Larry Stornetta, the great-grandson of a Ticino immigrant, is still on a high after being fêted at the White House. Land that belonged to his family in northern California has been officially integrated into the spectacular protected coastline region.
Barack Obama looks left and right around the room for the man he is congratulating. Dressed in his best suit, Larry Stornetta lets out a discreet smile as he stands in the president’s Oval Office.
The 60-year-old Californian has just received a special award for “common sense farming” on behalf of his family.
On March 11, 2014, Obama officially designated the Point Arena-Stornetta region 129 miles north of San Francisco part of the California Coastal National Monument, thus adding 1,665 hectares that used to belong to the Stornetta family to the protected coastal region.
Established by President Bill Clinton in 2000, the National Monument, similar to a national park, was created to preserve the rugged coastline of northern California.
The efforts of three generations
“It's a great honour but I also see it as the reward for a collective effort. It all started in 1924,” said the great-grandson of Raimondo Stornetta, a Swiss immigrant who left his birthplace in canton Ticino in 1881 for Mendocino, four hours north of San Francisco.
In 1924 Larry’s grandfather A.O. (full name unknown) bought the first piece of land that would later form part of his small farming and property empire. When A.O. died in 1948, he left behind almost 2,000 hectares of land and property, including shops and hotels.
Most of the relatives who inherited the land sold their share to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a federal agency responsible for managing and conserving public property. But Larry and his younger brother Charles Jr. decided to keep 600 hectares in order to continue to work and preserve part of their heritage.
“When asked why I wanted to keep a part of the ranch, I told my family: where would I go, now I'm over 60? What would I do? No one is going to give me a job. The ranch is my life, it's my passion. I was born here; I've been a farmer since I am six years old, basically. I want to die here, as simple as that,” Larry Stornetta explained.
A tough simple life
Although he is 68 years old, Larry still gets up every day at 5am to work on his ranch, which he manages with his younger brother and a full-time employee.
“When I was young, for years I would wake up at 2am to milk the cows for three hours. We would go back to sleep afterwards, but my body was so used to getting up that early. Then my dad and my uncles decided to quit the dairy business," said Stornetta nostalgically.
Later he worked for years as an itinerant farrier in the region before returning to the ranch to work full time after his father died in 1991. Today Larry and his brother raise sheep and cattle and grow vegetables. They also earn money renting two houses on their property.
The Stornetta family land, which has been incorporated into the California Coastal National Monument, forms a four-by-one km strip south of Point Arena. It consists of pasture land and orchards, with a river to the east and cliffs to the west that overlook the Pacific Ocean.
The small town of Point Arena (500 residents) is located in a creek south of the Stornetta property. The headland, which is popular with tourists, is known as the closest point to the islands of Hawaii – Honolulu is 3,787 kilometres to the west. The 35-metre-high Point Arena lighthouse is the highest on the US west coast.
The California Coastal National Monument comprises over 20,000 rocks, islands, exposed reefs, and pinnacles along the 1,100 miles of California's coast.
The scientifically valuable coastal resources includes coastal bluffs and shelves, tide pools, onshore dunes, coastal prairies, riverbanks, and the mouth and estuary of the Garcia River, which provide a unique habitat for breeding seabirds, marine mammals, and other native species.
The Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands are a destination for thousands of visitors every year, offering opportunities for wildlife viewing and other outdoor recreation activities, like hiking and fishing.
Two or three times a week Larry employs men to deliver the peas and beans they have grown to the Santa Cruz markets five hours’ drive away.
“We used to drive every day, five times a week. But after September 11, the government closed the borders and it’s way much harder to find workers to drive to Santa Cruz,” he added.
Despite this handicap, the tough work – his crushed nails and craggy hands testify – and a single life spent in a modest prefabricated home shared with Junior, Larry says he’s a happy man.
“I feel blessed for having being raised here. There were four families living all together on the ranch. It was so much fun. I love outdoors, I love nature and I love that life. That’s why I've had a lot of girlfriends but after two or three years they all gave up on me. I couldn’'t give up my passion for any of them,” admitted Larry.
He hasn’t totally given up the idea of maybe sharing his life with someone else, though: “I know it's not going to happen overnight. It's hard work.”
Ten years ago the two brothers reached an agreement with BLM to be able to continue to work the land that their relatives had sold. In exchange for a monthly rental payment, their herds can feed there without it affecting the agency’s work.
“Once they've been bought by the BLM, lots of properties are not operated the way they should be. They’re abandoned. It’s a waste. We take care of the land; we've proven that we can run the cattle on a land where endangered species are very well much protected. Respecting the environment while running a land is common sense,” said Larry.
And it was this same common sense that initially convinced Larry that the telephone call he got on March 8 from the White House was a big joke.
“It was a Saturday morning,” the farmer recalled. “Someone called Michael phoned and told me that the president was going to sign the papers and I had to be at the White House on Tuesday. I didn’t believe any of it. I went to see Junior and then we spoke to the people from round here who have been fighting for the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands region to be classified a National Monument.”
It was Merita Whatley, manager of the Hotel Phare at Point Arena and a member of the local owners’ association, who confirmed to him the major lobbying campaign they had been conducting to the White House and Congress via Californian politicians.
Antonio Stornetta was 24 years old when he left the village of Sant’Antonino, close to Bellinzona, for the United States. Seven years later his brother Raimondo joined him with his wife Paolina. At the time many people from Ticino were leaving the poor valleys of Maggia and Verzasca in search of a better life in northern California.
Raimondo and Paolina had seven children, including twins A.O. and J.O. (names unknown by the family). When his father died in 1912, A.O. took over the family business. In 1924 he acquired the first piece of land which, until his death in 1948, would form part of his small farming and trading empire.
His three sons, Charles, Bill and Duke, inherited the ranch which used to produce milk. Larry and Charles Jr, Charles’s sons, maintained a small part of the ranch whilst Duke and the other heirs sold their share of the property to the Federal Bureau of Land Management.
Hour of glory
“I arrived in Washington, DC, at 11pm on Monday evening. The morning after I took a cab to the White House. There was a lot of press. The president talked about my family, the ranch, the work Junior and I have done to protect the land. It was very emotional. Then he shook hands with everyone. He personally congratulated me,” said Larry.
"It's a great honour,” he added, holding up a copy of Obama’s speech. The White House also sent him a video of the ceremony and a pen similar to the ones used by the president to sign official documents.
“Junior was so enthusiastic, he told everyone about it. You know, he's not much of a talker. I think he's never been so excited before,” the older brother joked.
“On the plane to DC, I was sitting next to a German woman. She said something very true: that Swiss people always involve their children in their business. That's what Raymond, A.O. and my dad did,” said Larry.
Although he didn’t getting around to investigating his family tree until he was in his 50s, he now hopes to come to Ticino one day.
“In Switzerland, can you start from scratch and become successful like here? That's what makes this country so unique, it's a land of opportunities,” he declared.
Indeed that was probably the very same thought going through his great grandfather’s head when he set off for America way back in 1881.
(Translated from French by Simon Bradley), swissinfo.ch