready to buy some cows and start ranching.

“Thank god I didn’t do that!” Loren said. “There’s so much I wouldn’t have learned. Going to Cal Poly, the people I met, it all opened my mind.”He and his wife made a great life with secure jobs after college in Sacramento, but ultimately, they decided they wanted to build their lives back at the ranch.

They set up a meeting with Loren’s parents, Al and Cathie, in Napa and said: “We want to run the ranch. We don’t want to be partners with you, we want to buy your cattle, lease the ranch and do it on our own. The most important part of all this was that they were willing to have the conversation.” They figured a buyout plan in part because, as Loren said, “I didn’t want to sacrifice our father-son relationship over a business relationship.”

When Loren and Lisa took over, they retired the previous business and rented the land. About eight years into running the business, they took a week-long intensive at the Ranching for Profit school. “It changed our lives for the better.We learned to look at ranching as a business not a lifestyle.” They ended up going certified organic, put up a website and started selling direct. They’ve embraced agritourism with a venue for events and Airbnb. Even their chefs stay at the ranch. “We do dinners with them, they meet us and the cows, it’s a full circle of transparency.”

Loren says his parents were supportive but skeptical at first. “Now they are super proud,” he says. “I get it—I see new farmers starting out and I say, that’s not gonna work!”

Another important piece of the next generation of the Poncia legacy has been working with the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) on conservation easements. The Poncias sold the development rights to their land in protect it in a perpetual easement. Loren says, “Conservation easements are a great tool to keep the ranch going, to help people purchasing new property and settling estate tax issues.”

MALT also introduced the Poncias to a carbon farming demonstration project, that is now a full-fledged state program called the Healthy Soils Program. Through these funds, he’s planted native shrubs and trees and has spread compost over the ranch, all to increase soil carbon and fight climate change.

“Instead of being a grass farmer, now I’m a soil farmer,” says Loren. “The ultimate kicker is we now store more water in the soil. Every year, we have a seasonal drought. But now, we can store more water in the soil, and the perennials stay green during the summer. We now import less hay and run more cattle same amount of land. If we want to really stop global warming, farmers are the one to do it. We just have to subsidize them to grow carbon instead of corn.”

At Stemple Creek, Loren says, “It’s never the same day twice—and sometimes it’s nerve wracking. But I love the rebirth of this ranch, being part of the cycle and diversity of life.”

Now, Loren’s two daughters, nephews and nieces have the opportunity to continue the cycle.

photo credit: Paige Green Photography