Does it make cents to buy farmland in Sonoma County?

Written By: Linda Peterson
Published: January 28, 2012



It is often said that the only affordable way to own farmland in California is to inherit it, or marry into a family that has land.

But sometimes the yearning is deep, and the risk seems worth it, and when you’ve found the perfect spot, you take the plunge.

This tale is about two highly motivated and bright people brought together by a love of equines. Nathalie Guion came to this country on her own from France, with exceptional credentials as a horsewoman and trainer, to create a life for herself. She learned English, and found a ranch where Arabian horses were bred and shown, moved there and began her own boarding and training program on the property. Enter Drew Buechley, an investment banker from San Francisco, who’d just bought his first Morgan stallion – Rooster (a well deserved name). He learned of Nathalie’s business and both he and his stallion began training. As Nathalie says, “One day we went riding together at Limantour Beach, and the rest is history!”

Drew spent more and more time in Sonoma County, finally deciding he wanted to own land here. He found what he wanted in 2008.The property was gorgeous and big – 260 acres, with existing vineyards, ponds, oak woodland and cattle grazing land. After much deliberation, Drew and the owner agreed on a deal.

That’s when the real work began. Growing up in Oklahoma, Drew and his family raised all their food from their orchards and acres of vegetables, so he was no stranger to the land, just a little rusty.

The property had some good existing infrastructure, a modular home and two barns, three ponds and perimeter fencing. They did a lot of work to clean up, upgrade the barn, building horse paddocks and feeding barns, lots more fencing, gravity fed plumbing for livestock water and finally – new signage on the gate: “Sonoma Coastal Equestraining Center”.

Then began building their farm enterprise, and the many lessons to be learned.

The vineyards
The previous owner, Paul Clary, of Clary Ranch Wines, established the vineyards and was a winemaker, continuing to live on the property and manage the vineyards. His Pinot and Syrah were highly rated and in demand. But after a year of ownership, Drew and Nathalie needed to be living on the property, and take over vineyard management to save money.

Drew is a savvy businessman, but admits to being a bit intimidated by the knowledge needed for viticulture. Over time, he realized that specific knowledge was needed on an exception basis – when something went wrong, and that he could bring in experts to advise and assist.

Nathalie and Drew have experienced a variety of weather related issues over time, as does any grower. But this is a challenging region for grape growing, as Drew says, “we’re on the edge of the universe where grapes can be grown, because it gets cold here.” Then there’s the fog and the infamous wind that blows through the gap.

They’ve joined the Petaluma Gap Wine Alliance to help promote their wines. They now have good relationships with highly rated wineries including Roadhouse Winery in Healdsburg. Drew’s business background helps him in managing the many facets of the vineyard. He feels the vineyard is stabilizing.  There is a possibility they would consider planting more grapes, with a few good years behind them.

The Horses
Nathalie manages the horse business (with her adorable two year old daughter, Marie Charlotte, at her side), which has the potential to pay for itself. They board horses on-site and “retired” horses at another nearby location. She trains riders and their horses; and they breed and sell Morgans once trained.

Nathalie is warm and engaging and her clients seem to really enjoy being there. They have overnights with night rides, classes and yoga in the barn (which I’ve attended and found to be very relaxing – it’s all about the breathing – even when on a horse!)

They just finished creating a huge outdoor arena (which they did mostly themselves), with some funding through California FarmLink’s loan program. The arena will attract more clients and hopefully more income. “Ten more boarders would make it work”, Nathalie says.

Existing Cattle grazing
When Drew and Nathalie took over the property there was an existing agreement with a cattle rancher who was grazing 75 head of cattle on a large portion of the property. That ended in 2009, when they decided to grow hay for horses and for other animals instead, as a cash crop. The cattle had been hard on the land, causing soil compaction and runoff. The hay project was not very successful, mostly due to huge growth, heavy fog delaying the curing process and a soft market with a commodity type of hay.

Adding value
In 2010, 100 acres of their property became certified organic, and they started growing silage for dairies. There are quite a few ranches doing this. It’s a pretty good deal – the dairies help out by sourcing the needed seed, plowing, and then coming back to harvest with their own equipment. They also conveniently provide and spread manure to enhance the soil. It is a win-win for both dairy farmer and silage grower. The manure/amendment aspect is especially helpful, because it is more and more in demand.  Everyone who has it in quantity is charging for it now.

Once the silage is cut in June, it becomes, Drew says, “like a giant lawn – great for riding!”

The couple has been considering what other value adding enterprises they might undertake like raising lambs, or growing blueberries.

Restoring the land
FarmLink helped connect Nathalie and Drew with their local NRCS and RCD offices to get help with restoration. So far, they’ve done riparian buffers, a lavender pollinator program, windbreaks, owl boxes, mulching in the vineyard, and lots of erosion control, with still more to be done. With these projects, the landowner has to pay up front and then get reimbursed, so they have to pace themselves, waiting until they have the money to pay for the restoration.

Drew said of the NRCS staff, “they really tried to understand what WE want to do on the property.” The plants they use come from the North Coast Native Nursery.

The dollars and sense side of farming and ranching
The financial and “time” issues that have come up for this couple are many, and unfortunately familiar to almost anyone working in agriculture. They include the taxes they must pay as a new owner (they are not in the Williamson Act but don’t want to see the land developed; also are concerned about giving up the value of the land, or whether that option will even be available for them); cost of farming in general, which includes agricultural power, permitting, fuel costs, water usage, unaffordable equipment, inputs, seed, etc.

Drew said that it’s important to bring back small-scale equipment that farmers can actually afford to buy and use.

Finally, Drew said, “It would be hard to stay here if we couldn’t make this property work. We’d have to move into town and board our horses.  Or, we’d have to just leave the state and go somewhere where it’s cheaper and you can own land for a reasonable price.”

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