Staff Learning Journey: Valley Ford Cheese Company and Stemple Creek Ranch

By Gillies Robertson

I have visited many ranches and met many ranchers over the last decade or so. In my previous work as a project manager with Yolo and Shasta Valley Resource Conservation Districts, I regularly found myself wandering around a field dodging cow pats, getting my boots stuck in thick, sticky clay after a good winter rain, or getting myself lost in a dark and maze-like almond orchard. The many wonderful conversations I had with farmers and ranchers during those visits usually involved very practical aspects of project implementation; where a fence should go, what kind of fence, what species of native shrubs would they prefer, when they should allow their livestock access to grazing, or how to get a car unstuck from the clutches of a muddy field. They quite often included a healthy dose of political commentary, discussions on the hassles of project permitting, and no small amount of talk about the weather (one of my favorite topics). Although I always learned and laughed a lot on these visits, they were usually very practical in nature with not much time for deeper reflection.

Karen Bianchi-Moreda, Valley Ford Cheese Company, (center picture) tells her story to the Ag Innovations staff over lunch at Valley Ford Cheese and Creamery.

When I learned that Ag Innovations’ September team gathering was to be a learning journey, taking us to Valley Ford Cheese Company, and Stemple Creek Ranch, I was both excited and intrigued. Learning journeys are a process that Ag Innovations is known for, and uses often, to help people take a systems approach in its ag, water, food, and fire work. Up until I began working with Ag Innovations in February, I had never heard of a learning journey, let alone ever been on one. As I prepared for the meeting, I found myself asking what it was, how would it differ from a regular staff “field trip”? I was excited by the prospect of getting out and visiting these places, especially Stemple Creek, as they are well-known and well respected in the world of California’s grass-fed and pasture-based livestock industry, an industry I am intimately familiar with.

These questions were answered by our facilitator for the day, teammate Katy Mamen. In her outline of the day ahead, I learned that a key part of a learning journey is to become aware of one’s internal assumptions, preconceptions, and existing opinions. To that end, Katy asked us to write down any assumptions that we had about the places we were going to visit, and then, consciously let them go. It was this initial “letting go” that I was very aware of in my own preparation for the day. I know from my own experience that if we go into an event that we are not looking forward to, or even bite into a sandwich that we know contains a food that we don’t like – pickles, in my case – we are already making an assumption or putting up a barrier to getting the most from that event, or sandwich. It was being asked to consciously put those assumptions to the side and open ourselves up to the experience that set the tone for the day.

Loren Poncia, Stemple Creek Ranch, (center picture) guides Ag Innovations staff through his fields and discusses soil health.

We were also required to write down any questions we had prior to each visit. This is where I allowed a little of my knowledge of agribusiness to sneak back into my thinking. I had questions about market channels, product traceability, and the adoption of more sustainable, or regenerative, approaches to their production models, all questions, as it happens, that were answered during the afternoon. I forced myself to let go of those default, farmer-brain questions, and think more deeply about what I was seeing and to be open to what my colleagues might be experiencing. The learning journey process allows and encourages that space, taking personal assumptions or expectations out of the equation, and building a more shared experience.

A learning journey is not a fact-finding mission, nor does it have to involve physically going very far. I see it more as allowing yourself space to take in the experience, to appreciate perspectives other than your own, and to enjoy the opportunity to learn with and from your fellow travelers.

Loren Poncia, Stemple Creek Ranch, talks about the different cover crops in his field.

As we sat and enjoyed a decompressing glass of wine and some delicious snacks from our hosts, we shared some of what we had each seen and heard during the afternoon. There were observations related to our hosts’ family histories and the deep sense of generational responsibility and pride they both shared, thoughts of entrepreneurship and bootstrap ingenuity, we also discussed the various themes related to sustainability – agricultural, ecological, and social – that we heard during our hosts’ narratives. At Stemple Creek, Rancher Loren Poncia shared his views on all of those aspects of their business, emphasizing his dedication to raising a high quality product through utilizing what he termed as the three keys to quality grass-fed beef; “good genetics, good groceries [being grass], and time”. When asked about rangeland health and land stewardship, Loren described how he prefers to avoid the use of buzzwords, such as “regenerative agriculture”, but instead sees his approach as more of a “dance with nature”, taking cues from nature to adapt his management practices. Lastly, we recognized the deep sense of place that both of our hosts showed us, a characteristic I have noted almost every time I have met with a farmer or rancher.

The themes of stewardship and responsibility we heard from our hosts are important as we look to our own work at Ag Innovations. We are a link in the complicated chain between government, industry, environmental interests, community, and agriculture. For us to be effective in our work, it is important to be able to identify with all the links in that chain, and help others do the same. During our journey, there were several moments when the deepening of our collective understanding of our hosts’ lives, and Californian agriculture more generally, were almost audible. The head nods, laughs, and sighs of those “ah-ha!” moments indicated to me that our understanding of at least one part of the California agriculture puzzle just got that little bit clearer.

Loren Poncia, Stemple Creek Ranch, (far left) explaining the restoration done to rebuild the riparian corridor around Stemple Creek on his property.

In reflecting on the day, and on the experience of my first learning journey, I have seen the benefit of deliberately acknowledging and removing preconceptions and expectations. Hearing my colleagues’ perspectives and experiences of the same journey also showed me how important these gatherings are, especially when we consider that most of the work we do is both collaborative in nature, yet solitary in practice. I also remembered that I really enjoy listening to people who have a deep understanding and passion for their work, their landscape, and their place in it. Although I wasn’t there to help with fence building or riparian restoration, it was still great to climb over someone else’s electric fence, look at the healthy soil under a cow patty, listen to their stories, hear them describe their own landscape, or sit in a space that they have created while enjoying the fruits of their own hard work and determination. Dolly Parton is often quoted as saying “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap”, well my favorite quote of the day was from Valley Ford Cheese Company’s Karen Bianchi-Moreda when she said, “It took two years and a lot of tears” to make this gorgonzola!