“I was fortunate. Most people don’t know what they want to do. I knew early.”
As a child growing up in suburban Palo Alto during World War II, Jack Varian wanted to be a cowboy.
“We have a mission in hosting people here.”
The 17,000-acre V6 Ranch in Parkfield, California is a working cattle operation and one of the state’s most celebrated dude ranches. Jack shares his passion for open spaces and regenerative agriculture through cattle drives, wrangler rides, and cowboy academies. He feels a kinship with newcomers.
“Peer pressure exists even in the cattle world. I was fortunate to grow up in the city, so I wasn’t strapped with traditions.”
Innovation is a Varian family trait. Jack’s father was an early Silicon Valley legend. His invention of the klystron tube made radar technology possible. But Jack found his calling in a backyard Victory Garden during the War. He had a gift for growing things even at 8 years old. “I knew I wanted to live outside.”
Pioneer in Regenerative Ag Methods
American cattle ranching has always required adaptation and non-conformity. Jack is game to explore new ideas. He was an early pioneer of the holistic land management techniques taught by Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory.
“I think a lot of ranchers aren’t grazing, we’re mining. We’re taking out more than we’re putting back.” Grazing is necessary, Jack believes, but there are good and bad methods. “There have always been grazing herds and the predators that kept those herds together and moving. The question is not whether to graze, but how to graze.”
Savory’s methods counter depletion. This is ancient wisdom: thousands of years ago, Old Testament law required rest periods for Israelite fields. Rotational grazing has cattle move through pastures, giving the land time to rest and facilitating richer soil, secreted carbon, even drought prevention.
“If you beat your ranch into the ground and expose the soil, the soil temperature can increase by up to 30 degrees, and hotter soil means more evaporation and less water retention,” Jack says. “The country the original Westerners settled was virgin and very productive. We’ve spent 150 years making it less productive. If we don’t turn that around, we’ve got a big problem.”
The Hippie Rancher
His kids call him the hippie rancher. He just calls it willingness to learn. The land is a living, changing thing, and ranchers should be too. This way of life demands paying attention to the land and having the courage to follow where it leads. “The most important thing about being a rancher or a cowboy is: Do you see what you want to see or what is really there?” Jack says. “You have to be honest with yourself. There are two kinds of people. The fortunate blame themselves for their mistakes, because they can change.”
That open-mindedness kept the ranch thriving through challenges and changes. Jack and his cowgirl wife Zee put their ranch under a conservation easement with California Rangeland Trust in 2001.
“Why not make the ranch indivisible with a conservation easement? You can’t have country so broken up that wildlife can’t migrate. I think conservation easements are the best solution to family unity and to the health of the land.”
“Three days on a cattle drive turns a lot of folks around.”
Protecting the ranch for future generations is Jack’s mission. He launched the dude ranch program to help the ranch stay profitable. “You’ve got to make the ranch as economically healthy as possible so when the kids get it, they’ve got a chance.” He has a big picture mission for the program, too.
“We get all sorts here. Some have a make-no-sense kind of opinion about ranching. Three days on a cattle drive turns a lot of folks around. We’re sending away people who are spokesmen for good ranching practices. That, I think, is real valuable.”
Jack never lost the outsider perspective his upbringing gave him. Many original Westerners were also city dwellers who bucked tradition and comfort to face an unknown frontier. Now in his mid-80s, Jack remains curious, open-minded, and a student of the land. He has a pioneer spirit and a passion for sharing what he’s learned with others. He runs an active blog sharing lessons in holistic land management practices and life on the ranch. With every guest who visits the V6, he communicates a new vision of ranching, one that focuses on stewardship, innovation, and progress.
“The more radical people in the cities are, the more selfish and single-minded they are,” Jack says. “How do you change that mindset? You bring them. Bring them out here.”
A version of this piece was originally written for California Rangeland Trust.