Saving ground

A fourth-generation farmer protects a key piece of the family farm

Ken and Cherie Schroeder have made a big decision. They recently worked with Solano Land Trust to protect a piece of their family's historic farm. The 77-acre working farm can be seen from Interstate 80 and is a visible reminder of Solano County's rich agricultural past, present, and now, future.

Over the years, much of the family land has been divvied up and sold. Ken and Cherie have made a different choice — one that is available to them because of you and your support of Solano Land Trust. They are proud to have protected a piece of the family's historic farm forever.

Original settlers

Ken Schroeder is a fourth-generation farmer in Dixon. His great-grandfather, Joachim Schroeder, migrated to California from Germany in 1865. Several of his descendants have been tilling Dixon soil ever since.

“This is sacred ground,” says Cherie. “We’re honored that the Schroeder family was one of the original settlers of this town, and proud that we've been able to hold onto this property.”

The history of these local settlers started when Joachim came to California, not for the gold, says Ken, but because “he heard that the land was great, and that California was a good place.”

“Joachim bought a ranch about two miles west and a little north of Dixon and built a house for three thousand dollars. It’s still standing and owned by my cousin,” says Ken. Joachim expanded his 160 acres to 600, where he and his wife, Gretchen, grew wheat and barley without irrigation. Upon their passing, the land was divided between their eight children.

Ken’s grandfather, Ed Schroeder, married Mildred Hanke from Dixon. They farmed wheat, hay, and an orchard. It wasn’t until 1959 or '60 when farmers could start to irrigate crops after the Monticello Dam was built.

Ken’s father and Uncle Elmer farmed a combined total of about 500 acres. With irrigation they were able to grow crops like corn, sugar beets, and tomatoes. The tomatoes were grown for a Hunt’s canning factory in Davis, which no longer exists.

The rising sun

Ken remembers learning how to drive at age nine or ten when he drove the truck down the rows of tomatoes to distribute lug boxes to the pickers. When Ken was 11, the federal government took their house on Dixon Avenue by eminent domain for Interstate 80, and the family moved to town.

After graduating from Sacramento City College, Ken worked for PG&E. When his dad said he needed to hire a man to help, Ken, at age 21, said he was interested in the job. That is how Ken started farming in 1975. He and his father never discussed taking over the family business. It just evolved.

Ken farmed sugar beets, dried beans, sunflowers, and corn. Farming is hard work, but Ken enjoys it. “I love getting up early and being out in the field with the sun coming up. I really enjoy that.”

Of their three children, Curtis, the oldest, farms hay and some crops in Elmira. The twins, Cary and Greg, are not farmers. Cary is an agricultural loan officer, and Greg is a high school counselor.

Ken and Cherie have been married for 26 years. Cherie has always worked outside the home and helped to provide a steady income for the family. It's not an easy life, especially for a small farmer. It's pretty hard to make money,” says Ken. “If I didn't have Cherie, I wouldn't have made it.”

Conserving land

“I wasn't too aware of conservation easements before talking to my neighbor, Manuel Escano,” says Ken. Manuel, whose property is just west of Ken’s, 267-acre, prime-farmland property under easement in 2006.

Ken and Cherie considered their options, and since the piece of property behind them is part of the Vacaville-Dixon Greenbelt, they decided to work with Solano Land Trust to protect their land forever.

“Through the generations, my great grandfather’s land kept getting smaller,” says Ken. I just hate to see farm ground being eaten up by houses.”

Ken recently turned 70, and he’s still farming on Schroeder and Thistle roads. He has 40 acres of almonds and 40 acres of English walnuts, all organic. Ken and Cherie decided to go organic because it brought a greater return and is better for their health and the environment. “I think it’s a good thing for the world,” says Cherie. “Many conventional farmers spray everything, and we need these bugs so much. We need the bees!”

Although Ken says he’ll farm for a few more years, Cherie thinks Ken will farm for the rest of his life.  He’d like to do some of the things he never had time to do when he was a full-time farmer. They have a cabin near Jackson that they never seem to get to, and they’d like to take their trailer and their dogs to Yosemite.

“I really do think this is sacred ground,” says Cherie. “and I like the idea of protecting it in perpetuity. If you really don't want to be the one to lose the ranch, there are ways of keeping it in agriculture.”

Photos courtesy of Ken and Cherie Schroeder.