SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — For decades, ranchers have had to adapt to the perpetual state of drought in California. It's an accepted part of agriculture.

While ranchers have methods to adapt in leaner years, many of them said this year's drought has been different.

For 140 years, Daniel Sinton's family has owned and farmed 18,000 acres of land in San Luis Obispo on two farms called Avenales Ranch and Canyon Ranch.

"My great-great grandfather purchased the properties in 1875," Sinton said.

Walking through the family's pasture, as the cows watched with curiosity but keeping their distance, one thing was noticeably absent at the Avenales Ranch — green grass. Currently, the ranch is miles of dry amber grass and dust, as far as the eye can see. 

"We grow grass. Cattle use it and we use it and feed our cattle with it, but we're growing grass out here on the ranch land. It takes a pretty specific rainfall to have good grass growth, and we've had 40% of average rainfall. Not just average, but 40% of average… that's pretty bad," Sinton said.

He's not alone in this crisis. Ranchers all across the Western United States are experiencing the same problems.

During times of drought, ranchers cut their herds down according to the amount of feed and grass they have so they don't over-graze the land. Often, they'll sell cows to ranches up to the Pacific Northwest or to ranches in the Midwest. This practice is common and in itself not alarming. But this year, Sinton has had to cut his herd size by 50%, and he doesn't even think that was enough.

"It's severe. I probably should have cut more, I know a lot of people who have cut 60-70%," Sinton said as he looked out among a group of his cows. “You know, that’s always hard because as a rancher, you spend years and years working on your genetics and building your cow ]herd to be the best it can be. And then in one year, all of a sudden you’re set back to square one.”

Avenales Ranch is still a family business, and Sinton's father, Steve Sinton, said the ranch has not experienced this kind of severe drought since the 1970s.

"We've learned that the things that cattle eat, the grasses and food, declines as the rain declines and recover more slowly, so it's going to take us a long time to recover," Steve said. "The land and the property is who you are, it's where you belong… It's more than a place. People talk about their roots and that's what this really is, this is our roots."

But in 1972, Sinton's grandfather saw problems in the ranching world, both with drought and volatility in the market, so he built in a fallback plan for the ranch. It's come in handy in the past and will definitely help during this year's drought.

"He decided that he needed to diversify a little bit, and that this would be the perfect place to grow wine grapes," said Sinton, surrounded by grapevines. "We get really hot days here but also really cold nights, and that's ideal for wine grapes."  

Today, the ranch owns and operates Shell Creek Vineyards, a boutique line known primarily for their petite sirah. The Sinton family are cowboys turned winemakers.

"There's an 8-acre block of petite sirah next to this, and then we've got a block of chenin blanc, and a block of cabernet," Sinton said.

Sinton said that while all agriculture is based on ups and downs, vineyards have less volatility than cattle ranching, especially in an area like San Luis Obispo, where water is hard to come by. Paradoxically, grapes do better when stressed for water. Too much water and the grapes will bloat, creating a weak wine. The less water they get, the more sugars will develop and create a more full-bodied wine.

"[The grapes] have definitely helped us manage our way through certain hard times," Sinton said.

Sinton and his father said they feel a greater sense of responsibility than most to keep the ranch going, including the cattle. They see themselves as stewards of the land, charged with carrying the ranch into the next 140 years.

As part of his mission to protect that land for future generations to come, drought or no drought, Sinton said they "placed a conservation easement on Avenales Ranch with the California Rangeland Trust, which will serve to protect the land in perpetuity."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect spelling of the last name Sinton. This has been updated. (Nov. 15, 2021)