Working the land at Nevada County’s historic farms |

Working the land at Nevada County’s historic farms

Laura Petersen
Special to The Union

Jan Blake says the best year of her life was spent interviewing 12 farming and ranching families that can trace their roots to the same dirt their great grandparents worked in the 1800s.

Those stories are collected in a documentary, "Working Lands ­— A History of Agriculture in Nevada County" now reaching a broad audience since first airing on Sacramento-based Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), KVIE public television.

Blake is the executive director of Nevada County Resource Conservation District, an organization formed 72 years ago in 1944 with a mission to serve as a resource for agricultural education. It's a place where property owners can learn about managing their lands in a healthy way — from controlling invasive plants to improving wildlife habitat.

NCRCD funded the documentary project that shares stories of pioneering local families that have farmed for generations on the same turf, a lineage that dates back to the Gold Rush and shortly thereafter.

"I interviewed 15 families and 12 made the cut," said Blake.

It started with a dinner in 2012 honoring the old farming and ranching families. It became obvious that the stories needed to be collected before they were lost. By the end of the video project filmmakers were using overhead drones to shoot videos of landscapes and a cattle drive with North San Juan's Reader Ranch.

Recommended Stories For You

"I have thousands of hours and they had to get to 52 minutes," said Blake of the long version that will be presented during a special local screening for Bear Yuba Land Trust from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3 in the Gene Albaugh Room at the Madelyn Helling Library, 950 Helling Way, Nevada City. A $10 donation is suggested.

PBS promotes a 20-minute version online.

"It's started a life of its own. Now we're doing Part Two," said Blake.

Internationally known videographer and Nevada Union High School graduate David Nicholson jumped at the chance to become the director. Camen Hodges produced the video with editing by Matthew Gottschalk and music by Terrance Huntington.

Ranching and farming families like Browning, Gallino, Butler, Nichols, Reader, Arbogast, Brown, Robinson, Bierwagen, Sweet, Personeni and Niesen were featured prominently in the film.

"This area is amazing for the number of old time farmers and ranchers that are still here," said Myra Davies of Arbogast Ranch, first established in 1863 in Nevada City.

Blake says she had the chance to visit "pristine" properties and visit with people connected to the land in a way that the majority of the population doesn't understand.

"They are the original conservationists on the land because they have to be," she said.

Blake says the families in the video embrace the idea of farming and want to continue to carry on the tradition. Many have seen their neighbors sell off the land to the highest bidder, creating a challenge for young farmers who want to buy or lease land at affordable prices. Some farmers have found conservation easements are the best way to protect historic ranches from being development.

"You cannot buy property in Nevada County. Our land values are skyrocketing," Blake said.

The Robinson Family has been in Nevada County for seven generations. Today, Neil Robinson's family owns ranch property in the Penn Valley, the 500-acre "Home Ranch" property and the 2,677-acre "Canyon Field" property over which 1,477 acres are under a conservation easement.

Daughter Susan Hoek of Robinson Ranch is a fifth generation rancher with children and grandchildren on the land. She says a conservation easement protects her family's grazing operations and keeps the ranch from being developed.

"It's a great testament to how my family loves this land," she said.

In recent years, NCRCD has worked to bridge the gap between old school farming and ranching families and the new generation of organic farmers with events like Farm Day held at the fairgrounds for area schools and the Ag tour with the county's Farm Bureau. The idea is to bring people to work together for a common goal – local food.

Already, NCRCD is working on another documentary, this time focusing on the challenges of the next generation of farmers like Mountain Bounty Farm and Riverhill Farm.

Blake has become an honorary family member in the historic hardworking ranching community. To hear some of the families speak is "mind blowing," she said.

"They're not looking for accolades. They're not looking to shine in the spotlight. They're looking to ranch and farm," said Blake.

(See the video here: Learn more about NCRCD at BYLT info can be found at

Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.