For the past few years, “regenerative” has become a buzzword in agriculture, as farmers and ranchers look to move beyond so-called sustainable and even organic practices. The goal of regenerative agriculture is to foster a more holistic growing ecosystem by building and preserving soil health, among other ecological practices such as no-till and rotational grazing, for maximal benefit to the farmer, the community, and the environment. The focus is on reciprocity and abundance, not extraction and consumption. And for Jon and Misty Gay of Freestone Ranch, regenerative agriculture is truly a way of life. In this Member Spotlight, we visit with Misty to learn more about their beef ranching ethos and respect for the earth and indigenous foodways. Be sure to follow Jon’s Instagram account (@freestoneranch) for a fascinating look into seasons on the ranch and the flora and fauna that—thanks to their care and devotion—call it home. And shop online at FreestoneRanch.com.
How did you get interested in farming?
Jon and I both come from ag families that skipped a generation. He comes from an Ohio dairy, and my family were farmers. Our parents left the farm for the city. My dad was a scientist and early computer-chip designer and programmer, and his dad was a science teacher. Our moms were both strong-willed and strong-minded teachers. He and I grew up surrounded with computers and tech, and we both learned programming as kids in the seventies. He was very successful in tech, always with an idealistic approach to tech as a set of genuinely useful tools to help and support the broader world.
We wanted to return to a deep and direct connection with the land. I’m an herbalist with a dedication to good food and home cooking. When we found this place that would become Freestone Ranch, it was just right. We were close enough to Sebastopol, to Santa Rosa, and to San Francisco to build and become a bridge, connecting our past and present selves to the land. We have raised our kids Waldorf inspired, with access to curated tech and what we hope is a balanced perspective on it.
We left tech to root back into the land here in Sonoma County, and we discovered pretty quickly that our new home in the coastal oak chaparral was best suited for grazing. Then we started rabbit holing, so to speak, into the amazing questions that presented themselves around what the land wanted to express, listening along with speaking, in conversation with the land. Cattle create and destroy, and we want to lean into what we can learn about creation.
Our primary focus now and moving forward is learning and exploring cultivation patterns with native food crops. There’s so much to learn and relearn, and so much to be built in conversation and in relationship with the land. The land is our home, our origin, our haven, and we have a clear responsibility to tend, love, work with, and nest more deeply into day to day living in new ways. We want to share what we have learned and keep learning more.
What do you do?
Freestone Ranch is our home ranch. It’s mostly grass with trees along the creeks. It’s in the transition zone from the redwood forests to our north and the large ranches and grasslands to the south. It’s between the towns of Valley Ford and Freestone in West Sonoma County. In the late 1800s it was a dairy. The train passing the ranch and through Valley Ford would have taken milk to the Sausalito ferry on its way to the city. Later, it was a sheep ranch. In the 1980s, a developer subdivided the ranch and sold 10 house lots with a plan to develop the remaining ranch into a vineyard using irrigation water pumped from the creek. We purchased the ranch in 2004 and have been growing grassfed beef for the local community for over 15 years.
We are regenerative beef ranchers, but really we are ecosystem engineers, doing our best to listen and learn from the land. We work cooperatively with our herd to the benefit of the land, the soil, the plants and animals, and the ecosystem. We are passionate about native food crops and the protection and expansion of our surviving stands of the human food that was tended here by indigenous hands, with great love and respect, for thousands of years.
We graze very carefully, moving the herds often and supplementing with organic hay through the dry and winter seasons. We keep them out of riparian areas entirely, using a system of troughs with float valves and buried pipes for water. We offer organic Redmond mineral salt licks, and we move them gently on foot and with ATVs, building our trust relationship with them as sentient beings.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
The most rewarding thing about our work is the slow but steady response of the land to our care and our listening, and all that we learn as we do the work. We grow and change too.
What do you value about being a member of Farm Trails?
We love Farm Trails! We have been part of the spring and fall tours for years, and we have appreciated not just the sales but the engagement with people from all over who want to learn more about what we do. We love the way Farm Trails supports locals in being and doing just who we are and what we do, helping us with a broader reach than we would be able to find on our own. I have been a volunteer at the Gravenstein Apple Fair for years, and the kids have grown up with the music and fun.
What are your hopes for the future of your business and/or Sonoma County ag?
We hope that Sonoma County ag can stay fresh and genuine in the face of all the industrial crazy, understanding that food is literally foundational to life. Local ag reminds us all that we are part of something great that’s so much larger than we are.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in ranching?
One piece of advice would be to temper idealism about how to work at large scale with the daily experience of life in ag, and try to find a business plan that works in the here and now. At root, we are growing food as part of a greater being, so much larger than one species or another. When we do well as regenerative ranchers, we build so much more than just a successful business. We build new roles in a recovering ecosystem for generations to come.