By Todd R. Hansen
Russ Lester was about five years old, maybe six, when he climbed up into a tree fort nested in an apple tree growing on the family farm in Santa Clara County.
From there he could see the agricultural expanse of the orchard-rich valley, and despite his age, he could also see his father’s vision for a future that would be quite different: a place where silicon chips would be grown instead of cherries and apricots and almonds.
It was in that tree fort where Lester vowed to join his father’s fight to preserve agriculture as the “highest and best use” of prime farmland.
Some 60 years later, Lester became quite emotional as he paid tribute to his father’s efforts to stem the evolutionary wave that crashed onto California ag land, washing over fertile soil with houses and factories and pavement.
Lester, on Monday, joined the Solano Land Trust and state conservation officials in celebrating the end of a nearly six-year journey to place his 913-acre Dixon Ridge Farms into a lifetime easement.
“It’s a lifetime dream come true,” Lester said.
The Winters-area walnut grower will be paid $4.075 million to keep his farm in agricultural production, protecting what is described as “prime farmland,” from this time forward.
The easement funds come from the state Sustainable Agricultural Land Conservation Program.
“It’s a tribute to our history and also planting our seeds for the future,” said Lynne von Koch-Liebert, executive director of the California Strategic Growth Council, which runs the program.
David Shabazian, director of the state Department of Conservation, said that with climate change and other pressures on agriculture, the time has come to consider farmland the “highest and best use” in order to feed the state, the nation and the world.
He noted the other benefits of conserving ag land: wildlife habitat and groundwater recharge among the listed items.
Lester also contributed $1.375 million to the project with the potential of some tax benefits. Solano Land Trust received $50,000 as the easement holder and for other administrative charges.
The total project is $5.5 million.
“We all know we are losing (farmland) faster than we’re keeping it, so these projects are huge,” Nicole Braddock, the executive director of the Solano Land Trust, said at the event held in one of Lester’s walnut orchards. Some of the trees are 125 years old and still producing.
Tracy Ellison, conservation program manager for the land trust, also announced the completion of two other easements: the 79-acre, $434,359 Schroeder Farm North project and the $757,196, 101-acre Martin Ranch 3 project — both with 25 percent local matches funded through Solano Transportation Authority mitigation dollars required by the Interstate 80 / Interstate 680 / Highway 12 expansion project.
The land trust was paid $61,305 to handle the two contracts and other administrative duties.
Lester is a longtime supporter of the Solano Land Trust conservation efforts and has served on the board and other advisory committees. There are now 32 conservation agreements between the Solano Land Trust and local landowners, amounting to 13,765 acres of protected Solano County farmland. Another 11,900 acres have been put into open space contracts.
In addition to the organic walnut orchards, the farm also produces tomatoes, sunflowers and wheat.
Lester and his family have farmed Chandler and Hartley walnuts organically since 1992. Dixon Ridge Farms was, at one point, the largest handler of organic walnuts in the United States.
The farm burns walnut shells to create energy for its processing operation. The byproduct is then spread over the orchard ground to increase soil health and aids in the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“Congratulations to these landowners and the SALT program,” Ellison said.