McNamaras still farming on the coast
In the 1890s an Irish immigrant named Nicholas McNamara likely traversed the lands south of Point St. George on horseback - tending to his cattle ranch and, one can imagine, reveling in the coastline's beauty.
Some 120 years later, another Nick McNamara wends through the same breathtaking landscape atop a trusted palomino named Mack, while three dozen Black Angus cows are pastured not far off.
Today the McNamara family ranch is a rare example of California coastal farmland still in private ownership, surrounded by county lands and public beaches; a commercial airport to the north and tightly spaced single-family residences to the south and east.
"What my parents drilled into me, and what I drill into Nick, is that
what you see now is what you're going to get," said Terry McNamara on a
recent dry day at the ranch, situated on a 180-acre wedge of lush
wetlands and forest bordered by Pebble Beach Drive and Washington
'No amount of money'
Terry and Fran McNamara own the ranch and hope to leave it to their
son Nick and daughter Cheryl someday as a working cattle operation, much
like the one started by Terry's great-great grandfather Nicholas and
eventually operated by Terry's father, Thomas "Garth" McNamara.
Terry and Fran have lived in the farmhouse at 1300 N. Pebble Beach
Drive for 12 years of their 44-year marriage and Terry grew up there,
but they only started running their own cattle on the formerly leased
land in 2009 - an undertaking that keeps their retirement years full of
He spent 17 years with the county roads department and currently
coordinates search and rescue efforts. She is a former director of
county child support services.
They load the pickup with hay twice every day. She typically drives,
this time from the aging barns on the west side of the property across
Marhoffer Creek, passing a decrepit slaughterhouse for the old McNamara
Meat Market, continuing beyond some former pig pens to the pasture where
36 cows lowed in anticipation of their evening meal.
Terry trails behind the truck bed on foot during this routine, evenly spreading fodder every 6 feet or so.
Would they ever sell the land, say to a developer looking to provide ocean-view residences or lodgings?
"There's no amount of money someone could offer," Terry said,
squinting into the glint of the Pacific through the spruce, fir and
alder trees, his ruddy face softening as he listened to the cows chew.
This branch of the McNamara family is inextricably linked to what is
arguably the most valuable piece of property in one of Del Norte's
fanciest neighborhoods. The nearby section of Pebble Beach is named for
Garth and as Terry puts it, "the cows have been here just about
While the usage hasn't changed much since Nicholas McNamara acquired
the original 1,170-acre Point St. George Ranch in the late 1800s, the
regulation of coastal areas in California has. Dramatically.
Even if the McNamaras' wishes to keep things in the family went by
the wayside, it's unlikely you'd ever see a subdivision or a hotel
spring up on the land now. Much of the ranch is considered a Resource
Conservation Area, meaning anybody looking to develop there would need
rezoning approval from the county Board of Supervisors and the state's
Coastal Commission - a process that could take many years, thousands of
dollars and still might not be successful.
The property taxes would also skyrocket if the land left the family.
It's currently assessed at the 1975 value because of Proposition 13.
Besides, things bode well for Nick carrying on with the way things are; the way they've always been.
Son's newfound appreciation
The son recently returned from Santa Barbara, where he worked
building bridges and cowboying on much larger ranches. At 37, he has a
newfound appreciation for the land and the future it promises, he said.
"This is the little piece of it that's left. We'll cherish it and
keep it in the family," he said, looking approvingly at his three
beloved horses: Mack, Penny and Honey.
Someday he might like to expand the ranch to include a trail riding outfit or a boarding stable, he said.
Like his father, Nick grew up in the two-story farmhouse, a plain,
neatly kept affair that's a far cry from some of the million-dollar
homes and vacation rentals just down the street.
After Nick's grandfather died, Mark Mallet of Klamath leased the
surrounding land and ran cattle there for 25 years. When Mallet retired
four years ago, the McNamaras faced a choice: let the land go wild,
lease it again or manage it themselves, Fran said.
"This kind of property you can't leave idle," she said, referencing
the continual onslaught of tansy ragwort and bracken - tenacious weeds
the couple pulls out of grazing land by hand.
They have one part-time ranch hand besides Nick.
Terry "harrows" the manure across the fields, a labor-intensive process involving a huge steel grate and a lot of elbow grease.
"When we first started, I didn't know what was involved. I thought
you just raised 'em, sold 'em and made money. Now I know you don't make
money," Fran laughed.
Sixteen cows were sent to auction last month in Fortuna, where each
600-pound animal fetched around $900. Costs considered, this a
break-even proposition at best, Terry said.
Preserving the legacy
The biggest project and expense since the couple started running the
ranch themselves has been mending cross-fences, which provide a way of
dividing up the land into separate pastures so certain areas can rest
while others are grazed. All the cross-fences had fallen into disrepair
over the years, leaving only an intact perimeter by 2008.
Now they are working to have eight or nine separate pastures, in
keeping with a plan from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a
USDA assistance program meant to ensure the sustainability of
environmentally sensitive farmlands.
The McNamaras were awardandshy;ed a three-year contract in 2009 that
includes cost-sharing for the fencing as well as expertise with land
Differing ideas about what, where and who to "conserve" fuel a
contentious debate on the North Coast. A lot of people have other ideas
about how the McNamara land should or could be used, Terry said, from
salivating real estate agents who "wish those people would sell
already," to environmental groups concerned with protecting wildlife in
the fragile riparian ecosystem along Marhoffer Creek.
To some, conservation can spell death for industry, jobs and quality
of life; while to others, protecting the coastline equates with
priceless benefits. But to Terry and Fran, it's a way of making sure the
family's legacy and livelihood is there for future generations.
"I've learned a lot from the cows," Fran said, admiring a week-old
calf wobbling behind its protective mother, "They are the best family
ever. I respect them for what they go through."
Reach Emily Jo Cureton at firstname.lastname@example.org.