The future of family land (and Angela eats odd tubers)

The Vanoni Ranch

By Angela Woodall

I spent the day with the Vanoni family on their Geyserville ranch, an 1,800 acre piece of Sonoma County land overlooking Alexander Valley. The sun shone hot on the scrubby fields grazed by horses and cattle for more than a century. Looking over the hills of the Vanoni ranch was breathtaking, like seeing the world filtered through the honey glow of a bottle of perfect chardonnay — gold, shimmering, warm. A breeze rustled through the old Oak trees and a trio of cats of various ages and colors sunned themselves on the warm cement near the horse stables and workshop.

The Russian River below separates the Vanoni land from the miles of vineyards that stretch with perfect symmetry in the valley below, their grand estate houses on the hills above. These grapes belong to Gallo, Silver Oak, Pastori and others whose names that I haven’t heard before. Cal Vanoni, the fourth generation of the family, handed me a pink-purple tuber that reminded me of a giant larvae. “I know it looks like a grub,” he said. The sound of gunfire coming from down the hill at a shooting range for sheriff’s deputies erupted every 15 minutes or so.

We first met at a Sebastapol Grange dinner a few months before. Dark, strongly built but on the wiry side and not much taller than me, Vanoni worked for years in what is politely called pest control. He quit the business and now grows rare crops like Andean machua, quinoa, corn and the lumpy tuber he handed me. I cradled the creature called oca in my palm before biting into it’s crunchy body. The taste and texture reminded me of parsnips. “I think it has a grapey taste,” Vanoni said. He sells his goods at farmers markets and to some of Sonoma County’s high-end restaurants. (Lady Gaga went out of her way to eat at Catelli’s in Geyserville a couple years ago).

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Shoppers at the Santa Rosa Community Farmers’ Market, at the Veterans Building buying the tubers grown by Cal Vanoni on his family’s land. Vanoni is standing in the background. 

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“It’s hit or miss,” Vanoni said, meaning farming income is seasonal and even then unpredictable because of the weather. His father, Ed Vanoni, a thin man who appeared in a crisp indigo blue denim shirt, blue jeans cinched by a big rodeo-style belt buckle and spotless cowboy hat atop his bald head, is feeding his herd of about 100 cattle longer than he ever has in 61 years. That’s what Cal tells me.  The lack of rain has for weeks been a constant anxiety and topic of chatter and in newspapers. I feel guilty because I dislike rain and love the warm weather. “It’s 12 degrees above normal,” Cal announced.

The Vanoni land most of the in Sonoma County was part of the Spanish-Mexican land grants established in the 18th century. Those pieces of land were vast, as far as the eye could see. Ed Vanoni’s grandfather bought 1,500 acres and his son added 300 more. Most of the land around them has since been divided and subdivided into smaller and smaller parcels and will likely continue to be cut up more. The Vanoni family could never afford to buy their land today. People call it “land rich, cash poor,” and it’s a condition afflicting many if not most of the old Sonoma County farmers and ranchers. “In agriculture, in farming, that is the norm,” Johanna Vanoni, Cal’s mother, said. She was sitting under the thick limb of an old Oak tree, the setting sun creating a soft glow around her. It is her aqua-clear eyes that her children have inherited.

The future of the land will be in the hands of Cal and his three siblings when Johanna and Ed Vanoni pass away. Joanna knows that and she’s seen plenty of other families sell off piece by piece. That’s part of the reason they’re surrounded by vineyards and people from the city.

It was four o’clock and time to start the drive back down their long road to town. At the bottom of the valley, sprinklers watered a patch of grapes. The water was going when I arrived at the Vanoni ranch in the morning, five hours earlier.

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