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Stories from the valley

Chasing Butterflies

Contributed by Steve Beckley

I recently visited Davis Ranches, located near the former town of Sycamore in Colusa County.  Davis Ranches was founded by Howell Davis and his wife Sebia in 1854 along with the town of Sycamore which is located between Colusa and Grimes. The name Sycamore comes from the native trees that border the slough as it runs southwest from the Sacramento River. The ranch has an iconic red brick mansion that was completed in 1894. 


I had the opportunity to meet with John Brennan, Manager and Emily James, Projects Coordinator to discuss the ranch. The theme of the ranch is “Farming for the 22nd Century” and they operate in a sustainable manner that will insure that future generations of the family can continue the legacy for many centuries.  They grow walnuts, safflower, sunflowers, rice and other crops, but I wanted to learn more about some of the conservations programs they have implemented. 

One particular program I was interested in was their efforts to preserve a patch of milkweed that is vital to the survival of monarch butterflies.  The disappearance of milkweed due to development and other factors has been a significant factor in the monarch butterflies population decline.  The patch is small but is high quality habitat for the butterflies.  We were able to find a newly hatched monarch.  The patch not only supports monarchs, but other pollinators enjoy it.  It is their intent to provide additional habitat by propagating additional milkweed in other locations on the ranch.  This patch is close to the highway and I have driven by it many times, never realizing the importance to the ecosystem.


They also cooperate with conservation groups on other projects such as native hedge rows, seasonal flood plans habitat, and habitat for giant garter snakes.  They provide farm tours, have a Bird Day and host Master Gardner Workshops.  They also partner with the Center for Land Based Learning to help bring local high school students to learn about and take part in their environmental restoration efforts under the The SLEWS Program (Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship).

Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”  Milkweed has virtues of producing nectar vital to the survival of monarch butterflies.  Monarchs have a much brighter future thanks to Davis Ranches and other growers that are preserving the patches and propagating new ones,