ATVs have a bad rap. While many of us associate the vehicles with freewheeling good ol' boys wreaking havoc on the natural environment in the name of cheap thrills, all terrain vehicles - when driven responsibly - are actually incredibly useful to farmers and ranchers. Think of it this way: Would you rather spend half a day rounding up cattle on horseback, or finish the job in a couple of hours atop an ATV? It's kind of a no brainer.
That's not to say, of course, that driving an ATV isn't loads of fun; there's nothing like zipping up a steep, rugged dirt trail at 15 MPH (it feels like you're going faster) with the wind in your face. Toby and Raiza Giorgi of ATVs for Agriculture are banking on the appeal of this fun factor to educate people about the challenges and realities of running a small-scale sustainable farming operation, while at the same time fostering an appreciation for the untamed nature that surrounds it.
The couple runs a grass-fed cattle ranch (formerly a dairy farm) on a portion of the 1500-acre Gaviota property that's been in Toby's family for generations. Extended members of the family are scattered in homes across the beautiful, hilly property just north of the 101 freeway, and significant parts of the land have been dedicated to an organic fruit and vegetable farming operation. Much of the land, however, remains undeveloped, and oak tree groves, shady valleys, waterfalls (if they've had rain) and hiking trails leading up to awesome views of the Pacific make this a nature lover's paradise.
I was eager to start the tour with my six-year-old son. Because we'd be two in one vehicle, I piloted a side-by-side 4x4 instead of one of the solo quad ATV driven by the other members of our tour group. We all received a quick lesson in how to control our respective vehicles, and then we put on the provided helmets and were safely buckled in before embarking on a test driving course - even the relatively modest hill on the course was enough to make my son squeal with delight. But we had plenty more fun in store, and soon headed up into the wilderness for the real deal.
Along the way, we passed a herd of remarkably content-looking cattle grazing on pasture. We learned from Raiza and Toby that they'd had to send about two-thirds of their herd to stay on a neighboring farm due to the extended drought; lack of rainfall meant less green pasture for the cows to eat, and supplementing with feed can be prohibitively expensive. The dry conditions were evident throughout our ride; creek beds were invariably dry, and we didn't bother heading up the Nojoqui Falls trail, as they weren't running either. We did, however, get to hit Roller Coaster Trail, a hilly route that lives up to its name and culminates in a rest stop that afforded 360-degree views of the ocean and the Santa Ynez Valley.
While the ride itself was a uniquely invigorating and satisfying experience (my kid and I both spent much of the time with big grins on our dust-covered faces), my favorite parts were the rest stops, when we'd hop out of our vehicle and gab with our tour guides and fellow riders. Toby is full of great stories about his free-range childhood growing up in these hills, and Raiza - a journalist by trade before she moved on to ag - is happy to share her experiences and opinions about the challenges of running a sustainable agricultural operation, and the sometimes ridiculous bureaucratic hurdles small-scale farmers and ranchers often face.
These tours are billed as two hours, but ours lasted closer to three. The cost is $100 for a single rider and $175 for two people in a side-by-side. When we were done, I felt like I'd made new friends in Toby and Raiza, and was so grateful to them for opening up their gorgeous property to us, sharing their collective wisdom along with their land.