Fridays on the Farm: Inspiring the Next Generation of Women Conservationists

This Friday meet fourth-generation cattle ranchers Nancy, Merry, and Susie Calhoun of Livermore, California. Inspired by their parents, these sisters have a deep love for natural resources and agriculture. They’re focused on being a model for other ranchers, particularly female ranchers, on all things related to conservation and sustainability.

Three people standing in grass
(From Left) Susie, Merry and Nancy Calhoun holding their Women in NRCS 2023 Conservationists of the Year award. Photo by NRCS California.

From the pride they share at seeing monarch butterflies flying around their property and the vast number of endangered species that inhabit their streams, the Calhoun sisters are proud of the legacy of their ranch and plan to pass it down to the next generation when the time comes.

Meeting Conservation Goals

The sisters discovered the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) during a workshop on legacy planning and conservation-related topics over a decade ago. Through that first meeting, they began working with District Conservationist Alyson Aquino, Ecologist Jackie Charbonneau, Engineer Katie Bergmann, and Rangeland Management Specialist Ling He, as well as multiple specialists from the Alameda County Resource Conservation District (RCD).

“The Calhoun sisters are a dream to work with,” said Jackie. “Their energy surrounding natural resources and agriculture is restorative for those of us that are lucky enough to work with them. I learn something new from them with each visit to the ranch. I’m so grateful the world has human beings like them.”

Water trough
The Calhoun sisters installed water troughs with assistance from NRCS. Photo by NRCS California.

The sisters had many conservation goals when they first started, and they worked with local NRCS and RCD staff to achieve them. With assistance from NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program, and various RCD programs, they installed native grass plantings, cross-fencing for their cattle, water troughs, monarch butterfly plantings, and they are working to reestablish native Valley Oak trees.

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

Their main focus has been on creating and improving habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinator species on working rangeland. In addition to the efforts they’ve made on their own property, they also work to educate other ranchers and private landowners about monarchs and pollinators, hosting many workshops on their ranch over the years.

Six people standing by river
(From Left) Susie Calhoun, Ling He, Merry Calhoun, Jackie Charbonneau, Nancy Calhoun, and Farley Connelly. Photo by NRCS California.

Conservationists of the Year

Additionally, the ranch has been a demonstration site for Carbon Farm Planning, funded by grants through the Alameda County RCD and technical assistance from NRCS. These planning efforts have resulted in the implementation of compost spreading trials to enhance carbon sequestration.

“It is incredible that these three-woman turned a single project with the NRCS, into over a decade's long mission to protect and conserve the plants and wildlife of Alameda County,” Farley Connelly, RCD biologist. “When given the opportunity, people such as the Calhoun sisters can do so much good for conservation."

They were named Conservationists of the Year by Women in NRCS (WiN) in 2023, recognized for being leaders in their ranching community and inspiring the next generation of women conservationists.

“The Calhoun sisters were chosen because they embody the vision of Women in NRCS, as they continuously strive to maintain the balance of natural resource conservation and agriculture,” said Brandi Murphy, NRCS employee and WiN committee co-chair. “They endeavor to advance their family’s fourth-generation ranch, while maintaining agricultural sustainability by partnering with NRCS and their local resource conservation district. They are exemplary in their efforts and have become a beacon for others to follow.”

Four people examining plants
Staff from NRCS and RCD have helped the Calhoun sisters tackle their conservation goals. Photo by NRCS California.

More Information

Visit local farms, ranches, forests, and resource areas through our Fridays on the Farm stories. Meet farmers, producers and landowners who are working to improve their operations with USDA programs.

USDA offers a variety of risk management, disaster assistance, loan, and conservation programs to help producers weather ups and downs in the market and recover from natural disasters as well as invest in improvements to their operations. Learn about additional programs.

For more information about USDA programs and services, contact your local USDA service center.

Jonathan Groveman is a public affairs specialist for NRCS in California.