Sustainable Ranching in Northern California

Emigh Livestock, Ryan Mahoney, Rio Vista, California, sheep



Sustainable Ranching in Northern California

How connected are we to our food? My husband is a hunter; born and raised in Oregon, currently living in California. He cares about the animals that he hunts while enjoying nature. He cares that the meat he consumes hasn’t been raised on GMO fed corn and lived its life in a small pen. I, on the other hand, am a fourth generation California girl. Like many consumers, I purchase my meat from the grocery store, in addition to cooking the meat that my hunter brings home. We both are animal lovers and want our animals to be treated humanely whether they are family pets or animals that are to be eaten for food.

What exactly does the term sustainably raised mean to the consumer? Why is sustainable ranching in Northern California important to us and even more important on a larger scale? If, like me, you care how farm animals are treated, or how sheep help to sustainably farm a vineyard, read on to see how farmers, ranchers, vineyard managers and chefs are working to support sustainable ranching in Northern California.


Hopland, California, sheep, Superior Farms, Bonterra Vineyards
Sheep grazing in Bonterra Vineyards. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Ranch to Table Dining


How connected are we to our food chain supply? In all honesty, I was quite removed from the decision making process of sustainably raised animals. I knew enough to know that I preferred naturally raised meat and organic fruits and vegetables, if the price was right. I also prefer my meat to come from grass fed animals. Is my choice of grass fed animals because I see grocery stores and high-end restaurants using the term “grass fed or grass finished” in their marketing materials, or is it because my taste buds tell me that I prefer this flavor?

Truthfully, I’m not sure of my answer to that question. However, these days, I’m better able to make more educated purchasing decisions when it comes to grocery stores, Farmers Markets, online ordering or restaurant menu choices. Sustainably raised American beef, bison and lamb have become increasingly important to me since I have experienced disruptions in our food supply chain due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

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I’ve always believed in supporting small, family-owned, local businesses; be it bakeries, cheese producers, chocolatiers, farmers, fish mongers, ranchers or vintners. Now I understand the importance of the term “put your money where your mouth is” and how consumers are able to help shape and support sustainable ranching in Northern California and beyond.We have a say in helping to shift the focus to sustainable ranching, farming and fishing by supporting these businessmen and women.


Paul Carras, Superior Farms, butcher, lamb
Butcher Paul Carras demonstrates his skills. Photo © Nancy D. Brown


Sustainably Raised Lamb

With that in mind, I welcomed the opportunity to participate in a pasture tour with Superior Farms, a sustainable commercial supplier of lamb based in Davis, California. They wanted to show me, first-hand, how the ranchers they use care for and raise their sheep. I learned how a lamb is broken down from a butcher’s perspective at Taylor’s Market and was then treated to a three course lamb dinner at Sacramento’s Grange Restaurant. If you are interested in butchering classes, Taylor’s Market offers classes – check their website for details

Farm to Fork in Northern California

Sacramento is raising its pitch fork and planting it firmly in California’s fertile soil with America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign. In sharing everything farm-to-fork in the Sacramento region, from bing cherries to bok choy, I was able to see the full “circle of life” play out in California’s restaurant scene and on its ranches.

I visited Emigh Livestock for a pasture tour where I met with fifth generation rancher Ryan Mahoney who runs a successful cattle and sheep operation in Rio Vista, California. Mahoney and his family have been breeding thousands of ewes and lambs on the ranch since 1960.


Robert Irwin, Bonterra Vineyards, great Pyrenees, Hopland, California
Rancher Robert Irwin. Photo © Nancy D. Brown


Rouge Northern California Sustainable Rancher

“We’re changing the way people view and how large scale agriculture is done. I really believe that,” said Robert Irwin, 32, a rancher from Clear Oaks, California. “When we first came up with this idea 10 years ago, we had a lot of road blocks to overcome. The simple idea of putting sheep in a $10 million dollar vineyard is scary for the vineyard owners. Mendocino County was willing to make the change. Take Fetzer for example. They have been rebels since the 1960’s. We now graze our sheep on over 1,000 acres of vineyard land. They are totally committed to the concept.”

“The simple idea of putting sheep in a $10 million dollar vineyard is scary for the vineyard owners. Mendocino County was willing to make the change.”


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Robert Irwin, Greg Nelson, Nelson Family Vineyards, Hopland, California
Robert Irwin & Greg Nelson at Nelson Family Vineyards. Photo © Nancy D. Brown


Sustainable Ranching Vineyard Tour

I had the opportunity to visit Nelson Family Vineyards and Fetzer’s Bonterra Vineyards in Hopland, California to see, first-hand, how sheep are being used to help vineyard managers control weeds and perform leaf mitigation. Vineyard Manager David Coball of Fetzer Vineyards oversees 950 acres, all certified organic and farmed biodynamic. The company has been farming organically in Mendocino County since 1987. The Bonterra brand produces about 340,000 cases with the majority of wine production in chardonnay, cabernet and merlot varietals.

“For me, organic farming makes me a better farmer,” notes Coball. “In turn, that farming style makes better fruit. When we’re looking at having sheep in the vineyard, we ask, how can we manage our weeds? Another thing about the sheep is that they bring diversity to our farming system. We want to make a farm system that works all by itself with minimum outside influence. One of the great things that the sheep bring is that I just saved about 3,000 gallons worth of diesel this last year because we brought sheep in to graze the vineyards for weed control instead of using tractors. We’re not allowed to use any herbicides, so for us, this is something we’ve been wanting to get rid of. Working with the sheep and having them come in and get rid of the weeds is great. It’s a win, win.”


“One of the great things that the sheep bring is that I just saved about 3,000 gallons worth of diesel this last year because we brought sheep in to graze the vineyards for weed control instead of using tractors.”



Superior Farms, lamb, Grange Restaurant
Sustainable raised lamb chops at Grange Restaurant. Photo © Nancy D. Brown


What Does Sustainable Ranching Mean

So what does sustainable ranching mean for you and me, average Joe consumer? It gives me the opportunity to explain to my children where our food comes from and why we should care how our food travels from farm (or ranch) to table. Just like money doesn’t grow on trees, lamb chops don’t magically appear on the dinner table. Some lucky sheep start out grazing in the vineyards of Mendocino County, protected by Great Pyrenees dogs and looked after by a rancher, who in turn, delivers his sheep to Superior Farms, who then delivers the fresh meat to the grocer or restaurant. My visit to California wine country gave me a better understanding of what’s on my dining room table, one fork at a time.

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Insider tip:
Think beyond rack of lamb and lamb chops when it comes to mealtime. Have you ever tried lamb burger with Sonoma goat cheese and California avocado? For additional insider tips follow @Nancydbrown on Instagram and Twitter and @eatlamb on Instagram.

Sustainable ranching in Northern California photos, article and video by Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown. Top photo courtesy of Ryan Mahoney, a fifth generation rancher from Emigh Livestock in Rio Vista, California. For more information on sustainable ranching, Superior Farms or lamb recipes visit