Beach ranch

Written by Emily Jo Cureton, The Triplicate January 31, 2012 05:27 am

McNamaras still farming on the coast

In a rare California coastal scene, cattle graze near the north end of Pebble Beach on the McNamara ranch. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
In a rare California coastal scene, cattle graze near the north end of Pebble Beach on the McNamara ranch. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
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 Boulevard.

‘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.

 Twice a day, Fran and Terry McNamara deliver hay to whatever pasture they happen to be keeping their 36 cows in. “I’ve learned a lot from the cows,” said Fran. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
Twice a day, Fran and Terry McNamara deliver hay to whatever pasture they happen to be keeping their 36 cows in. “I’ve learned a lot from the cows,” said Fran. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
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 work.

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.

Terry McNamara walks his ranch: “There’s no amount of money someone could offer” that would convince the family to sell the land, he said. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
Terry McNamara walks his ranch: “There’s no amount of money someone could offer” that would convince the family to sell the land, he said. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
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 forever.”

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.

Frank and Terry McNamara near where a cow skull adorns a former slaughterhouse. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
Frank and Terry McNamara near where a cow skull adorns a former slaughterhouse. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
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.

In a photo of a mail wagon taken on the family ranch in about 1920, the child at far right behind the wheel is Thomas “Garth” McNamara, Terry’s father. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
In a photo of a mail wagon taken on the family ranch in about 1920, the child at far right behind the wheel is Thomas “Garth” McNamara, Terry’s father. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
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.

The view of Castle Rock from the McNamara residence. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
The view of Castle Rock from the McNamara residence. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
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 award­ed a three-year contract in 2009 that includes cost-sharing for the fencing as well as expertise with land management.

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.

Thomas “Garth” McNamara, right, on horseback in about 1960. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
Thomas “Garth” McNamara, right, on horseback in about 1960. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
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.”

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