Penn Valley rancher finds his family’s homesteading roots
March 21, 2013
With lambing season set to begin, Matthew Shapero looks every bit the rancher in his new home surroundings, The Buckeye Ranch, located in the heart of Penn Valley's rich agricultural community.
"I feel much more connected to this landscape, the openness," Shapero said, walking on the road with his border collie, "Nellie" toward the sheep foraging in the sunny green pasture under a wide-open sky.
Shapero adopted the name The Buckeye Ranch in homage to his ancestors who homesteaded 1,000 acres less than a mile away, raising sheep and cattle for nearly a century from 1850 to 1940.
Starting his fifth year of farming, his fourth in Nevada County, Shapero, 28, now tends his sheep on 90 acres of leased and borrowed land just a mile and a half from that family ranch of the same name — a history he only recently discovered.
Shapero grew up knowing he was a sixth generation Californian, and he remembers having a vague connection to Nevada County when he first moved here four years ago. It wasn't until an uncle with a knack for genealogy revealed Shapero's roots.
"It's total coincidence that my interest in ranching sheep is hearkening back to my family 100 years ago," Shapero said.
He has since learned that he is the descendant of the Church family, early California pioneers who moved to Penn Valley at the start of the Gold Rush and remained prominent ranchers in the region until World War II when Beale expanded its military bombing practices and pushed homesteaders off their land.
Among Shapero's ancestors was Munson B. Church, one of the founders of Nevada Irrigation District.
Shapero grew up in the suburbs of Santa Barbara and didn't think much about farming as a child.
"Or for that matter where my food came from, or that it actually grew out of soil or on trees or once-munched-on grass," he said.
He studied religion in college and, upon graduating, went to work on a farm on Long Island. A year after growing vegetables, Shapero began to think about animals.
"The genesis of fertility on vegetable farms comes from animals," Shapero said.
Among Shapero's farming influences is Allan Savory, pasture management pioneer, who posits that responsibly managed grazing animals offer solutions to mounting global environmental crises.
During the winter of 2010, Shapero moved out West, to the small foothill community of Nevada County in Northern California.
Even without any direct connection to his lineage, something drew him to it.
"It's funny, nevertheless, I do still feel this tug," Shapero said.
Last fall he invested in breeding stock — 82 ewes, all ready to lamb this spring. He will offer mild-flavored grass-fed lamb in November and 14 varieties of "unusually delicious garlic" he planted on a quarter of an acre alongside his farming friend Jeremy Mineau's three acres of sweet corn and potatoes.
Shapero's lamb is known for its subtleness and local bread maker Nika Franchi has said the lamb Shapero raises reminds her of the meat she used to buy in Italy.
Many like Franchi who shop at the open-air Nevada City Farmers Market know Shapero for his broiler chickens, pork and lamb and his venture with Living Lands Agrarian Network, Red Rocker Farm. He's taking a break from grain-dependent heritage breed chicken and pigs this season to focus on the grass-grazing ruminants.
When Shapero first came to Nevada County, he had an idea of a journeyman farming program, where he could attend the intern program with Living Lands while creating his own animal project autonomously, said mentor farmer Leo Chapman.
"He brought with him enthusiasm and passion. He had the idea of doing things the right way, and finding out how to do it the right way… He brings with him the new generation of farmers. My mentorship and relationship with Matthew inspires me, motivates me and gives me hope for the future of food in this country," Chapman said.
Since the move from Nevada City to Penn Valley last fall, Shapero has enjoyed the quiet while he settles into his new home. He has met old timers and neighbors of the tight-knit farming community and formed an immediate connection with folks who remember the Church family.
He is devoted to building a more serious, longer vision project — one that he foresees himself committed to for at least the next five to 10 years. He is well aware of the daunting road ahead.
"In a big picture sort of way, my greatest challenge will be to put all the necessary pieces together over the next couple years," he said.
All winter, his mind busily planned and schemed over the details: A land base, number of animals, capital for equipment and infrastructure, the markets to buy his product and the business plan to ensure the operation sustains itself.
"I have always known that building a ranch from scratch with no land and little capital would be a difficult proposition," he said.
In terms of scale, Shapero knows he's going to have to find that "sweet spot," the place where the size of his operation and the economics involved finally add up to make a sustainable income from the ranch. He estimates that will mean building up his herd to 500 to 600 ewes and finding 1,000 acres of land to graze them on.
Despite the intimidating figures, Shapero can't imagine doing anything else.
"It's incredibly satisfying working with animals. It's an incredibly satisfying profession."
Contact freelance reporter Laura Brown at email@example.com or 530-401-4877.
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