New Ranchers, New Needs: Why are first-generational ranchers deciding against traditional climate adaptation strategies?

Final report for GW18-020

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2018: $24,982.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2019
Grant Recipient: University of California - Davis
Region: Western
State: California
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
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Project Information


There is a crisis in California's livestock production system, marked by climatic extremes and rapid aging of the rancher population. Amid this crisis, there is both a critical need and an opportunity for a new generation of ranchers who can adaptively manage for an uncertain future. Based on preliminary analysis, California's first-generation ranchers (FGRs) are a diverse demographic who desire to practice sustainable ranching, yet under-utilize traditional ranching information sources and are less likely to use common climate adaptation strategies (e.g., conservative stocking rates) when compared to multi-generational ranchers. 

The overall project goal is to enhance FGRs’ climate adaptation capacity as well as outreach organizations’ abilities to meet the needs of this new clientele. The project uses mixed-methods (interviews, surveys) of ranchers and shepherds who manage cattle, goats and sheep across California. Project objectives include, 

  1. Conduct a regional comparison of FGRs to determine how decision-making influences adaptation to climate change and quality of life.
  2. Develop appropriate resources and outreach strategies to improve climate adaptation practices and FGR quality of life.
  3. Host three regional workshops to facilitate knowledge exchange.
  4. Improve rancher organizations’ outreach strategies.

This project incorporates FGR collaborating ranchers, UC Davis Rangeland Extension Specialists, and the network of Cooperative Extension advisors to ensure usefulness of the project from conception to outreach. Outreach will include workshops, presentations, publications and webinar. Expected outcomes include improved climate adaptation for FGRs and targeted outreach efficacy. 

Project Objectives:
  1. Conduct a regional comparison of FGRs to determine how decision-making influences adaptation to climate change and quality of life.
  2. Develop appropriate resources and outreach strategies to improve climate adaptation practices and FGR quality of life.
  3. Host three regional workshops to facilitate knowledge exchange.
  4. Improve rancher organizations’ outreach strategies.


Materials and methods:

Materials and Methods

Interview and Survey tool development

I developed a semi-structured interview guide and survey to assist in understanding how the diversity of rancher decision-making impacts adaptation strategies on their ranch and their quality of life, including economic, social and ecological values and goals. The interview is structured as a narrative inquiry (Peters, Grégoire et al. 2004), a technique that gathers data by engaging in a conversation about their path to ranching, values, challenges, and the process for overcoming challenges. I tailored this interview to understand how decisions are made on climate adaptation by each operator. Table 1 identifies sections in the interview and the corresponding data collected.

A follow-up online survey using Qualtrics was sent to participants to collect quantitative demographic and operation characteristics (e.g., land ownership) as well as satisfaction with quality of life indicators.

Interview participants were recruited through my rancher collaborators, the UC Cooperative Extension network, and a range of organizations including farmers markets, county Farm Bureaus and Resource Conservation Districts. I used snowball sampling to recruit additional first-generation ranchers from interviewees' social networks.


Table 1. Interview data

Interview questions

Data needed

Life story and experiences 

Ranch management philosophy

Goals, values, motivations, quality of life indicators


Ranch operation  characteristics


Qualitative operation and management characteristics (e.g., climate adaptation practices, land use, marketing strategies)

Environmental adaptation: Information, social networks, and research needed

Types and process of deciding on climate adaptation strategies (e.g., move livestock to different location due to relationship with owner)


Types of information they access and involvement in organizations



Data analysis was conducted using MAXQDA, a qualitative data analysis software, to analyze interviews and social networks. This type of analysis allows me to not only compare identified objectives, but also use grounded theory to discover themes which arise from the data (Welsh 2002). I am using quantitative analyses to examine how FGR demographics, values, location and information sources informs decisions and impacts use and success of adaptation strategies. All data collection and recruitment instruments were submitted and approved by The Institutional Review Board (IRB) Administration at UC Davis prior to the start date of the project (IRB ID# 912915-1).

Research results and discussion:


During fieldwork, I interviewed 37 first-generation ranchers, with 31 participants completing follow-up surveys between July 2017-March 2018. FGRs are attempting to balance their socio-ecological goals —including climate change mitigation and ecosystem restoration — with economic realities by using strategies also common to MGRs — meat production, off-ranch work, and other forms of diversifying income streams. At the same time, FGRs are also creating innovative strategies that include targeted and contract grazing, and working for established ranches (being employees rather than owners, but with considerable management responsibilities). Key findings encompass first-generation rancher demographics, motivations to start ranching, climate adaptation strategies, and information sources.


Of the survey respondents, participants range in ranching experience, with the most experienced beginning in 1986 to the most recent beginning in 2014; on average, participants started ranching in 2006. The youngest rancher is 28 and the oldest 77, with a median age of 38--far younger than the national average of farmers and ranchers, which hovers around a median age of 58 (USDA Census of Agriculture, 2014).

Motivation to enter ranching

While quite a few ranchers set out with an explicit mission to manage livestock, many of the interviewees began raising animals due to multiple reasons, including the quality/quantity of land they were able to access, philosophical goals related to alternative agriculture, and a desire for the lifestyle associated with ranching. Interviewees on the whole manage their operations using techniques that prioritize ecological health, with many citing climate mitigation as a guiding principle from the outset. First-generation ranchers described how they find personal meaning in the lifestyle of working outside and managing landscapes that improve soil health and biodiversity. A deep passion and love of working with animals and learning how to improve degraded lands was cited repeatedly as a motivation to ranch.


Climate adaptation decisions

The strategies first-generation ranchers are using to adapt to climate change are directly related to the types of animals they are selecting and land tenure. The majority of FGRs interviewed are sheep producers, with many incorporating diversified production of multiple animals and some crop production (Table 1). Interviewees report that they chose the type of animal most appropriate for the ecological and climatic context. Eight percent of first-generation ranchers began as diversified vegetable farmers on self-described "marginal lands," but converted that land to sheep or goat production for ecological and economic reasons. Rather than cattle which predominate livestock production in California, most new ranchers are buying and breeding small ruminants that are locally adapted to certain bioregions of California. They describe choosing smaller regionally adapted species due to large amounts of capital, land, water and feed required to raise cattle. 

Table 1. FGR livestock and crops (n=31)



% FGR operations







Beef cattle




Chicken (layers)




Chicken broilers


Dairy cattle












Creative land access is crucial to first-generation ranchers in California due to high land prices, with most using multiple ownership, leasing and alternative tenure strategies. Accessing prime agricultural land for vegetable and fruit production has become incredibly limited in California due to high cost as well as the consolidation and fragmentation of land. The primary way interviewees gain access to land is through developing relationships with land owners - often grazing for hire or securing leases at below-market rates. FGRs of all types talked about the creative arrangements they use, including grazing for free in exchange for their animals reducing fuel load on the property. Due to their lack of capital and uncertain land access, 16% of new ranchers have developed business where they are paid to graze public and private land for ecological services, from weed and invasive species abatement in vineyards, to habitat restoration and fire mitigation. 


Information sources

First-generation ranchers' philosophical commitment to sustainable agriculture within the California context requires creativity and innovative strategies. Many of the strategies they use are based on information from alternative information sources, such as the Savory Institute and Holistic Management Institute. 

When asked the level of importance for specific information sources to their operation, FGRs overwhelmingly value other ranchers’ knowledge and information over any other information source (Table 2). We found that most first-generation ranchers are aware of established ranching information sources such as California Cattlemen's Association, Farm Bureau, and Extension. Those who did not use these resources but were aware of them reported that they felt the information would not be relevant to their operation and/or felt philosophically opposed to the organization and its members.


Table 2. Importance of information sources to FGRs





High or very high[1]

Other ranchers (not your farm partners) (n=26)





University of California Cooperative Extension Agents (n=25)


20% 16% 32%

NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service of USDA) (n=25)





Holistic Management Institute (n=25)





Other (n=26)





California Cattlemen's Association (CCA) (n=25)





Independent agricultural consultants (n=25)





Workers or interns in your operation (n=25)





RCD (Resource Conservation Districts) (n=25)





University of California (n=24)





California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) (n=25)





California Farm Bureau (CFB) (n=26)





Farmers Guild (n=25)





Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) (n=25)





[1] High and very high responses have been aggregated.

Participation Summary
37 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

5 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Journal articles
9 Webinars / talks / presentations
4 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Poster at conference

Participation Summary:

101 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

Fact sheets

Drought Preparation and Adaptation for First-Generation Livestock Producers



2019 CA Rangeland Climate & Drought Workshops - Weather, Grass, and Drought: Planning for Uncertainty

First- and multi-generational ranchers where brought together in 4 regional workshops on climate and drought resources to support short- and longer term rangeland drought planning. Targeted drought adaptation information for first-generation ranchers was disseminated via the handout titled "Drought Preparation and Adaptation for First-Generation Livestock Producers."

These workshops were hosted in collaboration with UC Cooperative Extension, the National Drought Mitigation Center, the USDA California Climate Hub, and the National Integrated Drought Information System .

Coastal California - Solvang, CA (February 6, 2019)

Central California - Tulare, CA (February 7, 2019)

Sacramento Valley/Foothills - Loomis, CA (February 12, 2019)

Northern California - Susanville, CA (February 13, 2019)

Drought adaptation workshop
Drought adaptation workshop panel discussion

Journal articles


2018. Munden-Dixon, Kate, Kenneth Tate, Bethany Cutts, and Leslie Roche. An uncertain future: climate resilience of first-generation ranchers. The Rangeland Journal, Special Issue: Transition and Transformation. [PDF] (invited paper).

In preparation

Munden-Dixon, Kate, Ryan Galt, and Leslie Roche. First-generation ranchers: Growing diversity and innovation in the face of climate change

Munden-Dixon, Kate and Ryan Galt. Alone on the range?: A new generation of rancher on the frontier of climate adaptation



2019. First-generation ranchers on the frontline of California's climate crisis. Geography Colloquium Series. Indiana University. October 4. 

2019. Alone on the range: A new generation of rancher on the frontier of climate change solutions? Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society Conference. June 29.

2019. Keynote: Change on the Range. USDA NRCS Visionary Women in Agriculture and Conservation: Women’s history month 2019 celebration. March 27.

2019. Alone on the range: A new generation of rancher on the frontier of climate change solutions? California Climate & Agriculture Network Summit. Davis, CA. March 5. (Invited talk)

2018. Grazing on the margins: The political ecology of first-generation ranchers and shepherds in California. Political Ecology Network 2018 Conference. Oslo, Norway. 21 June. 20 attendees.

2018. Radicals ranching in California? How a new generation of ranchers are adapting to socio-economic challenges and a changing climate. American Association of Geographers Conference. New Orleans, LA. 12 April. 50 attendees. 

2018. Sustainable working rangelands: management-research partnerships to create usable science. Invited Presentation. University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment Seminar Series. Tucson, Ariz. 21 March. 50 attendees.

2018. Alone on the Range: Exploring First-Generation Ranchers’ Adaptations to Socio-economic Challenges in California. Society of Range Management Annual Meeting, Reno, NV, 1 Feb. 30 attendees.

2017. Bridging the Divide: Implications of Social Variations Between First- and Multi-Generational Ranchers. Australian Rangeland Society Conference, Port Augusta, Australia. 28 September. 40 attendees.


Published press items

Under review

2019. Munden-Dixon, Kate and Leslie Roche. Title TBD. The Conversation. 


Other (Poster)

2018. Alone on the range: Why first-generation rancher report social exclusion and the implications for ranching in California. California Cattlemen’s Association Annual Convention, November 29.

Project Outcomes

Did this project contribute to a larger project?:
Project outcomes:
  • Economic sustainability

The economic viability of first-generation ranchers (FGRs) requires informed decisions when confronted with unexpected climatic changes. However, from my preliminary study, FGRs indicated that they are likely to take on-ranch risks for financial returns, but at the same time are not using traditional ranching information sources to make these decisions, or utilizing ecosystem service payments and other governmental programs for financial assistance. If they are indeed taking risks, how are they making these decisions, and are these unknown information sources providing them with science-based resources? This project will fill this gap by understanding how outreach providers can empower FGRs to make financially sound decisions that support their values and goals.


  • Social sustainability

The quality of life of ranchers, their surrounding communities and broader society are interconnected through shared ecological resources. As established ranchers age, a new generation must be cultivated and supported if the industry, which manages over half the land mass in California, is to survive (Byrd, Flint et al. 2015). Ranchers produce not only food, but socially valued ecological services that range from carbon sequestration to fire mitigation. This project will enhance this new generation of rancher’s ability to utilize climate adaptation strategies and access necessary information and resources to ensure the future of healthy communities and natural resources.


  • Ecological sustainability

In California, the effects of climate change and urban expansion into prime agricultural land have compounded broader challenges for all producers, but ranchers in particular are affected due to their seasonal mobility and large land requirements. Previous climate scholarship has suggested that the Sierra Nevada Foothills are among the most highly exposed to climatic changes in California (Gergel, Nijssen et al. 2017). This project utilizes regional comparisons from the Central Coast, Northern Coast the Sierra Nevada Foothills of California to develop a strategic understanding of how the FGR demographics, values and regional context influence on-farm adaptation. Adaptation strategies and informed decision-making are critical so that limited water and other resources are used efficiently to allow access for all users. However, expanding metropolises into these rural areas are resulting in the fragmentation of available areas and forcing ranchers to adapt to rapidly changing rangeland conditions without necessary resources and social support.

Participants in the regional drought adaptation workshops reported they found the information valuable and they will use what they learned to update their drought plans. 

Knowledge Gained:

Findings have shaped how I conceptualize the creation and dissemination of knowledge of climate change adaptation. Many of the strategies first-generation ranchers in California are currently using are emerging and innovative, such that there is a lack of public research and outreach to support their needs. New ranchers cite private consultants and peers as sources of information, and are creating self-run experiments on their land to test new adaptive management strategies. Much of what is needed in order to bridge the gap for increased collaboration and discussion between new ranchers and research and outreach professionals is not technical, but social. Many new ranchers view established institutions such as the University of California system and rancher organizations as philosophically opposed to their mission to practice sustainable agriculture. While I was unsurprised that there was mistrust between new ranchers and organizations, I was surprised by how strongly first-generation ranchers desired information and research on climate adaptation, yet were either opposed to working with UC, or didn't even know where to start if they needed assistance. 

Success stories:

First-generation rancher interviewees repeatedly told me how much they appreciated this type of qualitative research that seeks to understand why they use certain climate adaptation strategies over others, and how important social and economic aspects are to their environmental sustainability.  A contract sheep and goat grazer in coastal Northern California explained, “What we could really use is help with the business aspect. We need market research that shows the value that grazing brings to fire abatement, soil conservation and so much more. Market research would increase our market value and help us become viable players.”


Based on my findings in California, there is a need for researchers and outreach organizations to diversify the type of research conducted and how it is disseminated in order to reach a broader range of clientele. New ranchers repeatedly told me that they desire research on sustainable animal husbandry and management strategies for small ruminants. Integrated research that truly combines social, environmental and economic components is critical, as a rancher in coastal Northern California told me, 

"I think one of the big challenges with Extension and the NRCs and the RCD is that their projects and materials they're offering don't always have economic and quality of life implications baked into the analysis. And so they're willing to pay for projects or support you in ways or give you information that might meet a land management objective, but also might put you out of business."

Many of the traditional outlets and social networks organizations use to disseminate information are not utilized by new ranchers. Many new ranchers use Facebook groups and webinars to obtain and share information. As one rancher in rural Southern California explained, 

"It has to be a webinar. Basically, it would have to be literally in my community. If they want to have the workshop here, that's great. But that's a problem for any dairy farmers. They can't leave. Every minute there's something. We just had a baby. A goat has pneumonia. Yeah. I think topics from the land stewardship side, to the nutrition and husbandry side."

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.