Casul Family’s mindful management of land and resources recognized with Farm Bureau’s Luther Burbank Conservation Award

By Tim Tesconi 

Like many American farmers, Che Casul and his wife Angela Nagel of Bodega have full-time jobs off the family ranch, professional careers that generate the essential income that keeps them on the land they love.

Che, an emerging force in conservation and land management, is the executive director of the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, a position he assumed in May. Angela, a transplant from Australia who has put down roots in western Sonoma County, is an ICU nurse at Kaiser Hospital in Santa Rosa.  After work and on weekends, they tend to their cattle, sheep and goats while methodically restoring the natural landscape on the family property settled in 1851 by Che’s great, great great great grandfather William Riley Robertson.

Across Bodega Highway from the family ranch stands the one-room Watson School that Robertson and other ranchers built in 1856 for the rural community. It’s where generations of Che’s family went to school, with his grandmother Lavina Angleman the last in the family to walk down the ranch’s long driveway to learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

The historic ranch is a labor of passion and purpose, sacrifice and stewardship. For Che, who is the seventh generation of his family to live and work on the ranch, the jobs in town are just part of the price for a way-of-life – and rich family history – he values and wants to preserve for son William, 4.  Chores on the ranch and demanding professions keep life busy and always interesting as Che and his family, members of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, balance time and resources to keep it all going. 

“This ranch is at the soul of who I am, it shaped me. I want this land to be here for my son William and the generations to follow,” said Che, 37, a man who has clearly identified what’s important to him and his family. His abiding spirit, easy smile and desire to do the right thing are part of an overall demeanor that makes him a respected leader in resource management and environmental stewardship. 

Before being named executive director of the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, Che lead Circuit Rider Community Services, which offers vocational programs for young people in fire fuel mitigation and ecological restoration to help protect natural resources. His credentials in resource and land management are genuine and experiential. 

Che and his family’s dedication to their land and leadership in land management have earned them Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s 2023 Luther Burbank Conservation Award. The award annually recognizes an individual, business or family making extraordinary efforts to balance economic viability with environmental stewardship as part of the county’s multi-billion-dollar farming industry.

Che and his family will be honored at Farm Bureau’s Love the Land celebration on July 27 at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard, the Windsor wine estate now part of Jackson Family Wines.  It will be a night to celebrate the land and people who are part of Sonoma County’s thriving agricultural industry and its rich farming heritage. 

Valley Ford rancher Joe Pozzi, a director and past president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, has known Che’s family most of his life. Pozzi’s family had a ranch near the historic property that Che and his mother Mela Angleman now oversee as sixth and seventh generation members of the founding family. Che and Mela consider themselves the current caretakers of the ranch and its legacy.

“Che’s family is well rooted in western Sonoma County and part of its agricultural history. This family has always known the importance of keeping their land as a working landscape. They have done and continue to do a good job to manage the land through grazing and controlled burns,” said Pozzi, who also serves as district manager of the Gold Ridge Conservation District.

When he was a teenager, Che worked for Joe Pozzi, learning the ways of working cattle and sheep, things like vaccinating, castrating and tagging.  He fixed fences and worked with Joe on resource improvement projects including developing water systems, cross fencing and grassland improvement.

“I took Che under my wing and taught him what I know. He was hungry for the experience of being part of a working ranch and is now using those experiences to run his ranch,” said Pozzi.

For his part, Che said Joe Pozzi had a tremendous influence on his life and the way he views agriculture, conservation and the judicious management of natural resources ranching in the coastal food shed.

“Joe was the spark for me to come back and be a rancher,” said Che, a graduate of El Molino High School in Forestville who earned his bachelors of arts degree in history and English from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. 

After college, Che was on track to be a brewer in Portland but the ranch and life in Bodega beckoned.  His father Algeo Diaz Casul Sr., who moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland as a child, overcoming poverty to become a social activist, counselor and advocate for the disabled, became seriously ill and died of pancreatic cancer, leaving a huge void in the family and on the ranch. 

Che returned to Bodega in 2008, helping run the ranch part-time while pursing further education and a career. In 2013 Che received his Master’s in Public Administration from Sonoma State University. For 15 years Che worked in service to Sonoma County managing housing programs for at-risk youth, vocational programs for those experiencing behavioral health issues, and development programs for Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County.

Che saw it as his destiny to preserve the property in Bodega where for 170 years generations of his family have raised livestock, dairy cattle and other crops including barley and wheat. At one time the ranch, part of a land grant, spread over 1,200 acres. 

It’s never been easy to earn enough from ranching to sustain land and family but sacrifices were made to hang on to the ranch, described by Che’s maternal grandmother as both a “gift and a burden.” 

“My grandmother always said we are land rich and money poor and we are money poor because we are land rich,” said Che. It’s a sentiment that plays out every day for him as he meets the challenges that will keep the ranch in the family for the next century and beyond.

Previous generations, with family names, Parmeter, Wiley, Krager, and Angleman,  also had jobs and careers off the ranch to keep it all going.  Mela Angleman is a nurse practitioner, dividing her time between Berkeley and Bodega, and her late husband Algeo was a contracts administrator for California’s State Department of Rehabilitation. His work as a Rehabilitation Specialist focused on education and employment services for disabled individuals facing barriers to employment.

Today, the ranch is 212 acres, the heart of the original 1,200 that was divided with each generation’s passing of the land to the next generation. There are 22 acres of certified biodynamic vineyards, chardonnay and pinot noir, planted under long term contract with Benziger Winery in Glen Ellen.  Mike Benziger, the wine visionary who founded Benziger Winery with his family, was among the first to recognize the opportunities for growing world class chardonnay and pinot noir in the cool climate of western Sonoma County.

Che and Angela also run 30 head of Angus beef cattle, a flock of Dorper sheep and goats for grazing brush.   Angela, who grew up in a beach town in Australia, is taking to country life and the seasonal rhythms of ranching. Che and Angela, who have been married 10 years, met in Paris and first kissed under the Eiffel Tower when they were young, single and independently exploring Europe.

On days off from nursing, Angela might be out in the field fixing a fence, helping a ewe deliver a lamb or coaxing a newborn calf to nurse its mother. She find rewards and a healthy balance in both her nursing profession and ranch life.

Meanwhile, much of Che’s focus is restoring the land through grazing and prescribed burning, fighting off invasive vegetation and the ubiquitous bay trees that are spreading Sudden Oak Death and taking over the oak woodlands. He believes land management and fuel reduction is more imperative than ever because of climate change.

“The natural world is drying out and we must do what we can to mitigate that,” said Che, who remembers doing prescribed burns on the ranch with his grandfather.  For thousands of years native people used fire to clear out cluttered forests and promote plant growth.

Che is a proponent for the greater use of “good fire,” the controlled burns that reduce fuel loads in the face of a new era of disastrous wildfires.

It’s all part of his mission to maintain land and resources in the region while, closer to home, leaving his family land better than when he inherited it –for his son and the generations to follow.

Each evening when Che, Angela and William sit down for dinner in the dining room of their ranch house, they eat beneath portraits of Che’s great great great great grandparents. Their stern demeanor portrays the hard-scrabble struggle of pioneer living and their determination to carve out a way-of-life on their land.

“If we don’t take care of this land, we’re failing these people here,” said Che, gazing at the portraits. “We eat under them every night and remember that this place isn’t just ours but our children’s and their children’s.”.