These days when Don Wood looks out at the undulating hills of the San Ramon Valley, he sees a severely parched and barren landscape -- still waiting for rain.
A fourth-generation rancher whose family's lands once stretched across Sycamore Valley on both sides of Camino Tassajara Road, he said it reminds him of the drought of 1976. That year, he recalls he had to ship his cattle to Oregon and sell a flock of 450 sheep because he couldn't feed them.
"But it's worse now," he said. "I would say this is the worst I have seen."
"Those who do a rain dance need to change their choreographer," he quipped. "But it's just the way it is. You just roll with the punches, so to speak. When you are dependent on the weather, it's the gamble you take."
Wood's ranch is among a legion of local family-owned ranches of the San Ramon Valley, past and present, that are highlighted in a new exhibit at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley in Danville. "Cowboys and Cattlemen: Ranching in the San Ramon Valley," underwritten by the Lesher Foundation, just opened and runs through May 4.
Museum curator Beverly Lane said that putting together the exhibit with the help of local ranchers, such as Wood and others, over the past 18 months has given her a new appreciation for the rich 200-plus-year history of ranching in the San Ramon Valley.
Ranching came to the area when the Spanish settled the area. And with the discovery of gold and the end of the Mexican-American War, pioneers from the gold mines in the 1840s settled in the valley and continued the tradition.
What really struck her most in her research, though, Lane said, was how many ranching families in the San Ramon Valley still continue to raise cattle despite the challenges they've faced through the years.
"And this drought is nothing to what ranchers face now and have faced in the past," she said.
Gordon Rasmussen, a rancher whose family has owned land for more than 100 years in the Tassajara Valley just north of Pleasanton and who sold a portion of the land to develop the Blackhawk community, said most people don't even realize that ranching still exists in the San Ramon Valley. He still has a large cattle operation, does ranching in the Valley and owns a ranch out in Dickson.
"They look at the beautiful hills and see there's some deer and beautiful cows," he said. "And they don't understand that there's someone there that is still fixing the fence and the feeding the cattle."
Sheila Barry, a livestock natural resource adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension at Davis, said that in fact many ranchers, including those of the Tri-Valley, now lease public lands for cattle grazing from public agencies such as East Bay Regional Park District, the city of San Ramon and local water districts.
About 100 different ranchers lease public lands in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, around 150 different ranchers lease public lands in the Bay Area, she said.
Ranchers lease land for cattle grazing from at least 30 different public entities in the Bay Area, she said. For instance, East Bay Regional Park District works with some 35 ranchers, because cattle grazing helps preserve the ecosystems and various endangered species there.
Fourth-generation rancher Jeff Wiedemann said that although the tools and methods of ranching may have changed, love for the land and the work hasn't. His family's ranch was started in the 1850s by his great-grandfather, who came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush. At its height, the ranch encompassed a several-thousand-acre swath of land headquartered south of Norris Canyon, near Crow Canyon.
Yet, like so many ranchers, his family's empire of land has shrunk in size. His family sold some land off that became Norris Canyon Estates, when faced with the high cost of inheritance taxes for the land and the unpredictability of the ranching business from year-to-year.
But he still maintains his commitment to raising cattle with wife Nancy and two sons. He maintains a medium-sized operation of about 300 cows in the area and owns a big ranch out in Nebraska, too.
With the current drought, a number of ranchers have been forced to sell off a lot of their cattle to make ends meet. Also, ranchers are having to move their cattle to other states, where enough grass is growing and water more plentiful, adding to their business costs.
But ask Wiedemann about the current drought, and he'll say, it's reaching "an acute level."
If it doesn't get better,"we're going to have to cut half the herd, and we're trying like hell not to do that," he said.
Yet the drought isn't going to be the end of the ranching business in the San Ramon Valley, he says. Urbanization is probably the biggest threat, he said, as well as misperceptions the public can have about the cattle industry regarding the humane treatment of animals, the environment and food safety.
But it's an industry that is still doing good and important work in the face of a multitude of challenges, he said: "It's feeding the world ... and we think we've done a good job."
"And we're not an anachronism -- although you might see something in a museum about us," Wiedemann joked. "In reality, it's a very modern, dynamic industry. It's constantly changing."
Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/JoyceTsaiNews.
What: "Cowboys and Cattlemen: Ranching in the San Ramon Valley" exhibit
When: 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 3 p.m. Sundays through May 4.
Also, special events are planned. For this month:
Where: Museum of the San Ramon Valley, 205 Railroad Ave., Danville
Cost: Museum regular admission free to members; families, $5; adults, $3; children, $1; and students, $2