by Dahvie James
By now you have probably heard about the Board of Supervisors 4-1 vote to approve Field & Pond as a Bed & Breakfast with 20 special events each year. And I’d be willing to bet that if you are a Yolo County local, you have also heard about Field & Pond and a litany of reasons for why this particular project has caused such a stir within our quaint little community. Did I get that right?
Well, we have certainly encountered and considered these concerns, and while we do take them very seriously, we feel that the situation is really not quite as extreme as what you may have heard. For starters, as much as we marvel in the idea of our being thought of as extremely wealthy commercial developing tycoons, jet-setting across the globe, buying and flipping, flipping and buying, candidly, nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a UC Davis Engineer, and an MBA (Master in Business Administration), specializing in Marketing and Sustainable Enterprise. Philip, my husband, is a veterinarian surgeon from Australia; he actually taught at UC Davis for some time. And though we do engage in some level of modest jet-setting from time to time, it’s usually for vacations and visits with family. Generally, I think we are considered by most townies who know us to be a fairly down-to-earth, fun-loving and ordinary married couple, who happen to have a dream of getting off the corporate rat-wheel, and getting back in touch with the things that we love; nature and people.
You might be surprised to know that we actually came upon the opportunity to buy our ranch on a whim. It was part of a larger landholding, approximately 1,400 acres. It had been parceled out, in order to increase the prospect of selling. Our parcel in particular was the portion of that landholding that contained all of the structures, and unfortunately, or rather fortunately for us – depending on how you look at it – our land also possessed the sub-prime soil. The structures needed TLC, the grounds, though beautiful, begged for florals and structure, and the farmland itself had lain fallow for many many years. Now, if at this point you are saying to yourself, “That doesn’t sound like a great deal,” you are right. Well, sort of.
The conditions surrounding our ranch were such that you couldn’t farm it very easily, because of all of the structures, and conversely, it would also be an awful lot of land to pay for, if you were just looking for a private residence. Well, needless to say, our ranch sat on the market without a single offer for almost two years. And then we came along. Where others saw an undesirable piece of property, we saw a new home and hope for our family and business. Where some had seen a remnant of the long forgotten past, we saw a tremendous honor and opportunity to restore the historical agriculture, and to contribute to a longstanding legacy put forth by some of Winters’ early founding families like the Scotts, the Chapmans and the Irelands.
Filled with excitement, but also a discipline for diligence, we met with a number of different agencies and stakeholders, in order to share our business idea, learn about the property allowances, and to ultimately determine if it was truly a right fit for us. We met with County Planning, Public Works, and the Building Department. We met with various members of the local government, as well as other local business owners, and community members. And even though typical Real Estate prudence precluded our talking directly with immediate neighbors prior to a purchase, to the extent possible, we found ways to meet with other neighborhood folks; we attended a couple neighborhood picnics, camped out many weekends on our friend’s couches, all just to get a real sense for the area, people and culture. Further, given that 70 of the 80 acres south of the creek that dissects the property, is part of a land conservation easement, we also met with the land easement holders in order to confirm that we would be allowed to farm and graze there, and potentially integrate components of the hospitality portion of our business there as well. Additionally, when appropriate, we brought in experts like a General Contractor, Architect and Topographic surveyor, in order to help with County meetings, and to gain deeper perspective on the road ahead. Ultimately, it seemed that all indicators were “a GO.” Even the County General Plan and zoning allowances for the property, Ag Extensive, indicated a “GO.” As an Ag Extensive (versus an Ag Intensive) property, the property already had intrinsic zoning code allowances that were geared towards supporting agritourism. For example, a Bed & Breakfast, conducting up to 12 events, only required an administrative Site Plan Review; not even a minor Use Permit. Needless to say, we were so excited to embark upon this journey.
Now, this is probably an appropriate time to share that our vision for Field & Pond, and for Winters, for that matter, was (and is) far from aspiring to become just another Napa Valley carbon copy. Worth noting is that today within the County area near Winters there is one active approved event center, and two Bed & Breakfasts. Also worth noting is that, within the last six years, a “whopping” total of 16 Use Permits for hospitality businesses were issued in all of Yolo County; only one of these was for a B&B, Park Winters. For perspective, in Napa today there are more than 80 restaurants, with more than 500 wineries, and 150 hotels. A vision to become Napa? No. Our vision is that Field & Pond will become a destination wildlife sanctuary that people from all over the world could come to visit, in order to bask in the beauty and abundance that nature uniquely shares, while also enjoying luxury accommodations. Our tagline is ‘Discover your true nature.’ Its meaning, being both literal and figurative, is all about allowing guests the opportunity to commit to a fulfilling and mind-opening experience that will provide opportunity for self-discovery and inspiration here in our bold bucolic service-scape.
Field & Pond is an 80-acre ranch located approximately 6 miles from downtown Winters. Nestled away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, home of Berryessa Snow Mountain, Field & Pond boasts sweeping views, along with lush gardens, and vast meadows. The ranch itself was established in 1882, just seven years after the town of Winters was founded. The grounds feature a number of archeological gems to include a main lodge, built in 1910, two cottages, a 1,200 square-foot restored historic barn, along with iconic toolsheds and grain silos reminiscent of early settlement in Yolo County. Chickahominy Slough divides the ranch into a 10-acre north side, which includes all of the buildings, and a 70-acre south side of beautifully stunning graze-land and open space.
As a point of fact, we have never thought of, identified or claimed ourselves as farmers. Yet, we see agriculture as an integral part of the Field & Pond business and value proposition. Our services will fund investment in agriculture production and expansion, and in turn the agriculture will inspire and enhance the overall service experience. Without question we are coming in at the ground level of farming; both literally and figuratively. The learning curve has been steep, the road to “growth” riddled with potholes and surprises, and the costs rack up fast. And yes, there are also a plethora of cynics and critics that would endeavor to shame and mock you for even making an attempt. Notwithstanding all of this, we have committed, and are courageously charging into the storm. Our first couple of years have really focused on learning about our soil, water, wind and light, and ultimately devising an enterprise plan that will not only focus on conservation of habitat for the indigenous wildlife, but also integrate physically and conceptually with the services portion of our business. This has meant understanding the existing wildlife, learning about the local agriculture, and discovering how we might be able make a positive and unique contribution to the market.
To date, we have 500 units of bay laurel planted, a 4-acre fruit orchard, with everything from persimmons to peaches, to pears, to apricots, which has a lot of historical relevance to this area. We also have become home to over 200 honey bee hives; having a unique source of water and floral gardens has made our ranch a perfect sanctuary for them to thrive, while they do us the favor of pollinating our crops. With many acres of graze land, we are now coming into our second year of grazing; first with ~50 head of sheep, and we have recently established an agreement for 10 head of beef cattle. But wait, there’s other exciting stuff too. We have a 2-acre catch and release fishing pond that we dream of one-day progressing even further to add to our overall agricultural bundle. And our most recent 4-acre test crop of various squash, watermelons and honeydew melons was an absolute success. Finally, we have also signed a land leasing agreement with another farm who will be partnering with us to help us to make inroads into more expansive crops. Nevertheless, we are the first to admit that we are certainly a long way away from where we want to be, but we are failing, learning, and succeeding, in repetition, concurrently, but with excitement and pride.
Field & Pond event activity has certainly been a topic of hot discussion; however, in essence, we applied for a Use Permit so that we could legally and legitimately conduct events in much the same way as other property owners have been doing in the area for some time now, without county oversight, taxation or accessibility, health and safety measures. Upon purchase, our property was already entitled to conduct eight events; however, due to various pressures, to our surprise, the county revised their rules in March (i.e. wedding season), to require that only one event could be conducted each month. Nevertheless, we have endeavored to always remain in lock step with county guidance and rules, if for no other reason than to ensure that we not jeopardize our application for a Use Permit. Ultimately, this endeavor made for some very challenging and expensive decisions and sacrifices.
To date, our structures are all legally permitted for their use. Our Historic Event barn, which is approximately 1,200 square feet, is outfitted with structural reinforcements, sprinklers and ADA accessible pathways; all approved by Winters Fire, Cal Fire and the County Building Department. One need only look at the very long list of conditions for Use Permit approval for our project to see that there has been a high-level of scrutiny on our project site. The compliance measures are equally rigorous. As stated during the Board of Supervisor meeting, these conditions and measures actually allow the county to have a greater level of oversight of Field & Pond operations than what they have for any other operation in this area. We have fully accepted all of the conditions and measures, and we have taken personal initiative to implement even more strategies to minimize our impact on neighbors and surrounding Ag operations. For example, for every event, we use shuttles to transport guests to and from the ranch. On our own volition, we also proposed and accepted a requirement of a “black-out period,” spanning from July 15th to September 15th, in where we will not schedule any events, so that we are minimizing traffic on the roads during tomato harvest season. Further, all of our events are worked using private security to minimize incidents of smoking, loitering outside of our grounds, and trespassing. Finally, we proposed and committed to only conducting events on Saturdays; and they will generally start after 3 p.m. These concessions overlaid to the Board of Supervisor approval for 20 events will essentially result in what we estimate to be a total of 20 hours of event traffic on the road every year, during hours in where there are no other businesses typically working.
There are no row crops near the Field & Pond site. The nearest occupied home is 1 mile east, and there is only one other home occupied by a single resident beyond Field & Pond, out a little over 1 mile to the west. There is an orchard across the street, which is actively worked. For an orchard such as this one, the managers would typically be subjected to a 50-100 foot pesticide spray buffer, given the type and method of pesticides used. However, worth noting is that this buffer would be in place whether there was one person occupying our property or many. In essence, there would be no change required to the farming practices there. In practice, anyone applying pesticides is required to notify and receive approval from owners of any nearby occupied structures, and they are required to avoid spraying or drift from the property being treated; and in an absolute worst case, avoiding spraying and drift beyond the designated buffer (i.e. the 50-100 feet). However, fortunately there is already adequate separation between our properties to accommodate this buffer. Nevertheless, as an additional concession to protect the Ag operations of the neighboring orchard, and to aid the managers with flexibility for scheduling unplanned sprays, we decided to waive our rights for enforcing buffer requirements stipulated by the Ag Commissioner’s office. Additionally, we have committed to sharing our event schedule months in advance, in order to also aid them with any scheduled and planned sprays. Ultimately, we are new to the neighborhood, but we are not new to the notions of trying to be good neighbors, and relying on communication, collaboration and friendship as the primary guides for co-existing.
During our application process, a local environmentally focused group, Tuleyome, raised some concerns about the wildlife corridor that exists within Chickahominy Slough. Chickahominy Slough is the creek that runs through our property, and many others along the county road, before tying into other creeks and water systems. Upon learning of their interest in our project, we met twice with them to understand their concerns, and to collaborate with them on ways to address them. As a result of our work with Tuleyome, we devised a plan to move the originally slated location for our parking area for guests from the west side of our property to the east. We also engaged our landscape architects to design and specify plant lists and foliage buffers to provide more isolation to the slough. Finally, we committed to forgoing our endeavors for planting orchard on the south side of the slough, so that it would not remove even more forage space for hawks and deer in our area, which has been depleted to an ever more fragile state.
Through our journey of discovering and developing Field & Pond, we have met so many friends. Winters has provided us with the love, camaraderie, and community that we have always wanted out of the place that we call home. Whether it’s the star-gazing tractor rides with buddies, Sunday breakfasts at the various and varying welcoming tables of grandparents, Jim teaching us to fish, aimlessly firing shots with Jose’s hand gun behind the shed, Chris talking me through pruning fruit trees, or attempting to enhance my Spanish by pelting Dago with broken phrases; it has all been so fulfilling and rewarding. Even as we weathered the storm of going through the permit process, by and large, the people of this town have literally sheltered us with love and encouragement. Sometimes as adults we bury some of our basic needs for community and inclusion. However, these aspects are so important for health and happiness, fulfillment and spiritual balance; and this town has given us this. It has also given us an opportunity to help contribute to local commerce, the employment network, and the richness of our culture here. Who knew that such a little town would have such a ginormous heart? We are so grateful to be here, and we are honored by the friendship, love, and votes of confidence that have been given to us and Field & Pond. It feels good to be home.
PS. We are hosting an Open House at Field & Pond, Saturday, October 1st, from 1 to 4 p.m. We welcome friends and supporters to join us. Space is limited, so if you would like to attend, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP.