Nancy, Merry, and Susie Calhoun are sisters, fourth-generation cattle ranchers, and award-winning conservationists in California’s Livermore Valley. They took over the reins of their family’s 100-acre (40-hectare) ranch from their parents, and plan to pass it down to the next generation. Until then, their aim is to “maximize the utilization of the land and resources while conserving the plants and wildlife.”

A decade-long partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is helping the sisters meet their objectives. With assistance from NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program, they have planted native grasses and installed cross-fencing for their cattle and water troughs with escape ramps in case wildlife gets trapped.

“We’re driven to save endangered species on our property. We love to watch the turtles and frogs in our ponds and sustain those species for future generations,” said Merry Calhoun Carter. “We get to see the fruits of our labor here, and we love that.”

The conservation of monarch butterflies is a top priority on the ranch. The population of western monarch butterflies in California has declined from more than a million in the late nineties to less than 2,100, and scientists fear they could soon become extinct. To help save the butterflies, which play a vital role in the food production cycle, the sisters are improving butterfly habitat on their land by increasing native milkweed and other plants that attract pollinators. They are also educating other ranchers and private landowners about the significance of monarchs and pollinators by conducting workshops on their ranch.

Another project sees the sisters working to restore native Valley Oak trees on the ranch to provide shade for their cattle, enrich the soil, prevent erosion, and improve air quality. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed, and in 2023, the Calhoun sisters were selected as Conservationists of the Year in the Women in NRCS (WiN) Awards. As neatly summarized by NRCS’ Brandi Murphy, WiN committee co-chair, “They are exemplary in their efforts and have become a beacon for others to follow.”