Five Generations Farming in Mendocino.
In the 1850s the Hildreth and Standley families came to Mendocino County. Today Mike Hildreth, his wife Susan, and son Joe and wife Lindsay carry on the family’s farming legacy which has continued for five generations in Ukiah Valley.
On a cold winter morning we gather outside next to the beautifully kept blue Victorian on the family’s home ranch on Ruddick Cunningham Road. Mike and Susan lived here for 17 years. Now Joe and Lindsay reside and work on the family ranch. “There’s a lot of history here,” begins Mike.
One great-grandpa William Jefferson Hildreth homesteaded the nearby Eaglepoint Ranch on the southeast side of Ukiah Valley. Mike’s grandfather Louis Hildreth was born on the ranch which at the time stretched down to Old River Road.
Mike’s other great-grandfather Jeremiah Standley was the legendary Doc Standley, one of the first sheriffs in Mendocino County. Doc got his nickname because he was good at doctoring horses.
Doc’s daughter Jessie, a teacher, married Louis Hildreth. In 1910 they bought the home ranch from a Mrs. Cunningham whose husband was killed in a farm accident. Jessie and Louis raised hops, pears, hay and livestock. Mike’s father Standley was born in the Victorian ranch house in 1916. Jessie lived in the ranch house until she died at 102.
Standley Hildreth met and married Mike’s mom Mary while in the service in World War II. They settled on the home ranch. Mike and his sister Jan, who lives in Ukiah, were raised on the ranch.
Mike graduated from Ukiah High School in 1966 and headed off to Chico State. In 1970 he got his degree in palmology (the study of tree fruits) with a minor in biology. He returned to Ukiah and worked for Rainbow Irrigation. Five years later he went to work for the Federal Land Bank (now American Ag Credit) as a land appraiser and loan officer. While there he developed “invaluable experience” evaluating property. He and Susan met at this time.
Susan grew up with four brothers on a cotton and cattle ranch in Fresno. In 1975, after graduating from Cal Poly, she moved to Ukiah, where she took a job as a pre-school teacher. When some friends suggested she meet Mike, they told her “you have a lot in common.” They married in 1977.
A year later Mike and Susan made a successful bid in an estate sale on an old pear orchard located east of Highway 101 just south of the Talmage exit. “We came home to farm,” says Mike who adds that was what he always wanted to do. Susan took over the ranch books while Mike did the farming. “We brought the old orchard back,” he reminisces. When they bought it the orchard produced about 140 tons of pears. The first year the Hildreths owned it he picked 400 tons, then 750 tons. “We’ve never had under 1000 tons since,” he says.
In 1979 Joe was born and three years later came daughter Lauren. Lauren, now 28, has been in U.S. Navy for three and a half years and is about to transfer from Jacksonville, Florida, to Oahu, Hawaii. A member of an air crew, she is preparing for overseas missions.
Joe, 30, always knew he would come back to the family ranch. He went to Cal Poly and got his degree in fruit science with a minor in agricultural business. Joe’s wife Lindsay is from the Porterville area in the southern Sierra Nevada foothills. They have settled into the Victorian farm house and their farming lifestyle.
“The day Joe came home was the best day of my life,” Mike says with a glint in his clear blue eyes, a trait he and Joe share. Beaming, he adds, “I’m proud of both of my children.”
When Mike’s dad Stan Hildreth died in 1994, “I needed a project,” Mike says and looked for a vineyard “to occupy my mind.” He and Susan found a 38-acre property on Robinson Creek with vineyards, a pond and a clearing just right for a home. They redeveloped the vineyard, added drip irrigation, planted new varieties and added trellising to the vines.
In 2004 they built their new home on the property, which coincidentally has a Doc Standley connection. In the 1880s as the story goes one of Burke’s boys killed his brother-in-law and took off up the canyon behind the property. Doc tracked him down. “Now, 130 years later, we own the ranch,” says Mike, relishing the irony.
Over the yeas Joe and his dad have grown the family land holdings. They’ve added acreage adjacent to the original pear orchard Mike and Susan purchased in the 1970s. In addition Joe bought the 12-acre Cinquini Ranch on Ruddick Cunningham Road and planted it Cabernet Sauvignon. Then the family purchased 28 adjoining acres from Ron Ledford and planted Syrah grapes.
Today, the Hildreths farm 250 acres in the Ukiah Valley. One hundred acres are in four varieties of pears including Bartletts, Bosc, Golden Bosc, and Hailey Reds, a new variety that was developed by Larry Thornton in Potter Valley. The other 150 acres are vineyards. The Hildreths grow Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel. Mike was a partner Hidden Cellars Winery, which was located on the ranch for nearly two decades before being purchased by Parducci in 1999.
The bulk of Hildreth grapes are sold to the Mendocino Wine Company. About twenty percent go to Kendall Jackson and some to Constellation for their Simi and Clos du Bois brands.
“We are lucky to have this continuation of our heritage on our lands,” says Mike. He also makes it clear that making a living farming is not easy. More regulations, the current economic fluctuation and weather all factor into the business. Susan was the bookeepr for years until they computerized. Today she prefers to use her computerized sewing machine to make gorgeous handcrafted quilts.
To be a successful farmer you have to grow what the market wants to buy. When the hop market crashed in the late 1950s the Hildreths took out the hops, split the poles into grape stakes and planted French Colombard grapes, which was in demand in Asti for champagne. For a while the grapes found a market with Germain-Robin Alambic brandy when it started in Ukiah. But the demand for Colombard was waning and they were replaced with the more popular Chardonnay grapes. However brandy made by Germain-Robin and the Hidltreth’s Colombard was served to Russian President Gorbachev by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
The Hildreths started with livestock, hay, grains, hops, prunes and pears. Now they concentrate only on pears and wine grapes. The bulk of the Hildreths’ grapes are sold to the Mendocino Wine Company.Only about twenty percent go out of the county to Kendall Jackson and Constellation for their Simi and Clos du Bois brands.
“Pears have also seen big changes but the crop is more consistent in the market than grapes,” says Mike. Fifty percent of Hildreth’s pears go to the fresh market through Scully Packing Company. The rest go canneries. “There used to be 29 canneries in California,” says Mike, “now there are three.”
As we sit at the dining table overlooking the vineyards at Susan and Mike’s new home, Mike pulls out the family photo albums and the books he has about Doc Standley. He shows me a handwritten ledger detailing arrests made by the legendary sheriff.
One story about Doc has been told many times by my husband John who was a partner at Hidden Cellars Winery. It shows why Doc was revered and was recorded in a chapter titled “The Iron Man of Mendocino, Doc Standley” in “Badges and Buckshot” by John Boessenecker That story recounts the longest chase in the history of law enforcement in California when Doc chased some stage robbing outlaws all the way to Butte County, not once but twice.
Another involves Doc bringing in the murderers of a woman in Sherwood before the lynch mob could beat him to it. He got them into jail but not before he had to stand down the would-be lynchers. They came out of a bar where the Savings Bank is now on the corner of School and Standley Streets and tried to bully Doc into handing over the bad guys.
As Mike flips through the photos and history of his family, he is clearly proud of his heritage and the legacy passed down through the generations. For all the work and being at the mercy of many elements and economy, the Hildreths, who employee ten full time workers and up to 100 at harvest, know the value of what they do.
“As farmers we are an extension of the greater population. We are part of the city in that we grow what those in the city need,” says Mike. Joe nods in agreement adding, “and look at all the carbon credits we generate growing these trees and vines.”