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Tuesday, Jun 25, 2024

Sprawling Parcel a Link to Old California

Privately owned and managed, Rancho Guejito is a 36-square-mile parcel of largely undeveloped land in the San Pasqual Valley off state Route 78 that harkens back to the San Diego County of old, with a rich history that includes being one of the original Mexican land grants in Southern California.

While nearly all of Rancho Guejito (pronounced wa-hee-toe) land is ecologically sensitive with its caretakers poised in conservation mode to preserve the natural habitat, the ranch needs steady sources of income to survive and currently supports three main businesses: a winery/vineyard, an organic fruit-growing operation and a working cattle ranch.

“With this ranch comes a lot of responsibility,” said Hank Rupp, an attorney who manages the land for the entity that owns it – New York-based Rancho Guejito Corporation.

Rupp is focused on protecting the land and raising conservation awareness. But he and others invested in the ranch are also dedicated to maintaining all three of Rancho Guejito’s agricultural enterprises to keep it sustainable and ensure the land’s productivity – and profitability – for decades to come.

The biggest draw in the region is the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park, part of which is adjacent to one side of the Rancho Guejito parcel. But while they share similar flora (and some fauna), unlike the zoo, most of Rancho Guejito is not open to the public.

Limited Access

Public access to Rancho Guejito is limited to the winery, accessed through a front gate on San Pasqual Valley Road. The rest of the property is fenced off and mostly off-limits, with the exception of just a handful of employees and contracted workers.

Rupp doesn’t live on the premises but works with another employee out of offices inside an old Sears kit home next to the vineyard and tasting room. An on-site cattle rancher and his family are among just six people who live on the grounds. The rancher is tasked with keeping track of the welfare of more than 1,000 free roaming bovines.

With no hunting allowed and no threat of human contact, wildlife at Rancho Guejito live freely — just as they did hundreds of years ago.

Herds of deer, flocks of wild turkeys, badgers, foxes, quail, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, mice, bobcats and mountain lions are able to re-populate, safely roaming among Rancho Guejito’s grassy rolling hills and valleys, desert chaparral and some 300,000 rare Engelmann oak trees, California oak trees and Sycamores.

Fences keep all of the animals on the grounds – and out of certain spots, most notably the site’s fruit tree groves and grape vines.

Third-generation farmer Al Stehly of Valley Center and his crew planted all the citrus, avocado and grapes starting in 2010. He and his 12-member staff are contracted workers who live off-site but visit during the week to manage the site’s 166,000 trees.

“It’s very humbling to be there,” Stehly said. “I love driving out there, pulling over and sometimes taking picture of the old oak trees. Since I go out there so often, I kind of know that say, this flock of turkeys is going to show up here, and that this herd of deer will turn up over here. You get so you can actually start to recognize the animals.”

Crews allowed to do so enter the property through a back entrance that is accessible by one road that leads to a red gate that is kept locked, monitored and guarded.

On weekends the winery is open and guests can take a hay ride around a small portion of the property, play cornhole and listen to live music.

Rancho Guejito also hosts events like weddings for up to 250 people.

The events, winery tours and wine sales are one part of the business at Rancho Guejito, where Rupp said they grow two dozen different kinds of grapes on 51 acres of land. There are 900 grape plants per acre, Stehly said.

Citrus Sales

Sales of organic avocados, oranges, grapefruit and lemons to retailers – mostly to Whole Foods operators on the East Coast, Stehly said – is another dependable source of income. The ranch is one of the largest organic avocado and citrus producers in the county.

For 12 years, Stehly has managed what he says are now 245 acres of avocados, 93 acres of mandarin oranges, 39½ acres of lemons, 7 acres of grapefruit and 49¾ acres of grapes.

Stehly used high-density planting for the citrus trees to create a thick canopy that holds in moisture. He said typical planting of citrus and avocados are 100 trees per acre but Rancho Guejito trees were planted at 432 trees per acre. Sitting on an aquifer where it sources its water, with the high-density planting, the ranch is able to grow citrus and avocados using up to half the amount of water typically used by other fruit growers.

Stehly’s crew also uses a high-tech application that monitors the level of stress in trees, keeping them better informed about the trees’ water needs.

“The app measures the diurnal swelling and contraction of the trunks of the tree,” Stehly said. “When it is more stressed the trunk contracts and when it is less stressed, the trunk swells. The algorithm we get tells us how effective we are with irrigation, and it helps with scheduling how to water.”

Stehly said during a heat wave a couple of years ago, the weather was predicted to hit a high of 95 degrees F. and his crew was ready to start watering earlier until he asked them to use the monitoring device.

“The app showed we didn’t need to and that gave us the confidence to pause, saving us hundreds of thousands of gallons of water,” he said.

Cattle Ranching: the Oldest Business

Rancho Guejito has been one of San Diego County’s largest cattle ranchers since its earliest days, more than 175 years ago.

Now Rupp is finalizing plans to shift away from the wholesale cattle business and move to a USDA-certified direct-to-consumer grass-fed organic beef program that may be the only one of its kind in Southern California.

“We’ve always been a cattle ranch,” Rupp said. “That’s been our business all along, but we want to diversify. We are always looking for ways to make income. We’ve always had the belief that this land is going to have more value in agriculture and as a ranch than if had been developed.”

There has been talk for decades in the local community about development, and plans by some entities have fallen through over the years. But Rupp says there is “no plan for building anything on the property,” and that the plan moving forward is to keep the site as rural, rustic and rugged as it has been for centuries.

A large portion of Rancho Guejito includes one of the last undivided Mexican land grants in Southern California that is still an intact single parcel. In 1845, when Mexico was still part of California, the Mexican governor awarded the land to San Diego’s customs inspector.

The ranch has grown over the years from its original size of 13,298 acres to nearly 23,000 acres. The largest single addition came in 1940 when the adjoining Maxcy Vineyard Ranch (4,500 acres) was annexed to Rancho Guejito.

The most recent acquisition was the purchase in 2006 of the historic 100-acre Rockwood Ranch. The Rockwood farmhouse, built in the early 1890’s by Bernard B. Rockwood, is now the location for the vineyard’s tasting room.

Rancho Guejito has changed ownership several times over the years, the last time for $10 million by East Coast shipping magnate Benjamin Coates, in 1974. That same year, Coates built an 8,000-square foot home on the south end of the property.

Since Coates’ passing in 2004, the corporation has been under the management and direction of his daughter, Theodate, who lives on the East Coast and does not do interviews with the media, Rupp said, but is interested in protecting the land – and keeping it intact.

“The ownership in New York wants to make sure the property is getting the maximum protection,” Rupp said. “All of this is very expensive and time-consuming, but this land is also important to us.”

Stehly said working for Rancho Guejito Corporation “is a dream job” and that Rupp is supportive of many of his conservation-centric ideas, including ditching gas and diesel with items like electric chainsaws and electric tractors.

“It’s unimaginable to have the opportunity to help create something like this,” Stehly said. “And (Rancho Guejito ownership’s) values align so well with my own, with conservation and profit, that I can say taking care of this property is a dream job. I look at my job as helping to make their agriculture profitable enough to protect all the rest of the ranch. You have to make money to keep it looking like it does.”

Rancho Guejito

Founded: 1845

Owner: Rancho Guejito Corporation  

Businesses: Farming, winery, event venue

Crops: Citrus, avocados, grapes, cattle

Size: 36 square miles

Notable: Rancho Guejito emcompasses one of the largest remaining ‘Old California’ Mexican land-grants.


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