John Anderson, veterinarian and pioneer in the restoration of native California grasslands, died on August 19 at the age of 77. He’s considered by many in the conservation community to be a visionary who developed methods for turning barren, weed-choked land into flourishing native habitats.
Since he was a teenager, Anderson had a passionate connection to the natural world and was at ease handling every kind of wild creature, from skunks to rattlesnakes. He decided to pursue a career as a veterinarian and in 1970 he graduated UC Davis with his Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine. He became a specialist in primate medicine and worked for seventeen years at the UC Davis California Primate Research Center. In 1980 he spent three months consulting at a primate center in Tigoni, Kenya. That was where he first came to appreciate the hedgerows that surrounded properties in the Kenyan highlands.
While working as a “monkey doctor”, as the local farmers liked to call him, Anderson and his wife Marsha purchased a fifty-acre farm in Winters, California. He was struck by the absence of wildlife in what was a rural area and he observed that the farming practice of keeping field edges bare and weed free contributed to this lack of wildlife. Anderson theorized that planting hedgerows of native plants and grasses around the fields would not only create corridors for wildlife but it could benefit the crops by bringing in beneficial insects and reduce the need to spray for pests and invasive weeds. While serving on the board of the Yolo County Resource Conservation District he promoted the practice of bringing farm edges back to life. He introduced a rich variety of native trees and shrubs and plants — wild roses, Elderberries, Cottonwoods, Valley Oaks and Willows to the hedgerows on his own farm. He collected native grass and wildflower seed and sowed, propagated and planted them on the edges of the fields, the sides of roads and irrigation ditches. The experiment worked. Species of birds that hadn’t been seen in decades started coming back as well as snakes, deer, fox, cottontails, wild turkey — even a bear or two started making an appearance.
Anderson didn’t stop there. By the early nineties the farm had expanded to 520 acres. He retired from veterinary medicine and established Hedgerow Farms. The farm is still one of the most important growers of California native grass and wildflower seed in northern California. He became a full-time farmer and an advocate for habitat restoration using the farm as a teaching site. He convinced farmers and land managers of the value in planting native species and was a generous, wise and tireless mentor for countless people who sought him out to learn his conservation methods.
He was a founder of the California Native Grasslands Association and served on the boards of the National Audubon Society, Audubon California, Wildlife Heritage Foundation and Yolo Basin Foundation. He received numerous awards for his visionary work, including Cal-IPC’s Ryan Jones Catalyst Award, Cal-IPC’s Jake Sigg Award for Vision and Dedicated Service, the 2014 Sacramento Tree Foundation’s C.K. McClatchy Award and SERCAL’s first-ever lifetime achievement award in 2017.
During his lifetime Anderson spent every moment he could in his beloved outdoors. He enjoyed hunting, especially waterfowl and upland game birds, with his Labrador retriever or springer spaniel at his side. He trained Labrador retrievers and several of his dogs received Field and Amateur Field Champion titles. He also loved to fly fish with his family, either on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in Idaho, where he introduced his daughters to fishing, or on other wild and remote rivers.
Anderson’s cause of death was from complications of Lewy Body Dementia. When he was diagnosed with the disease six years ago, Anderson, ever the scientist, accepted that it was eventually going to take him down. But that didn’t stop him from setting his sights on an over-grazed, weedy piece of land that was in need of restoration. He wouldn’t give up. He wanted to leave this life knowing that he did everything he could to give the natural world that he loved so much a fighting chance.
Anderson is survived by his wife Marsha, daughters Anne Anderson and Jenny Vermillion, son-in-law Pat Vermillion, grand-daughters Josie and Isla Vermillion; his brother Tom Anderson and spouse Tamia Marg; and sister Jane Anderson and spouse Tess Ayers.
A celebration of life will be held at a later date.
Donations in honor of John’s legacy can be made to California Native Grasslands Assn. or Yolo Hospice.