Tish Ward, Conservation Crusader

Written By: Tim Tesconi
Published: May 1, 2013

Sonoma County rancher and conservationist Tish Ward has an abiding respect for land and nature, believing that farming and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. In fact, she does both with unwavering dedication at the Atwood Ranch in Glen Ellen where she has been the ranch manager and resident sage for nearly 30 years.

“My philosophy is to walk softly on your land, realizing what assets you have besides your crops and taking good care of your land, neighbors and the environment at large. Of course, you do have to make a profit at what you do,” said Ward, a sixty-something, self-proclaimed mountain woman. Ward, fiercely independent and happily single all of her life, has her own 40-acre spread atop the Mayacamas Ridge, the mountains separating Sonoma and Napa counties. She’s surrounded by tall trees, deer, mountain lions and her faithful sidekick Coven, a whip-smart Corgi and Border Collie cross. She matches wits with a band of crafty ravens that consider her mountain perch their home as well.

Ward isn’t just a ranch manger with an environmental conscience. She is an agricultural activist, encouraging others to adopt farming practices that are compatible with nature. She has served for decades as a director of the Southern Sonoma County Resource Conservation District and has worked with school kids to “Adopt a Watershed.” She is organizing other Sonoma Valley grape growers to plant “Bee Friendly” habitat beneficial to honey bees, which are in decline.  In between all this, she is working with forestry experts and entomologists about the increasing number of dead and dying trees in the forest where she lives.

Ward’s dedication to sustainable farming, clean water and environmental protection has earned her Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s 2013 Luther Burbank Conservation Award. The award recognizes Ward’s deep seated environmental ethic and exemplary stewardship at a time when those values are such an important part of the public pact in Sonoma County. Increasingly, agriculture leaders say for farming to survive and thrive for future generations the urban public must better understand what farmers like Ward are doing to care for their land.

“Tish Ward epitomizes the values of land stewardship and environmental awareness that the Luther Burbank Conservation Award represents. She is proving that agriculture, clean water and healthy ecosystems can all thrive harmoniously on farms and ranches,” said Lex McCorvey, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “Tish has a tremendous amount of energy, which she uses to bring unity and harmony between the urban and rural sectors of the Sonoma Valley.”

Ward will be honored at Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land celebration on Thursday, July 18 at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard at 3575 Slusser Road in Windsor. Also being honored at Love of the Land are Saralee McClelland Kunde, a Windsor grape grower, philanthropist and respected agricultural leader, and the Lee and Carolyn Martinelli of Forestville who have been named Farm Bureau’s “Farm Family of the Year.” The Martinelli family, which includes three generations working together on family land in Sonoma County, produces wine grapes and apples and own and operate the Martinelli Family Winery. owner.

The Love of the Land dinner and celebration is a public event, open to anyone who wants to celebrate the award winners while toasting the land and people that define and propel Sonoma County’s agricultural heritage. Ticket information is available by contacting the Farm Bureau office at 544-5575.

Tish Ward did not grow up in agriculture but said for as long as she can remember she yearned to be a farmer. She was a military brat – the daughter of an admiral – who lived all over the world while growing up.

“I knew I wanted to be a farmer from the time I came out of the egg,” said Ward. “I dreamed of being on the land, working with my hands and tending to crops and livestock. It became my primary goal.” Magnificent obsession might be a better way to put it.

Ward took a circuitous route to agriculture, getting into farming later in life. A born adventurer, she went off to Africa in the early ‘70s to study monkeys. While in Africa she hooked up with famed anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey and worked with him on archaeological digs.  Then, she embarked on a career as a public relations grunt for BART in San Francisco. She lived in urban Marin County where she abhorred the affluent, pretentious lifestyle. While clicking around in high heels and business suits in her former life as a PR whiz, she dreamed of driving a tractor and mending barbed wire fences on wide open range land.

She fled Marin in 1981 when she bought her remote mountain retreat on the Mayacamas Ridge. Five years after moving to the property, she got a job as the manager of the Atwood Ranch in Glen Ellen, which is down the mountain from her hilltop home. The 70-acre Atwood Ranch, with cabernet sauvignon vineyards and quarter horses for cutting, is one of the many ranches that Ward oversees for Thomas Atwood, a wealthy Bay Area land investor with cattle and quarter horses ranches in Red Bluff, Corning, Elk Grove and Point Arena.

“Cabernet, Cutters and Cattle” is how Ward describes Atwood Ranches.
Atwood, who shares Ward’s conservation and environmental ethic, supports Ward’s approach to sustainable farming and “walking softly on the land,” implementing those practices on his properties throughout Northern California.

Ward had little background in cabernet, cutters and cattle when she took the job at Atwood but rolled up her sleeves and went to work. One of her first tasks was to clean up the Glen Ellen Ranch, which was in a sad state. She immediately began work restoring the creek that runs through the ranch. Over the decades, it had become a dumping ground for engine motors, tires  washing machines and other junk and debris, which had not business being in a creek. She hauled dozens of dumpster loads out of the creek and began planting willows and other native plants along the creek banks. She enlisted school kids to adopt a stream or creek that is part of the Sonoma Creek Watershed in the Sonoma Valley.

Ward is a great believer in the healing power of streams, not only for fish and wildlife but for human beings.

“Creeks and streams are a universal language,” said Ward. “Nearly everyone played in creeks when they were kids, catching pollywogs or wading in water up to their knees.”
Her pickup’s personal license plate “ONE POND” says it all.

Ward believes that opening Sonoma County farms and ranches to students and other residents would help people better understand the good things that farmers are doing in producing crops and preserving nature on their land. She believes farmers have a great story to tell. She calls it ‘land-use marketing” and believes it’s just as important as marketing grapes or cattle, particularly, in a county like Sonoma were most voters have no direct connection to agriculture.

“If people are under the perception that farmers are doing terrible things on their land, where the hell is agriculture going to be 30 years down the road,” Ward asked.
“It’s not going to be here,” she said, answering her own question.

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