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John Powers of Hopeful Hill Ranch in Nevada County indicates the direction of the sun while explaining how to install solar panels to students in a Sierra College course on ranch management. The trip to Powers' ranch is part of the course, which is taught by Keith Crabtree.

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Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling

Green Acres 101: City slickers try the simple life

A Sierra College course unlocks the mysteries of moles and manure for folks with a rural bent.

By Kim Minugh -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Tuesday, March 15, 2005

You'd never guess John and Janey Powers used to be city slickers.

Touring their rustic 25-acre Hopeful Hill Ranch in rural Nevada County, you would think the two had been managing pastures, raising livestock and operating a working ranch for years.

But it's only been six since they left their fast-paced lives near Los Gatos and took Keith Crabtree's ranch management class at Sierra College.

"When we started out six years ago, we were city kids - really green. We were pretty happy sitting on the porch, sipping wine, asking, 'What are we going to do with all our free time?' " said John Powers.

But after taking Crabtree's class, "We got the bug. It all started right there."

Crabtree said his class, taught at Sierra College's Rocklin and Grass Valley campuses, is meant to give people a basic understanding of how to develop small rural properties, with or without livestock.

He designed the class with city slickers like the Powerses in mind, a "Ranch Management for Dummies," if you will, a road map of what resources and experts are available and where.

"All the people moving out here from Los Angeles or the Bay Area, they don't have the agricultural background," said Crabtree. "I said, let's make a class to tell them who to talk to so they don't have to reinvent the wheel."

The six-week course includes six lectures and three field days: one spent collecting and testing soil samples, one visiting and assessing students' own properties and the third spent listening to speakers and touring a model ranch.

Since the Powerses moved there in 1999, Crabtree has been taking his Grass Valley students to their Hopeful Hill Ranch, located between Nevada City and Grass Valley. His Rocklin class has been visiting Kissler Ranch, 28 acres in Grass Valley owned by Pam and Adrian Kissler, for about 15 years.

On Saturday, Crabtree and his Grass Valley students recognized the landowners for opening up their homes to about 1,000 students over the years.

In the shade of the Powerses' garage, they toasted with small plastic glasses of sparkling apple cider.

"They give us their place for that day," said Crabtree. "They're just very helpful people. They're very community-oriented folks."

But the rest of Saturday was strictly business.

In the morning, students learned about controlling pests such as moles and star thistle plants. Don't fall for pest control scams, they were told. Watch out for velvety tree ants; they've exploded in number this year.

From there, another pleasant subject: the intricacies of cooking compost - a pinch of chicken manure, a dash of dinner leftovers, hold the citrus - and spreading manure as fertilizer.

Then Janey Powers and "her girls" took center stage, as she introduced her prized collection of chickens from around the world. There's Gio, short for Giovanno, a Cochin bantam rooster from China ("The noisy little one," Janey calls him); and Emily, a Chinese silky ("She's high on cute, low on smart"); and Carmen, an Americana rooster who won't let anyone but Janey into the pen (he's "very protective of his girls").

A black Cochin bantam hen, Ronnie, short for Veronica, later steals the show for cuddling like a kitten but acting a lot less catlike when nose-to-nose with Sheba, the ranch hound. Everyone has a name at Hopeful Hill.

In the pasture, Roger Ingram, UC Cooperative Extension farm adviser in Placer and Nevada counties, recommended increasing the number of grazing animals as a remedy for uneven pasture growth.

It works like this: The fewer animals there are, the less competition for food, and the less likely animals will eat the long, fibrous grass you want them to.

"It's like being at a potluck or smorgasbord," Ingram said. "I don't have to worry; there's plenty to eat."

Add a few more cows, horses, (insert your favorite livestock here), and now everyone is a little less choosy.

"Now, if I don't bite here, my neighbor will bite," he said. "I have to grab what I can get."

The topic was of particular interest to Avanti Centrae and her roommate, Alexis Martin-Vegue, who live on 23 acres in south Nevada County.

They hope to operate some training stables on the land and are learning how to manage a pasture on their unique soil.

"Our property has a high salt content in the water, so Keith gave us some ideas on grass that might grow there," Centrae said.

Also part of the curriculum Saturday: fire protection, the use of solar energy, the care of livestock and the preservation of natural resources.

King McPherson and Gail Anderson of Nevada City said Crabtree's class had given them a great deal of direction in planning their development of 80 acres in Siskiyou County.

"Neither one of us have been farmers or ranchers," McPherson said. "It's kind of exciting to learn all this stuff."

After a class lesson on soils, McPherson and Anderson requested soil maps of their property and began evaluating what plants could thrive in the dry, sandy soil.

Now they are looking forward to some scenic pastureland of crusted wheat grass and orchard grass - a perfect buffet for their grazing horses.

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Janey Powers of Hopeful Hills Ranch in Nevada County introduces one of her chickens, a Cochin bantam, to her dog. Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling

Fresh eggs are a part of ranch life. Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling

Keith Crabtree, right, instructor for Sierra College's ranch management class, hugs Pam Kissler after a toast to the landowners who host the class's field trips. Kissler and husband Adrian, left, owners of Kissler Ranch in Grass Valley, have hosted the class for 15 years. Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling


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