I learned the hard way that buying a ranch is just the first step on the way to owning a ranch. I think the first initiation rites my wife and I encountered and probably failed were when we evaluated buying a ranch in the first place.
I probably should give a little family history as a backdrop. My dad was a farm kid from Nebraska who married another farm kid from South Dakota, my mom. They met at Fort Mason in San Francisco in the late ’40s. What they desired was to get off the farms and have lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. What I wanted was a life on the farm. I remember my dad, who was an attorney in San Francisco, trying to explain how hard life was on the farm and why I should focus on something more plausible than becoming a farmer.
I half took his advice and decided to major in animal science at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, with the hope of becoming a large animal veterinarian. The problem was that I was a B student and B students are not invited to attend the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. So I did what any good B student would do, I went to work in the basic industry that surrounded my home in the Bay Area, which was the technology sector, specifically, the software business.
When we would have relatives visit from the Midwest, though, I was still enchanted with all the farm and ranch tales. Pheasant hunting in the fall, fishing anytime you felt like it in any of a zillion ponds, and barns full of tractors, hay swathers, hay balers, backhoes and moto-graders sounded still like a lot more fun than airports, meeting rooms and PowerPoint presentations.
So the desire to have a ranch was stronger than the desire to really study it out before I decided to get a place of my own. I feel the Lord was on my side, though, as we found and bought our wonderful ranch in Calaveras County, albeit with limited knowledge and skill in selecting a good ranch property.
We bought land and as much as we could afford without giving much thought to all the accessories. Take fencing for instance. At the time we had a great fence builder give us a $1.90 a foot bid for five-wire barbed fencing. The front fence line after all the twists and turns was close to 4,500 feet. Yikes – and that was just the front! Then we found a fellow with a bulldozer and a moto-grader to build the roads we needed to traverse the place and build a site for a barn and a house. Adding culverts, ditches and road base to the bill meant that I felt I had succeeded in funding this fellow’s retirement.
Then we decided to see about power, and we settled on Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power with the thought of buffering it with solar when we would build a home. The problem was the power poles stopped at the very far end of the property and so we decided to have PG&E run an extension up the road a ways and put in underground power from there up to the homesite. The cost was fair but still expensive.
Oh and we then put in a septic system, pulled many building permits for various projects, built a barn and, looking back, we realized that we had essentially built the entire infrastructure needed for a small city!
If only we had asked the Realtor to find us a place with water, power, roads, wells, waste disposal etc. we probably would have saved a lot of money. But who knows? Maybe I should have just invited one of my cousins from South Dakota out to spend a week to educate us. We just never really thought about those issues as we were inspired by the open space for sale. In the Bay Area, an acre is a lot of land and so ranches are just completely out of the question. But in Calaveras County it is still reasonably affordable.
Spin forward to 2016. We now know how to evaluate a ranch property, but in the beginning, we were just enchanted by the acres and acres of grass and oaks. Fifteen years later we have a place that is a treasure to our entire family and I don’t have to show anyone but my accountant the cost equation. Hindsight may be 20-20, but it is the journey of doing something completely different and exciting that drove me to work harder every day to pay for it all. I bet I’m not the only wannabe rancher from the Bay Area with such a story!
Ken Johnson, a software industry entrepreneur, routinely contributes to the Opinion page. Contact him at email@example.com.