Russian River Watershed
Protecting a Farming Legacy
In 1887, Charles Laufenburg rode up to a fine piece of land outside of Calistoga and liked what he saw: a brand new barn, a new house, clean water and good soil. He bought the property and moved his family there. His son, Charlie, eventually took over the farm, spending his entire life on it. More than 100 years after the senior Laufenburg bought the property, Charlie left Laufenburg Ranch in the care of Sonoma Land Trust when he passed in 1988.
Charlie had a vision for Laufenburg Ranch and left behind ledgers filled with handwritten entries detailing his farm dealings over the decades. Born on the property, he lived off the farm and its diversified operations — grazing cattle, raising chickens, growing crops and caring for the prune orchard — his whole life. It was vital to him that his farm and its way of life be preserved.
Fast forward to the last several years, during which a successful organic farmer kept Charlie’s agrarian spirit alive at Laufenburg Ranch and sold crops from the farm at local farmers’ markets. He used innovative techniques in his organic farming operation — for example, planting species that attract beneficial native insects for pollination and to prey on other insect pests. This way of farming supports Sonoma Land Trust’s belief that agriculture can succeed in concert with the natural environment. This farmer’s practices kept Bidwell Creek clean for the steelhead and other creatures that depend on the water, his support of insect pollinators helped protect our native biodiversity, and his delicious food helped nourish our community and fuel our local economy. As Knights Valley goes through persistent change and development, we are striving to preserve agricultural continuity in Knights Valley, protecting a rich legacy left by the Laufenburgs.
… and an Historic Legacy
The conditions of Charlie’s bequest were, in a general sense, that the Land Trust protect the ranch for conservation purposes, but also keep it in agricultural production and maintain the historic nature and integrity of the structures on the land. The picturesque farmstead still features the historic ranch house and the original, turn-of-the-century horse barn, registered together as an historic landmark by the County of Sonoma. The ranch house was originally built by previous owner Lewis McLane around the same time as the barn, but burned down in a fire in 1897 and had to be rebuilt. Though horses no longer reside in the barn, the house still serves as a residence.
Originally built for racehorses, the barn provides a special window into the past. McLane was a fancier of thoroughbred racehorses and used this barn to house them. Time seems to stand still when you walk into the barn today: Still standing tall with the original beams and planks made of old-growth redwood, the walls of the barn are lined with old, rusty ranching tools. Racehorse stalls line both sides of the barn. As the sunlight peers through crooked slats, you can almost imagine the sound of horses shuffling in their stalls. Today, while the horses are no more, the barn provides a safe haven for several species of bats and the occasional barn owl.
Bidwell Creek and Forest Management
More than a dozen years ago, Sonoma Land Trust began working with a nonprofit partner called Circuit Riders to improve this habitat along the creek. Over the years, agriculture and other human activity has resulted in the removal of vegetation almost up to the top of Bidwell’s stream bank. This puts a big stress on the creek, reducing shade that keeps the water cool and reducing food for the fish and animals. Our primary goal was to widen the corridor to a more natural width by planting more than a thousand native trees, like valley oak and madrone, and shrubs, like coyote brush and snowberry, along the banks and in the old floodplain. We’ve also worked diligently to control noxious weeds that are a threat to our native biodiversity, along with removing old, unused fencing to make it easier for wild animals to move across the ranch and get down to the creek.
We have largely been successful in these endeavors so we are pushing further out into the landscape from Bidwell Creek. In 2020, we returned controlled livestock grazing to the ranch to manage and revitalize the grasslands and reduce the amount of fine fuels for wildfire management. We also completed a plan to manage our forests for wildfire. In 2017 and 2019, wildfires burned right up to, but not across, the property. We realized that there are ways we can manage our forest that provide the conditions to reduce the intensity of future fires, improving ecological functioning of the forest and reducing the risk of wildfire to our neighbors and community.